Anne Chu took a chainsaw to her work after a life-changing experience, and the 1996 show that resulted saw her rise to fame. Linda Yablonsky goes to meet her

Anne Chu is no old-fashioned artist, even if her painted sculptures borrow elements from Tang Dynasty ceramics, Velázquez paintings and characters from eighteenth-century operas. The New York-based artist also uses cameras and computers to make her figurative work, in materials that run from styrofoam and wood to fabric, sugar and salt. Still, it is difficult to imagine anyone as petite as Chu wielding a chainsaw – she stands hardly more than five feet tall. Yet there it sits in a rear alcove of her Chelsea studio, on the table where she carved the larger-than-life marionettes that greeted visitors to her show in New York last winter. The exhibition, at the 303 Gallery, included figures whose lively wooden heads, hands and feet were loosely attached to wire armatures built, at her direction, by Chu’s husband Philippe Jacquet, and dressed in home-made clothes. A black raven cast in bronze kept watch from a perch near the ceiling. Humans weren’t the only viewers flocking to see it. The gallery has a large picture window overlooking the street. ‘One night,’ Chu recalls, ‘the staff left the lights on, because the show looked so nice from outside, but the next morning there was an imprint of a bird’s wing on the glass. They didn’t leave them on after that.’

This was hardly Chu’s first experience with wildlife. Her first solo show, at the artist-run AC Project Room in 1996, featured a looming chorus line of bears that looked as if they were about to pounce on anyone who approached. Moulded in paint-daubed paper, with superhero-type logos emblazoned on their chests and their mighty torsos all set in the same t’ai-chi stance, they were at once cuddly, funny and threatening. Why bears? ‘I generally pick archetypes that have been used so much they’ve been emptied of meaning, so I can invest my own,’ says Chu, aged 45, who was born and raised in New York to Chinese parents after they had emigrated from Shanghai. Though devoid of their usual associations, her objects are familiar enough to forge immediate emotional connections with audiences, yet strange enough to exude a lasting mystery. Part of that mystery stems from their illusion of substantiality. The paper that Chu used to make her bears, which were inspired by the ancient terracotta soldiers in Xi’an, China, was in no way disguised as anything else. Yet the figures could read as heavy stone.

Likewise, Bestial, a pear-shaped marionette with a clownish, distorted face, bear-claw feet and hands that seem to have grown directly from its shoulders, looks solid, but is delicate and hollow. Similarly empty is El Primo, a Velázquez-like dwarf that Chu has made into a venerated figure on a pedestal, crudely sawn from chunks of basswood.

Generally, Chu extracts a detail from a larger artwork and gives it an unexpected importance of its own. A marionette that resembles a patchwork tent was actually embroidered by a computer-driven sewing machine working from a scanned watercolour. An even more abstract sculpture is a life-size cast-urethane horse’s leg with a knight’s leg set into it. ‘This is a funny piece,’ she says. In fact, it is dazzling, and not just because it has a patina of powdered gold.

Chu’s 1996 show was the one that made the art world aware of her, but she had been out of college for more than a decade. What had changed? In a word, everything. In 1995, a fall that resulted in several surgical operations led to a complete reordering of her life. She split up with her first husband and made her first trip to China, expressly to study the terracotta army, and the Tang Dynasty funerary figurines within the elaborately ornamented Buddhist caves that once lined the Silk Route near the Gobi Desert. Both sites made lasting impressions.

‘Things became clearer, more focused on one subject or image.’ After the bears, which she describes as ‘a combination of drawing and sculpture’, Chu started making her expressive ceramic figures. Though she has since concentrated on European mythological characters, her work continues to draw on Chinese forms. ‘I never wanted to be known as a Chinese artist,’ she says. But the Chinese visual vocabulary had been a part of her life since childhood. ‘We always had art in the house, and in the end I thought I shouldn’t avoid it.’