Photo: Courtesy of Dabin Ahn

At first, Dabin Ahn’s sculptures might look like a porcelain mug or vase. But look closer: They’re made out of plaster, or liquid plastic, or even insulation foam.

Ahn, 32, began painting in 2007 as an undergrad. However, while pursuing a master’s at the School of the Art Institute, he started to experiment with sculptural art pieces and unusual materials. Doing so opened up new possibilities for the artist: Imagine what a canvas could be if you made it yourself?

“When I got [to School of the Art Institute of Chicago], I was kind of stubborn, in a way. Then, I saw everyone doing all different kinds of things,” Ahn says. “I find it much more interesting to be able to make something rather than use something readymade.”

Ahn’s latest exhibit Apocrypha — opening Friday, March 13, at Chicago Manual Style in West Town — is both nostalgic and tongue-in-cheek. In it, he’ll display Royal Copenhagen dinnerware replicas on Pink Panther–themed pedestals, as a playful nod to the sleuthing involved in his works. “It should work both as a hint and deceit to the materials used,” he says.

You recently switched over from painting to doing more sculptural work. What prompted the shift?

One of the most prominent reasons was coming back to school to get my master's degree. When I got to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was a painter. But then as I spent more time in the program, I started using different materials that I wasn't really interested in before. One night, plaster happened to be laying around. It all started with that first piece.

Your new exhibition Apocrypha focuses on re-created Royal Copenhagen plates. Why did you re-create them rather than use originals?

Even though I moved on to sculptural work, I actually still think I’m making paintings. If I created something on a ready-made plate, then psychologically, it's just a mark on a readymade object. But if I come up with a plate on my own, then any mark on that surface becomes more of a painting.

During conversations surrounding my recent work, people ask me if I'm trying to deceive people into seeing [an object as] something it’s not. But before I make something, I'm not saying to myself, “OK, I will do this to trick people.” It's more of, “I want to turn my reference or materials that I had in my head into this thing.”

Letter from Mary (2020). The piece of paper bisecting this Royal Copenhagen tea cup (a plastic replica cast in two halves) is actually a metal sheet with acrylic overlay. "The image of the writing in the letter has been obscured by reversing it," Ahn writes in an accompanying description. "[It keeps] the focus on the relationship between objects rather than what is written on the letter."
Photo: Courtesy of Dabin Ahn

What drew you to re-create these plates specifically?

I grew up seeing a lot of my mother's plate collection. As I was making my sculptures, I was on the phone with her and asked if she ever collected Royal Copenhagen plates, and she said yes.

You once used ice as a material. What unexpected materials do you want to work with next?

It's been about three weeks since I started using foam. I really see myself working with foam for a while because it's very light and considerably cheaper than most materials. Its ability to mimic something else really attracts me to use it as material.

I don't know what I'm going to do after I go back to my studio after this interview. I'm not really planning things out. With materials, I want to run into them, rather than to do a lot of research. I want good accidents to happen.