The Sublimity of Simplicity in Dai Ban’s Sculptures

On view at Carrie Haddad Gallery through November 26

Artist Profile
A person in a striped shirt

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The Artist in his Studio, Great Barrington, MA. Image Credit: Matt Moment

When Dai Ban first traveled from his native Japan to the United States, he was struck by the nonchalant vibrance of American street art. The year was 1985, and although the golden age of graffiti had come and gone, its ethos had indelibly permeated the fine art world. Imagery that had been considered lowbrow just ten years prior became astronomically salable, so long as it decorated a canvas and not a subway car. Ban was bemused by the transformative power of gallery spaces. “Anything you show at the gallery looks like some kind of art,” he observed.

During his first visit back home, Ban sought to turn this principle on its head. He phoned a few friends, reported the artistic goings-on of New York and organized an impromptu exhibition on Tokyo’s bustling streets. “If I show something on the street,” he thought, by contrast, “people don’t think it’s art.” Ban displayed a fiberglass sculpture of a nude woman shrouded in a clear plastic bag. Another artist piled sugarcubes on the street, around which Ban traced outlines of a body in white chalk. The artworks elicited mixed reactions; some loved it, others “freaked out,” fearing it was an actual crime scene. Nonetheless, Ban considered it a success, having bypassed the “threshold” of the art space to connect directly with his audience.

A sculpture of a boat on a wall

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Hope You Don’t See Me, 2022 precision board, Venetian plaster, pigments, beeswax, 48 x 45 x 9 inches

Given his fascination with the conceptual facet of artmaking, it’s not surprising that Ban didn’t jive with the regimented, highly technical curriculum at Musashino Art University—one of Japan’s most prestigious (and demanding) art schools. “I wasn’t a good student at all, and the professors hated me,” he recalled without the slightest tinge of self-consciousness. Upon earning his BFA in sculpture in 1984, Ban found supplemental edification by way of a gig assisting an up-and-coming Japanese theater designer. As he helped construct the sets for operas and musicals, Ban savored the challenge of collaborating with other creatives to realize a production on a fixed budget.

When he moved to New York City, Ban continued to work as a fabricator, but in a studio that specialized in model-making for film and commercials. Ban honed his dexterity as he created various objects—from a hummingbird in flight to an apple in decay—that were lifelike enough to fool viewers. In a twist of fate, he was hired to work on the film Judge Dred (1994), which required that he temporarily relocate to western Massachusetts. After a few months on the job, he realized he wasn’t prepared to part with the rural landscape. He and his family permanently settled in the Berkshires, where Ban balanced his duties as a stay-at-home dad with his burgeoning art practice.

A close-up of a person's hands

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Image Credit: Matt Moment

Before he could draw out the visual language of his ripest sculptures, Ban had to first fall out of love with his figurative work. In the mid-aughts, he stepped away from sculpture altogether and didn’t return for almost a decade, feeling confined by the strictures of his creative process. “I was trying to make a statement. I already knew what the ending was going to look like, how my sculpture would finish, in my head,” Ban remembered. “If you know the finished product, why bother to create? It’s a waste of time.” When Ban finally returned to the medium, he allowed himself to be guided by his curiosity, his compulsion to craft with his hands, rather than the imperative to communicate a premeditated sentiment.

This is the point of origin for Ban’s works in Of a Transient Nature, a group show on view at Carrie Haddad Gallery through November 26. He offers a suite of sculptures—some mounted, others atop a pedestal—that substantiate a life spent in pursuit of superlative craftsmanship. Ban carves high-density polyurethane board with an X-Acto knife, condensing his improvised introspection into line and shape. He modulates the color and texture of these unadorned forms with beeswax, pigment and Venetian plaster until the composition “crystallizes.” At last, a title emerges, providing a point of entry that is at once poetic and succinct.

A couple of sculptures on a white surface

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Left: I Played By The Book And It Brought Me Here, 2022, foam board, acrylic, pigment, 42 x 22 x 6 inches. Right: She Carried Water, 2019 precision board, Venetian plaster, pigments, beeswax, steel, 31 x 12 x 8 inches

Ban’s wall-mounted works, such as “Hope You Don’t See Me” and “Waiting for the Storm to Pass,” explore the interplay between flatness and dimension. Monochrome planes jut out from the wall at obtuse angles, casting silhouettes that register as indispensable components of the artworks. His standing sculptures are a tad more representational, but Ban convinces us of his concepts via the sparest graphic suggestions. For instance, he requires no more than six slabs of polyurethane board, ever so slightly disjointed, to illustrate a posture disturbed by its burden in “She Carried Water.”

For Ban, the sublimity of simplicity stems back to his childhood in Japan. When he was eight, he watched in wonderment as his grandfather built a birdcage using only a chute of bamboo and simple tools. Ban recalls how his grandfather individually carved dozens of segments, uniformly rounding their ends so they would fit together snugly but seamlessly without need for glue. “When I saw this birdcage made out of one segment of bamboo, it changed my whole attitude,” Ban said. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, I can make anything.’”

A person in a striped shirt

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Portrait of the Artist, Great Barrington, MA. Image Credit: Matt Moment
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