Sunday, September 25, 2016

Fresh from the East

Arlan Huang, "Zenkoji Black 6" (2015)
acrylic and oil on mirror plexi, 6 x 6 inches
photo courtesy Lia Chang

Exhibition review

Arlan Huang, "Recent Paintings"
Andre Zarre Gallery
529 West 20th Street
September 8 - 27, 2016

Arlan Huang’s solo exhibition of “Recent Paintings” contains many gems of painterly refreshment. The most stunning are small, square compositions of abstract marks and lines, made during Huang's 2015 residency at the Zenkoji Temple in Nagano, Japan. These 6x6-inch paintings evoke branches of flowers against empty skies. Their casual humor and studied delicacy gets expanded in the larger works in the exhibition.

Huang begins with pre-fab mirrored plexiglass industrially painted in black, blue, gold, green, or silver. He sands them unevenly, and produces surprisingly subtle atmospheric effects by counterposing spare compositions, bright pigments, and thick textures against his burnished surfaces. His finesse with plexi derives from his experience with glassblowingBut working in glass suggests a light touch; Huang paints lush and bold. His quick, deliberate daubs in vivid colors recall Vincent van Gogh’s impassioned impasto in a related scene.  They also resemble the "spontaneous" yet pictorially complex strokes of Chinese brush painting.

Arlan Huang, "Zenkoji Blue 2" (2015)
acrylic and oil on mirror plexi, 6 x 6 inches
photo courtesy Lia Chang

The background colors in Huang’s paintings index lacquers, gilding, and glazes from traditional East Asian crafts. But his abstractions look thoroughly contemporary, and spiced with a hot (fluorescent) red! In titles of larger paintings on sanded plexiglass, “Pink” and “Pinky” refer not to this bright pigment, but to the hand-mixed pale background tint. The wit in these titles matches the red-fluorescent effect: “Still Pink After All These Years” makes faint rosiness dance with the jazzy melancholy of the classic Paul Simon tune to which it alludes. Simon told Dick Cavett that he might add an unforeseen chord to the unfinished song, to create a “refreshing” sound; they agree that repeating such a surprise will quickly make it go stale. So I expected that Huang wouldn’t keep using that wild red…but he does. The real surprise is that this move keeps succeeding.

Arlan Huang, "Still Pink After All These Years" (2015)
acrylic and oil on canvas, 36 x 72 inches
photo courtesy Robert Costello

The exhibition contains one red herring, the elephant in the room. “Non Dimenticar” is an enormous canvas of long lines without smaller marks. The lines riff on Sol LeWitt’s gouaches of undulating horizontals (Huang has been LeWitt’s New York framer for decades). The title, from the song made famous by Nat King Cole, hints at ruminations on times past: this work did begin as one of Huang's “Pink and Blue” paintings of wavering, watery lines. The instruction “Non Dimenticar” — “don’t forget” — functions ironically: Huang’s lines try to obscure something that lurks below the surface, even as it presses toward us from behind the tangle.

Arlan Huang, "Non Dimenticar" (2016)
acrylic and oil on cotton duck, 90 x 72 inches
Photo courtesy Arlan Huang

I wondered whether this unique painting simply should have been omitted. And is its highly worked surface overworked? Perhaps, in relation to Brice Marden’s similarly structured, revised, eastern-oriented paintings. When I imagined Huang showcasing only paintings on plexiglass, however, I saw my error. “Non Dimenticar” reveals the compost that fuels the rest. 

In "Recent Paintings," Huang wrestles not only with art historical antecedents and material/cultural traditions, but also with his own personal and career trajectories (see his interview after winning a 2014 Joan Mitchell Foundation award) as he paints afresh.

-- Karen Schiff

No comments:

Post a Comment