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In his poem, “The Day Lady Died,” Frank O’Hara wrote:
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days.
On a cool and breezy afternoon in late August I walk down West Street in New York. I am not going to get a hamburger and malted, or even an organic quinoa kale salad or something else endorsed by those in the know. Food and books are not yet on my mind as I head to the group exhibition Painting from Taiwan at Eli Klein to get a glimpse of what painters in Taiwan are up to these days.
We in America have some idea of what is going in art in China, Japan, and South Korea, but we seem to know almost nothing about contemporary Taiwanese art. Given my interest in well-known filmmakers Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang, who are Taiwanese, it was more than passing curiosity that brought me to the gallery, in a historic row-house building.
America’s knowledge of art from other countries seems partially based on art fairs and globe hopping collectors, marginalizing aesthetic curiosity in favor of the marketplace and destination points. If you wait for art to be approved by blue chip galleries, I would say that you have stopped looking.
Of the nine painters in the show, most are represented by two works. In the back gallery are works by Ho Kan, Hsiao Chin, and Yang Mao-Lin. Ho (born 1932 in Nanjing, China) and Hsiao (born 1935 in Shanghai, China) were founding members of the Ton-Fan group in Taipei in November 1956. Ho, Hsiao, and six other artists brought modern art, particularly abstraction, into Taiwan. As with the founding of the Gutai group in Osaka in 1954, which was a collective response to Japan’s political climate and postwar abstraction, the Ton-Fan opposed the government’s disapproval of avant-garde art by championing abstraction.
Although the members of Ton-Fan worked in different styles and drew from diverse inspirations, they shared a common goal: to modernize traditional Chinese painting by fusing its aesthetics with Western painting, particularly American Abstract Expressionism. As Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and Mark Tobey were all attracted to Asian art and calligraphy, the Ton-Fan’s attention to Abstract Expressionism suggests a two-way dialogue with no personal connections.
However, Ho and Hsiao pursued different paths from their Western counterparts. In the works in this exhibition, they show no interest in the grid, paint pouring, gestural brushstrokes, or staining, all hallmarks of Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly abstraction. The centrally positioned, multipart forms in Ho’s paintings inhabit a perceptual domain that evokes ancient Chinese post-and-lintel constructions, simple ideograms, and signs. These two works, and those of Hsiao, make me want to know more about the Ton-Fan group and the rise and sustained growth of modern art in Taiwan.
Hsiao uses concentric circles and other forms that are found in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. As the painting’s title, “Due Universi” (2004), suggests, the two speckled white circles surrounded by monochromatic bands propose that reality is composed of multiple universes, inner and outer worlds. In these works and others I could find online, Hsiao’s use of common spiritual symbols and prismatic color places his work in proximity with that of Richard Pousette-Dart, an Abstract Expressionism outlier.
Around 20 years younger than Ho and Hsiao, Yang Mao-Lin (born 1953) faced a different set of social, political, and aesthetic circumstances in the 1980s, when Taiwan began expanding economically and became a rival of other, better established Asian economies, such as Singapore’s and South Korea’s. In both paintings included in the exhibition, Yang depicts a rare sea creature swimming alone, deep beneath the ocean’s surface. They are, as their collective title suggests, “Wanderers of the Abyssal Darkness.” Is it just a coincidence that one of his subjects, the crestfish, is also known by the name “unicorn fish?” If the paintings here are an indication of what Yang has been working on since the 1980s, he deserves to be better known outside of Taiwan.
Su Wong-shen (born 1956) has only one painting, “Chinese Valentine’s Day” (2017), in the exhibition. According to his monograph, Animal Farm: The Paintings of Su Wong-shen (Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2016), “Since the late 1990s, employing animals as metaphors for humanity, as a means of alluding to social disorders caused by power and politics, has become the hallmark of Su’s art.” “Chinese Valentine’s Day” is divided diagonally into unequal parts, the larger part representing a hill that plateaus near the painting’s top edge. A glowing, cream-colored animal rests and looks around on the soft gray hill. Beyond the hill’s edge, brown and white animals cavort, and rest in or swing on a tree. The painting is playful, odd, and suffused with a feeling of isolation, signified the lone animal occupying the hill.
By this point, it seemed clear to me that Taiwanese artists — at least those in the exhibition — had rejected the American emphasis on the literal in favor of metaphor and symbolism. Chou Tai-Chun’s (born 1986) painting, “Back to – Isolated Territory” (2017) — one of two paintings included by the artist — evokes a state of fear, which he underscores with his depiction of barbed wire spanning and crisscrossing the width of the canvas. The barbed wire and white sky makes a broad anxiety about the future, and its capacity to become repressive, into a general scene shot through with specificity rather than an anecdotal image.
Wang Liang-Yin (born 1979) depicts a richly colored, fantastical world in “Desolate Octopod” (2018). While I sensed that I was looking at an octopus resting on the ocean floor, it took me a while to perceive its outline and limbs because of Wang’s use of psychedelic color, staining, and semi-transparent hues. Like its counterpart in nature, Wang’s octopod disguises itself to fit in with its surroundings. Her painting is one of the standouts in this engaging exhibition.
In an interview posted on BRIC, the Brooklyn-based Taiwanese painter Huang Hai-Hsin said: “I mostly paint scenes I witness and exaggerate. I think part of my awkwardness comes from my untrained painting skill … but somehow that works with the subject. The focus on the awkward comes from my frustrating life experience as a foreigner.”
What distinguishes Huang’s work within the exhibition is her sharp sense of humor. In “Blondes, circa 2018” (2018), she reverses the common racist dismissal of Asians (“they all look alike to me”) in the US by depicting two crowds of blonds looking at art in a museum. The woman in ripped dungarees in the central foreground looks into her cellphone, while leaning against an enclosed glass case, to photograph the artwork inside.
Liu Chih-Hung (born 1985) has four small paintings in the exhibition, all of which depict foliage often obscuring the sky. The brushstrokes, in thick, wet oils, resemble leafs or branches. The ghostly shapes in “Greenhouse” (2018) reminded me of those in children’s finger paintings. While Liu’s paintings explore the boundaries between abstraction and representation, they can be also be seen as updating calligraphic marks, unbinding the marks from cultural or historical forms.
In “Home – Private Island” (2015), Hu Chau-Tsung depicts an island on which a white house with a gray, peaked roof sits, and another much smaller island, where two palm trees are growing; set in a concrete box behind a green wall and railing, with the sea visible in the distance, the two islands are in blue water that reflects the star-filled sky above. A set of stairs leads down to the sea, making the islands feel accessible, while emphasizing their remoteness. The house and islands are too small for their setting, which Hu underscores with a large seagull perched on the railing, facing the sea. The discrepancies of scale and the preciseness of the painting add up to a compelling, mysterious vision. Clearly, there is a lot going on in contemporary Taiwanese painting, both in Taiwan and elsewhere. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Painting from Taiwan continues at Eli Klein Gallery (398 West Street, West Village, Manhattan) through October 6.