On a mission to recreate the residents of his grandparents’ home village in Shaoxing, China, one person at a time, Warren King, 49, has crafted a series of life-size human figures out of nothing more than commonplace cardboard and glue. It was in 2010 that he and his brothers visited Shaoxing for the first time, and met the locals who had memories of their grandparents from 50 years ago, before they had left for Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. “The feeling was profound and surreal, and somewhat contradictory,” he recalls. “I felt such a strong connection to these people, who were like a part of the past that was lost. But at the same time, our differences – in clothing, physical appearance, mannerisms – made it obvious that there existed a huge chasm between us. Something found, but at the same time, the realization of something lost. It was a pivotal experience for me, one that inspired me to become an artist. Through my work, I am attempting to understand the fragile connections to people and culture, and examine whether those connections, once broken, can be restored.”
The child of Chinese immigrants who had arrived in the US for graduate school, King was born and raised in the suburbs of Wisconsin. His uncles and aunts were accomplished businesspeople and scientists, and his parents were hardworking, strict disciplinarians, who expected him to excel academically and to support the family engineering business. Naturally he studied engineering and eventually became a structural engineer working on large-scale commercial buildings like stadiums, hospitals, offices and carparks, then a software company executive for 15 years, so it was never even a consideration for him to become an artist. “For me, art came much later in life,” he admits. “Even after my first exhibition, being called an artist felt awkward. But I’ve been working at this for a few years now. After experiencing how people can be genuinely touched by what I have to convey, and getting an idea of the range of subjects that can be explored, I can finally say that I feel compelled to continue.”
The turning point came in 2012 when King and his family decided to take an opportunity to live abroad and moved from the US to Sweden for four years. Being out of his normal environment opened up his mind to new possibilities, and he began to consider doing art seriously. It was there that he made his first Shaoxing Villagers, then became a full-time artist in 2013. In fact, he had initially discovered his talent for working with cardboard thanks to his two children for whom he used to make toys and disguises when they were young, using whatever materials were readily available around the house. His first piece was a Darth Vader helmet, and soon he was making props and costumes for all of his children’s school theater productions. After a few years of making cardboard masks and helmets, he turned his attention to human figures, capturing facial expressions filled with tiny nuances.
“What I find most interesting about working with cardboard are the limitations,” King discloses. “With wood, clay or stone, you can create virtually any shape. But with the way that I choose to work with cardboard, the range is severely limited. I don’t crush or mash it, but instead I preserve the layers and the corrugation. And I don’t bend it unnaturally. That means that it can only be curved one direction, parallel to the corrugations. With these rules, spherical shapes are therefore impossible. So using cardboard to make a human face, which is full of rounded shapes, requires a completely different thinking than traditional mediums. It’s about creating an illusion of roundness, about breaking complex shapes down into simpler geometries. But this is what I find so compelling about using this material. These limitations don’t inhibit my creativity; they are the source of it. By making it necessary to abstract or simplify a shape, like a human face, I force myself to really understand the components of an expression or gesture.”
Never using a computer and rarely sketching before beginning an artwork, King works entirely by hand, employing the most basic tools: scissors, a few different kinds of knives and glue. With most of his figures, if you look at them from behind, you find that they are hollow shells with little structure or mass. They are just a surface, to which he has recently begun adding color and graphical elements, in the form of cut paper images glued on, to introduce a new dimension. Inspired by intricate scenes portrayed on lacquerware or carved wooden panels and patterns adorning robes worn by royalty, he uses paper cutouts to relate narratives important to him. Each time, he’s trying to tell a story, whether they come from personal experience, characters from history or folktales, or are purely imagined.
“Cardboard, being a sculptural material, as well as a flat paper surface, seems uniquely suited for this type of storytelling,” King notes. “What I’m looking for is something that sheds light on, or raises a question about, my connection to my culture and ancestors. The things that really interest me are cultural and ethnic connections, how we try to preserve them and how they shape us even after they’ve been severed. And then I try to develop ways to visually express these connections.” For example, he created an installation of five characters seated around a low table inspired by his memory of seeing his father and his siblings and mother gathered at their old family home in Taiwan, reunited there to prepare for the passing of his ailing grandfather, who is represented by the lion in the table.
Although King loves crafting masks and animal sculptures such as lions, roosters, lizards, frogs, hedgehogs, monkeys and horses to try out new techniques or just for fun, making human figures remains his main focus. “The range of emotions and stories that can be conveyed is limitless, and I’ve barely just started,” he says. “But I think the main reason is that nothing else is nearly as challenging. There’s far less leniency when you make human figures. If something is off, anyone can sense it. And a millimeter of adjustment can change the whole expression.” As cardboard is not as durable as canvas, he explains how he intends for his artworks to stay in pristine condition over time: “It’s true, cardboard won’t last as long as stone or metal, but its durability is generally underrated. When I started, I used common cardboard from old boxes, but what I found is that there is a huge range in quality. So then I switched to non-recycled material, which made a big difference. Nowadays, I use museum-quality board, which is acid-free and very strong. On top of that, I coat the finished pieces with an invisible varnish. So I think they should last for quite a while… as long as no one leaves them outside in the rain, or sits on them!”
King is currently working on two series: Idols and Imperial Portraits. The first is inspired by beautiful, ornate carved Buddhist idols, which incorporate rich iconography carrying forward important religious stories that help him to discuss the migration to the West of many people in his grandparents’ generation. The second series is based on familiar portraits of Chinese royalty that are characteristically formal and stiff, which King is using to explore his own relationship with his grandparents, who were always distant and reserved. Additionally, he crafts larger-than-life giant figures, whose size and presence allow him to work on different themes, while he enjoys the engineering challenge. Recent exhibitions include a group show at CODA Museum in Apeldoorn, Holland, and a solo exhibition at Accesso Galleria in Tuscany, Italy.