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Mary Drach McInnes

Summoning Eternal Life

Mary Drach McInnes

Professor & Division Head of Art History

Alfred University

The bust … demonstrates above all a search for truth that is not limited to mere appearance of phenomena … nor is it outside it: the psychological dynamic and the life energy are captured in a specific situation. The image is not formed from an idea, but from a revelation that permits the correlation between the visible and the invisible.

Medardo Rosso1


Three modestly sized heads,cast in various scales and materials, are gathered into a familial portrait. This view marks the beginning of our apprehending of Eternal Life #1. Almost immediately, we organize this sculptural cluster into “father,” “mother,” and “son.” And they share genetic likenesses. We follow the lines of their common features—square chin, soft mouth, slight nose, shut eyes, and smooth brow—across the ancestral field. Stepping back, we work across the sculptural grouping, carefully surveying their scales and materials. All are metallic hollow casts with cracks in the cranial area and long, linear scars running the length of the face. While intimately connected, each head offers an individualpresence.  


Li Hongwei provides us a work that we survey as a whole, traversing laterally across each element, then moving in a zigzag course to compare one form against another. Their primary divergence lies in the material realm; each head is cast in its own medium—bronze, stainless steel, iron. Their three identities are pronounced and further separated by three surface treatments. On the far left is a bronze head made flesh-like in both its matte patina and its mottled, tan coloring and plum undertones. The vertical scarring is also purplish in hue, offering a bruised appearance. This face is more obscured than the others—one side concealed as if a cloth has been drawn over the face. We strive to discern the particular features under this veil. The middle figure in the center is smaller than the rest and is made of stainless steel. Thrust into the foreground, the bust has a polished sheen that is marred by the long striations running vertically down the face. Some of these scars open up, revealing a course and gritty surface that commands our compassion. On the right is the patriarch, the largest head. Rusted oranges veined with strands of burnished flesh tones define this head of iron. His features are more pronounced than the others. This “family”—in actuality, three casts of the artist’s own features—offers rich material and metaphorical content.  


Its physicality is matched by its narrative possibility.In their material composition, the trio evokes historical epochs that span from ancient times to modern culture. In viewing the larger pair, we dive backwards in time to Bronze Age monuments and Iron Age spears.  Moving our gaze to their smaller offspring, we speed forward to contemporary manufactured goods. These heads—at once so quickly defined and visually digested, repeatedly lure us back through their varied surfaces. 


Their materiality insists on a solid presence, but their surfaces are in a state of transition. Each head has its own persona. The bronze, steel, and iron heads are easily identified; we name them according to scale: mother, son, father. Though their shared features confirm this familial identity, the artist himself unhinges this stable reading. Li Hongwei does not provide us with a conventional portrait. Facial description is veiled by design and patina. Identity iscompromised by pitted and pockmarked abrasions. Fragility is conveyed viscerally in the extraordinary cracks atop their skulls and in the deep scarifications that fall vertically down the length of their faces, over eyes, nose, mouth, and chin. These marks—scars, blemishes, wounds, mutilations—disfigure the heads, suggesting both an undoing of the head’s integrity and allowing for a state of becoming. Li Hongwei’s portraitsexist resolutely in the here-and-now and are equally situated in the fluid temporal space of our imagination. In apprehending Eternal Life, we are put on the threshold—both in the profane world of the already formed and the sacred world of becoming.  


The act of creation is witnessed on the surface of these figures, as their surfaces bear the evidence of their making. Li Hongwei purposefully eschews verisimilitude as he fractures and abrades these skulls. In doing so, he opens them up to a more engaged and imaginativereading. We focus on skin and skull.In our mind’s eye, we try to complete each figure; we imaginatively mend the cracks and tend to the scabs.Like the great works of Auguste Rodin or his Italian contemporary Medardo Rosso, Li Hongwei’s heads are both materially actualized and appear to be still in the process of beingmade.    


Thelack of finish is indebted to late nineteenth-century aesthetics. At this time, avant-garde artists moved away from a finished veneer to achieve an unfinished surface. This change, seen in both painting and sculpture, coincided with a shift away from narrative clarity to an emphasis on mark-making and the general process of creation. Rodin, for example, forces us to look past the personabeing depicted and at the artist’s own manual manipulation. In his fragmented figures, we take in the edges of his sculpting knife, the pressure of his handprint, and the accidents of the foundry. Deviations in surface became the norm in his bronzes. The unfinished nature of his work encourages our own attention to surface anomalies, leading us to repeat and complete the making process as part of our own viewing. Rodin’s attention to the surface is readily apparent in viewing his sculpture; it is where meaning itself is lodged.  


In Eternal Life, the identities of the three figures are partially masked. In all of them, but most especially the bronze head, the sculptor veils individual features to provide an enticing barrier between the viewer and the sculpted heads. We strive to discern their actual appearance, our action akin to being handed a blurred photograph that we are asked to identity. While we may experience frustration, we are also given a space to complete the portrait ourselves. Our recognition is short-circuited, yet our imagination is engaged. As viewers, we move from an initial visual apprehending to a metaphorical encountering.  And, finally, in Eternal Life, we are led to a summoning. 


We have in Li Hongwei’s Eternal Lifea sense of declaration. These heads hail us—we look atthem and we attend tothem. We touch their surfaces, fill in their cracks, and finish their forms. Li Hongwei’s self-portraitsmakevisible the duality between the finality of form and the incomplete task of art. Poet and critic Susan Stewart in her essay “On the Art of the Future” describes our intervention in experiencing art:  


To say that art-making is a practice indicates from the outset that the task of art is unfinished. Individual works will necessarily exhibit finality of form, but the task of art in general is incomplete. Something continues to call for art, something in the experience of those who make it and something in the experience of those to seek to apprehend it. Nature produces beauty without human intervention, but not artworks, and no artwork can be completed without reception. Our metaphors for those recurring openings to art as a summons to apprehension—to call, to speak, to hear, to touch—reveal the etymology of aesthetics in sense experience that draws on intersubjective apprehension and the continuity between such experiences and face-to-face encounters with other persons.   


In apprehending and ultimately summoning Eternal Life, we encounter both art and our own humanity. 

Li Hongwei is a contemporary artist who is deeply learned in the traditions and crafts of sculptureandof ceramics. After receiving his BFA in China at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Art, he came to the United States to study ceramics at the top-ranked New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, where he received his MFA. This intense period studying ceramics in the West was an important interlude for the artist. Even when the artist returned to metal casting, his indebtedness to the field of ceramics was clear. Ceramics is a field that merges three-dimensional form (the traditional realm of sculpture) and two-dimensional surface (the traditional domain of painting). Glaze techniques and applications paint the surface, their cracked and scored skullsalluding to the fissures that often result in terracotta firings. Indeed, Li Hongwei ’s primary course of study during his graduate work was the art of Japanese Raku, a process that celebrates the accidents of the fire. 


This artist negotiates several realms—geographic and aesthetic—in a way reminiscent of sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who also balanced these same spheres.  Noguchi, born in Los Angeles of an American mother and a Japanese father, went back to his paternal homeland to absorb and reinterpret that great ceramic tradition. In the 1950s, he created audacious work that inspired the emerging Sodeisha group to create an entirely new category of pottery, that of the nonfunctional vessel. Li Hongwei—whose recent stacked work in his series Allegory of Balanceremind me of Noguchi’s postwar sculptures—has the potential to be equally daring and inspiring.


Mary Drach McInnes is a Professor of Art History at the School of Art and Design at Alfred University. Her research focus is on modern and contemporary sculpture. In addition to academic publications, Dr. McInnes is also a curator and has written several internationally distributed exhibition catalogs.   


1.Museo Reina Sofia last modified 5 September 2015, http://www.museoreinasofia.es.

This quote is by the artist speaking of his 1895 Bambino malato (Sick Child). For a fuller

discussion of this 1895 work, see: Sharon Hecker, Medardo Rosso(NY: Peter Freeman,

Inc., 2008).

2.Susan Stewart, “On the Art of the Future,” Chicago Review, 50, No. 2/3/4 (2004-5): 301.