Monday, March 3rd, 2008

Bingyi Huang at Max Protetch

Max Protetch Gallery: Project Space
511 W. 22nd St.
New York City
212 633 6999

February 14 to March 15, 2008

Bingyi Huang Red Flag 2008 oil on canvas, 86-3/4 x 71 inches Courtesy Max Protetch Gallery
Bingyi Huang, Red Flag 2008 oil on canvas, 86-3/4 x 71 inches Courtesy Max Protetch Gallery

Long established in America, Bingyi Huang nevertheless looks to traditional Chinese culture for her materials and inspiration. The artist holds a doctorate in art history from Yale, but her true vocation  is painting, albeit of a very contemporary kind; she combines a delicate, naïve style with references to Chinese literature and history. The title of her show, “Six Accounts of a Floating Life,” refers to the civil servant Shen Fu’s tales of love and Chinese mores. Originally composed of six chapters, only four of Shen’s book have survived–hence her four-panel oil on canvas (2008) that takes his title as the name of the painting. Three more black-and-white works are found in this small but compelling show, which also includes two crystal-resin sculptures that again deal with problems of private memory and its possible permanence through art.

Entitled Red Flag, the first panel of Six Accounts, an epic, ten-meter-long painting, shows a three-quarter view of Mao sitting on a rock, looking out at the red flag of China. The flag is positioned in the upper-right corner, a long distance from the Mao figure, who is placed in the lower right. According to the artist, the character for Mao can also mean hair, and so Huang paints hair sprouting from his back like an unholy version of angel’s wings. While no editorial statement, either for or against Mao’s government, is made, the flag’s remove from China’s communist founder suggests that such idealism is hard to achieve. Ostensibly a portrait of a failed state,

Red Flag can be linked to the scholar portraits of an earlier time, in which a figure in contemplation is nearly lost in a mountainous landscape. Here Huang herself is meditating on the troubled, enigmatic legacy of a China whose contemporary fervor for capitalism has quickly made the writings and beliefs of Chairman Mao anachronistic, if not irrelevant.

Huang’s treatment of the Chinese tradition is more enigmatic in You Me and Her,in which a woman with prominently diseased lungs—a portrait of the artist herself, perhaps—occupies the lower-right corner of the painting. Above her, toward the middle of the work, is an ominous image of a soldier wearing sunglasses and a helmet with a red star, while off to the left a person is sleeping. It is hard to say what the relations between the images are, but one feels that they are of an intimate and private nature—this in contrast to the civic transparency of Chairman Mao’s likeness. In the last of the four panels, Departure, Huang may well be referring to her own emigration from China; we see two transparent pieces of luggage, one with a gun in it. Below is a large, black organic form—a cloud of pollution—that again refers to some of the exigencies of Chinese life. Given Huang’s indirectness, we experience the scene as if imbued with symbolist forms, which reveal their meaning only fleetingly. Yet the painting does not feel deliberately obscure, but rather poses the question, How much must be revealed before the images makes narrative sense?

The crystal-resin sculpture entitled The Man that I Loved (2008) is more straightforwardly an ode to memory—Huang has made the recollection of a lover permanent by encasing personal effects in clear amber, a celebration that exists, paradoxically, at least in part because the relationship is over. We find in the sculpture a pair of broken eyeglasses, a slowly leaking pen, and a black sweater—objects associated with an intimacy that, while finished, has been turned into something lasting. This is a kind of concrete poetry, something that Huang specializes in. In the painting Dust, the artist refers to a famous historical image: that of a single, unarmed man standing up to a tank during the Tienanmen Square incident. For Huang, that kind of independence, public and private to the same degree, is reiterated in marvelous ways that both engage and provoke her audience.