Friday, February 3, 2012

Leah Wong, Moving

Leah Wong, You and Others, 36 x 48 inches, 2010.
Courtesy of the artist.
Leah Wong, Things I See, 36 x 48 inches, 2009.
Courtesy of the artist.


It's been two years since Chinese-American painter Leah Wong's last show at the Sherrie Gallerie in Columbus. Her haunting 2010 show came hard on the heels of extended travels in her native China. One set of paintings then, executed in her natural palette of saturated hot colors, depicted a densely populated world in which individuals posed themselves to avoid contact with others. 
Her other series—mist perspective paintings—used the freedoms lent by conventions of Chinese landscape to move  viewers through events in memory, released from chronology.
There are no figures in her new show, Seen and Unseen, but there are legs galore—legs in leotards, with feet extended or flexed in dance positions. Often grouped like dream corps de ballet, they move in linear symmetry, or they lift their legs in circular formation from clouds or maelstroms, like synchronized swimmers
Leah Wong, Percussion, 24 x 30 inches, 2012
Courtesy of Sherrie Gallerie
The dancing legs perform nothing for which viewers constitute a seated audience: We, in fact, can only do our best to keep up. The legs are always propellant, even though it's never clear what those muscles are resisting to move them so energetically forward. The feet rarely contact anything like a floor. Through what medium are they moving? Air, fire, or water? Memory or dreams?

In Seen and Unseen, Wong gives us mostly mist perspective paintings, which she says that the Chinese read from top to bottom. In most of these paintings I have a strong, literal sense of sky at the top and earth at the bottom. It's not the top or bottom that I love most, but the middle ground where the floating landscape of the mind forms its own reality.
Leah Wong, Moon Walk, 40 x 30 inches, 2012
Courtesy of Sherrie Gallerie

Moon Walk, detail (author photo)
Moon Walk, detail of moons (author photo)
In Moon Walk, for instance, there's a sense of distance on the right and of greater proximity on the left where where the striped legs emerge from a flower-like form. Yet the cluster of circles and dots beneath the box-topped legs appears to float toward us in yet another space, possibly floating up to efface the dream/memory scene behind it. The rotating orange moons in vivid contrast against the deep blue sky (the moon's "walk?") marks real, celestial time in the space of real, mappable skies. The world of measurement and the world of remembered and dreamed reality don't compete, but integrate, their elements moving without friction between one another.

Everyone Has A Story—which shows Wong's command of color (her palette would overwhelm lesser painters)—is the same size as Moon Walk, but it's painted to give us an even more distant perspective on the worlds portrayed, In Moon Walk, we look through a sort of window framed by the branches of trees. Here there is a shallow, abstract foreground at the bottom, but otherwise, we have very little to orient ourselves from. The space seems less directional and much more ambiguous than in Moon Walk.
Leah Wong, Everyone Has a Story, 40 x30 inches, 2012
Courtesy Sherrie Gallerie

Detail, author photo
In Everyone Has A Story, earth appears on the bottom right, where a forest or orchard grows at the foot of a mountain, on the side of which rests an enclave represented by roofed buildings. But as we climb, solid reality is represented only by the suggestions of angular geometric forms that keep moving our eyes up into an ever more swirling, dense environment, at the top of which legs appear to rotate a fabulous pink flower. The top of the "mountain" is logically, then, much closer than its base, given the scale of the legs compared to the scale of the trees far below. It's almost dizzying. 

It would be vertiginous were it not that the composition at that point leans leftward into a pool of lighter colors and toward an island of smaller forms. A spatial illusion is formed in which the "mountaintop" is a height with a view of far-away islands in a river flowing below it. The left side of the painting is much more open than the right, which is compactly constructed of dense forms in carefully orchestrated sizes.

detail, center left, Everyone Has a Story. Author photo.
The visual balance of Everyone Has a Story  seems to have been achieved through Wong's own compositional storytelling. Especially on the left side, the surface seems as much drawn as painted: She uses pencil as well as paint; the marks are loose and gestural; nothing is represented or given any illusion of three-dimensional form. There is a strong sense of speed, of the wheels turning, and the artist feeling her way intuitively, ready to seize what happens. Things happen in reality—events accrue, and a story takes shape—on the right side where colors, shapes, and material from many overlapping narratives are put together. Whether it amounts to the story of one person or a universal story doesn't really matter. There's room for all in this painting: Any story on Wong's mind that is stored here, or any on ours that we wish to add.

Wong's paintings are sensual and seductive: Her palette is irresistible because she combines colors exuberantly. She fills her canvases with swirls, splashes, and dynamic directional forms that impart energy. She works every area of her painting so that any portion is a trembling microcosm of the whole. 

Seen and Unseen could be the title for any work in this show, let alone for the whole. We can plumb the mysteries of each work as if it contained a beautiful story waiting to be drawn out. Or we can visit these as gardens for memory and imagination.

I loved hearing Wong's brief gallery talk at her opening: I discovered how specifically she has inhabited these paintings. Wong left no question unanswered. The patterns of squares bisected from corner to corner, forming triangles? It seems that they are the memory of light reflected off the windows of a specific office building at a certain time of day on an occasion when she was passing in her car. The floating chairs? Her grandfather used to sit in that chair; chairs are inhabited even when they are empty: The chair is a figure. Boxes for heads? That's when we're talking as someone boxed in, or we're "square-headed," or we can't move mentally. The hummingbirds are tiny in the world, but strong and swift out of proportion to their size. Paper clay seashells occasionally attached to canvases remind her of her seaside hometown in China. In Wong's world, every detail is personal and observed.

Still, nothing in this work makes a statement or insists on a point of view. All of it convinces the eye that there are coherence and meaning in floating worlds, in the dynamics of memory and vision themselves. Wong's personal experiences and ideas are solidly embedded in these paintings. But for any viewer who spends time with this show, their own world will float into place—and will emerge from it—as well.

Leah Wong, Bus No. 11, 8 x10 inches, 2012. 
(An old friend of Wong's in China calls walking,"taking Bus No. 11.")
Courtesy, Sherrie Gallery

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