A life in plastic

Photograph of Peter Chang in blue denim shirt and jeans in his studio

Selections from the introductory essay for the exhibition publication

Peter Chang is undoubtedly one of a kind: his work is outstanding and utterly unique. He has exhibited widely in this country, in Europe and America and has won many prestigious awards. His work is sought after by museums and collectors all over the world. Although an artist of international standing, his roots are in Liverpool where he grew up, and he still retains a great affection for the city that was his home for so long. Chang was a child in post-war Liverpool and a student in the city's flourishing Sixties art scene. He went on to create jewellery and sculpture that is valuable and totally original from material that is generally thought to be commonplace and worthless.

How do you describe Chang's work to someone who does not know him? Is it plastic jewellery, sculpture or what? How can you describe the influences on the work as they are so varied and constantly changing? Some pieces are almost Frankenstein- like creations, with body parts, bone and gristle. Others seem to show every stage in the life cycle of an insect from pupa to butterfly, but as if each stage were not completed before the next began. Each piece of his work seems to be in a state of perpetual metamorphosis, the product of some evolutionary mixture, made up from the 'DNA' which is Peter Chang. By 'DNA' I mean the unique building blocks that define 'Changness' – his influences, experiences, hopes, dreams, interests and, of course, humour. The finished work of art is instantly recognisable as being by Peter Chang but at the same time is almost indescribable and indefinable.

Some of his pieces of jewellery are very large, up to eight inches (200mm) in diameter, yet they are very deceptive as they are incredibly light. The core of each bracelet is made from polyurethane foam carved to shape. Chang then encases this core in polyester resin which is reinforced with glass fibre strands. He then applies acrylic and uses heat to mould it to shape. Several layers of resin might be applied and polished. Occasionally, he might insert small pieces of precious metal such as gold or silver and even fragments of bronze. There is nothing crude or cheap about his work; every detail of construction is considered and incredible care is taken by Chang in the jewellery's time consuming production.

Complex as his works are to produce, Chang would never let the complexity of production restrain the size of his work, as the large table he made in 1994 demonstrates. This shows how Chang masterfully translates his visions into objects of different scale, without losing anything of his uniqueness or mastery of his chosen method of production. He also produces sculptures, sculptural platters, salt and pepper mills, candlesticks and wall hanging pieces such as mirrors.

Fascination with colour

Colourful yellow bracelet

Chang has a fascination with colour; how colours work together, what responses colour provokes in a viewer and what colour symbolises in nature. For example in some birds of paradise colour is used to attract whilst in other creatures, poisonous snakes for example, it is used as a repellent and a warning. Sometimes these are subliminal messages in Chang's work, but the viewer will construct their own interpretation of each piece. Sometimes perhaps his use of colour shows how he was influenced by his mixed cultural background and the melting pot that was Liverpool after the War. In the 1980s Chang collected coloured acrylic signs from the local sign writer in Berry St. These had been removed from shop doorways in Liverpool's Chinatown. The colours which could be produced by the manufacturer were limited, and were further limited by what was popular within the local community. The colours red and yellow were especially popular, and form a combination often seen in Chang's work.

When talking to Chang about his work, one gets the impression that he is always searching for new influences or perhaps renewing old interests with a new twist. For example, the mathematical patterns that occur in nature are of great interest to him; patterns such as the structure of a honeycomb or the complex pattern of a fly's eye. Although inspired by the natural world, at times the urban environment and the man-made can be glimpsed in his work. He uses images from urban living and designs pieces with pattern and rhythm which suddenly, like some rogue computer, take on a life of their own. Sprouting tentacles and cactus-like branches, they have an edge; sometimes literally, as Chang is not beyond adding a symbolic Stanley-knife blade to a brooch for example. He will also exploit the humorous, perhaps juxtaposing the imagery of the Stanley-knife blade with a lamb chop. He enjoys taking details from ordinary objects and mixing them with details from other ordinary objects, together making something special. The details could be taken from a trainer shoe or a car bumper, no source is considered too mundane.

Like the ultimate alchemist he mixes materials and imagery in order to create something new and balanced. The results may shock and intrigue the viewer but Chang's intention is to promote thought and discussion. Chang encourages viewers to use their intellect, intuition and imagination when studying his work. As if they were listening to music, he says, “Either it will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end …..or not!”

What does the future hold for Peter Chang? His more recent work seems to show a harder edge, something more inspired by a futuristic urban world: yet it would be wrong to try and second guess if this is a long term or a more fleeting trend. Will he return to larger sculptural pieces, furniture or develop the small sculptural jewellery? As usual, he refuses to be categorised. No doubt, whatever he produces will be typically Chang, thought provoking, indefinable and the result of meaningful chance.

Alyson Pollard
Curator of Metalwork and Glass
National Museums Liverpool