Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

“Happy Life” sculpture adorns Penrose Library

Happy Life #8, a sculpture by artist Chen Wenling, has been installed at DU's Penrose Library.

Sometimes you have to seek out art, explore its subtleties and ponder its muted hue.

And then there’s Happy Life # 8, a bold, bright new sculpture that stands tall and proud in DU’s Penrose Library lobby. The fiberglass sculpture by artist Chen Wenling features a smiling Chinese farmer hoisting an immensely fat sow on his shoulders.

The sculpture is an accessible and enjoyable piece that can be viewed on a variety of levels, says Dan Jacobs, DU art curator and Myhren Gallery director. And at nearly eight feet tall and coated in bright red automotive paint, it’s hard to miss.

Jacobs says when it came time to set up the Chinese art exhibit, he saw an opportunity to reach beyond gallery walls with some of the highly visual pieces.

“One of the first things that came to us was that some of this work would look great around campus,” Jacobs says.

A search for the perfect spot ended in the main lobby at Penrose. The library, Jacobs says, is a place of reflection and study, yet is used communally and exposes many people to a striking work. In a way, Jacobs says, Happy Life is an ambassador for the exhibit.

At first blush, the sculpture is eye pleasing and whimsical. But look a little deeper and, Jacobs says, there are messages from the artist. There’s a story of interaction between Western and Eastern worlds. In Asia, Jacobs says, the pig is seen as a sign of prosperity and good times. In the West, the pig can signify greed and excess. Combine the two, and you start to see a Chinese farmer who appears happy, but saddled with something so enormous it raises questions about the moment’s sustainability.

The sculpture has a distinct Chinese quality about it, Jacobs says, employing both a farmer with Asian features and the color red, which often associated with China. But it also has a Western echo, as Jacobs notes the clear similarity to iconic European works of a farmer carrying a calf on his shoulders.

The work challenges observers to consider current Western influences creeping into China. Can too much of a good thing bring about an unhappy result? Will too much Western consumerism crush the smiling farmer?

“Typical of Chen’s work is that he’s playful with different ideas,” Jacobs says. “It’s a happy work … Everything’s good now. But maybe there could be a problem down the road. On that level it’s accessible, and it’s pretty light hearted.”

Happy Life is at DU courtesy of Michael Micketti, Tom Whitten and Robischon Gallery.

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