I first encountered the paintings of Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann in 2010, when she was one of 26 residents at the Triangle Arts Workshop, where I spent a day as a guest critic. She had earned her MFA from MICA’s Hoffberger School of Painting just the year before, and her work was among the standouts of a memorable cohort of young, talented, ambitious artists.
In the intervening years, Mann’s eclectic, inclusive approach to painting, as evidenced by Empire Builder, her solo show at Gallery Nine 5, has gone from promising to dazzling. Don’t be fooled by the online images, where the abundance of detail can feel overly elaborate, even precious. In person, these works, done in acrylic, Sumi ink, and collage on enormous sheets of paper, tread a fine line between the purposive and the accidental, the exquisite and the rough-hewn — an uneasy mix of lustrous surfaces, refined lines, carved-up supports, and ingenuously awkward brushstrokes.
Mann begins each work with splashes of ink and water across the surface of the paper, prompting a series of painterly moves that invariably lead to extreme, layered, engulfing complexity. Pasted-on floral motifs cut from her own black-on-white and white-on-black prints, which she frequently echoes with hand-painted passages, recur across all the works. Drips, smears, and spatters compete with swaths of multicolored handmade paper, and large pours of black metallic paint sully the compositions’ quasi-Cubist jigsaw shapes with aleatory splats. Here and there, painted strips of paper from earlier, abandoned works are woven into the larger sheet like the strands of a wood splint basket.
Most of the works in Empire Builder are inspired by the Buddhist paintings of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, China, a complex of nearly 500 temple grottoes along the ancient Silk Road. The most ambitious is a site-specific installation, “Tremble, Trample” (all the works are curiously left undated), done on five joined sheets of paper, with overall dimensions of 10 x 25 feet. A broad brushstroke forms a trapezoidal arch along the top portion of each panel — a unifying element that could be a cave entrance, as the introduction to the exhibition’s online catalogue suggests, but is more likely a reference to the ornamental borders framing the grottoes’ sculptural niches and wall paintings.
Each of the five sections represents a tour de force of painting technique, as shards of patterned shapes float across washes and spills in contrasting shades of blue, and white-on-black, finger-like obtrusions simultaneously reach up toward the arch and splinter like cracked crystal. The lower portions of the three rightmost sheets are sectioned off into horizontal bands that could indicate a floor or a flood, while the upper areas are rippled by multiple explosions of line and color: sky blue; dirt brown; sea green; rose pink.
In addition to “Tremble, Trample,” there are seven other paintings that relate to the Mogao Caves, each titled “Dunhuang.” The first in the series, “Dunhuang I,” which measures 5 x 7 feet, is a buzzing patchwork of violets, blues, grays, blacks, and yellows that kick, collide, and rattle across the surface, with a jarring, blood-red smear left of center that shocks the surrounding clamor into sudden sobriety.
“Dunhuang III,” at 4.5 x 8.5 feet, is dominated by a painted border done partially in gold leaf, which is in turn encircled by a writhing, scorched-black rim. Shredded black-on-white floral designs unfurl across the deep space beneath the picture plane — a storm of stains, splatters, and swatches in green, yellow, violet, and orange. What’s especially fascinating about “Dunhuang III” is how raw the surface is for such a consummately finished work. There are parts where variously shaped scraps of paper are pasted down and painted over, and others where the surface is dug out and sliced up like the gills of a fish. These incursions bring a startling chunkiness to the paper support; the toughened texture militates against the seemingly effortless painterly finesse, grounding the work’s ethereal beauty in a hard-won sense of reality.
In “Dunhuang V,” one of the most genially infectious works in the show, materiality is pushed even further, with patterned vertical strips woven into the right and left edges of the horizontal sheet, lending it a sculptural objectness. At the top center, a gray brushstroke loops down in a funky, inverse reiteration of the framing device used in the upper portions of “Tremble, Trample,” while multi-layered gray-and-violet patches jostle against clouds of speckled black and gold across the bottom edge.
It is impossible to look at these paintings without a multitude of associations, mostly non-Western, popping up — from Persian miniatures to Japanese woodblock prints. In this regard, Mann’s exhibition title, Empire Builder, becomes something of a tease. What’s going on here has little to do with imperial hegemony and domination; the vibe is rather one of absorption and openness, conscientiousness and respect.
Perhaps that’s the source of the tension in these works: diverse materials and techniques are forced together within the confines of the paper support, but they refuse to assimilate, retaining their individual identities as metallic sheen, multicolored tissue, floral print, acrylic paint, Sumi ink. Mann, who won a Fulbright to Taiwan and learned paper-making in India, guides these elements through accident and design into a precarious balance of harmony and clangor, an empire of the senses (to repurpose the title of Nagisa Ōshima’s transgressive ‘70s exercise in erotic cinema) where seduction vies with firepower as the weapon of choice.
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann: Empire Builder continues at Gallery Nine 5 (24 Spring Street, Nolita, Manhattan) through June 12.
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