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Xuan Chen, “Light Threads (Set 2) #3” (2017), mixed media on aluminum, 18 x 24 x 2 inches (all images courtesy George Adams Gallery, © the artist)

Xuan Chen lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Florence Miller Pierce (1918 – 2007) lived for many years. I doubt that Chen, who is in her early thirties, met Pierce, but she shares something with the latter’s interest in light, especially as embodied in the resin pieces that Pierce began making around 1969. Pierce was associated with the Transcendental Painting Group, which was started by Raymond Johnson and Emil Bisttram.

Others in the group included Alice Pelton and Dane Rudhyar. The group’s aim was “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new expressions of space, color, light and design.” Whereas the members of this group had a spiritual bent (not to be associated with the more theatrical Light and Space movement, which originated in Southern California in the late 1960s, and includes artists such as James Turrell and Robert Irwin), it seems to me that Chen’s interest in light, shadow, and color connects her to both groups.

The reason I bring this up is because the gallery press release states that Chen’s Light Space Intimacy series was “inspired by the Light and Space movement.’ While I have no doubt that this is true, it also occurred to me while looking at the exhibition, Xuan Chen at George Adams Gallery (July 13 – August 18, 2018), that Pierce may have also been an inspiration because, unlike Turrell and Irwin, who are known for their large installations, Pierce was a painter, which is what Chen is. The other thing that occurred to me was that being inspired by Turrell and Irwin is a challenge because — unless you have deep pockets or serious investors — you cannot afford to work on their scale. Chen exercises her control through scale and use of paint and materials, such as wood and thread. She is less theatrical than her inspirations.

Installation view of “Xuan Chen” (2017), George Adams Gallery)

Chen, who was born and raised in China, came to America to study at the University of California, Berkeley, where she  earned her PhD in material sciences and engineering in 2008. During her years at Berkeley, she also developed an interest in painting and took classes in the art department. After graduating from Berkeley, she got an MFA in painting at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, in 2011. This is Chen’s first solo show in New York and definitely an exhibition to go see.

In her Light Space Intimacy series, Chen makes small constructed paintings, often with a cutout in the center. The artist describes the works as:

[…] iPad-sized wall-sculptures [which] devise an intimate connection between the physical light, space, color and the viewer. Using various media such as embroidery thread, fluorescent paint or color transparencies, I create layered sculptures painted from digitally constructed images.

While the artist goes on to say that she wants the viewer to “examine  [her work] from different angles like exploring a newly acquired digital device,” I felt that  her art has more staying power than the most beautifully designed electronic gadget.

Xuan Chen, “Screens #27” (2014), oil and acrylic on panel, 9 x 11 x 1 inches (© the artist)

Chen paints on all sides of her objects, including the backs. Her vocabulary is geometric — planes and bands of solid color. At one point, I was reminded of the colored Plexiglas sheets you buy on Canal Street, because her angled planes seemed semi-transparent, as if light were passing through — an interesting illusion. Depending on the color and saturation, Chen can  project a faint glow of color on the part of the wall that is visible through the cutout. Because a strip of shadow on the left is dark charcoal, while the one on the right side is pale gray, I began to wonder whether she had painted the shadow, even though I was sure she had not.

Chen uses solid bands and planes of color, which include  saturated and fluorescent hues. The interplay between the wall and the frame-like construction is one starting point for looking. I found myself peering into the cutout to see the relationship between the color and the nearly imperceptible reflection (That peering in is what connects Chen to Turrell).

Chen embraces solid color and tenuous shadow, making both part of the viewer’s experience. Her palette of turquoises, greens, lavenders, bright reds, and yellows reminds me of Key West, Florida, and Los Angeles bungalows — that intense cheeriness.

Xuan Chen, “Light Threads (Set 2) #3” (2017), mixed media on aluminum, 18 x 24 x 2 inches (© the artist)

In recent, larger works, done on aluminum, Chen has added rows of colored thread. In the age of globalism and instant connections, often through digital devices, we forget that light is specific to geographic locales — that the light and space of the American Southwest is not the same as the light and space of  Nebraska or Minnesota. All of this has seeped into Chen’s abstract constructions, her use of color, and her sensitivity to the barely seen, the whisper of a shadow on a white wall.

Chen’s invitation to examine her work, its interior spaces, connects her to David Goerk, an artist deserving of more attention, and a two-person show would enlarge our understanding of painted constructions. Given that Chen tends to work in series, as well as address particular movements, such as the Light and Space movement, Op Art, and Color Field painting, I am curious to see where she goes next.

Xuan Chen continues at George Adams Gallery (531 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 18.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the...