Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

Transcending Barriers: George Tun Sein at Tally Beck Contemporary

Gradual Rhapsody: The Paintings of George Tun Sein at Tally Beck Contemporary

July 7 to August 30, 2011
42  Rivington Street, between  Forsyth and Eldridge Streets
New York City, (212) 677-5160

George Tun Sein, Windemere, 2011. Watercolor on paper,10 x 6 inches.  Courtesy of Tally Beck Contemporary, New York
George Tun Sein, Windemere, 2011. Watercolor on paper,10 x 6 inches. Courtesy of Tally Beck Contemporary, New York

Abstract painting affords a paradox. Although many cultures have employed abstract elements in their decorative arts, only in the Western tradition is abstraction a thing in itself. But Western-style abstract painting is also one of the most universal art forms.  Artists born clear around the globe have mastered it, and educated adults of every culture can enjoy abstract artists from other cultures without having to know anything about the culture that produced them.  Representational art typically depicts subject matter associated with its culture, and for that reason may require or presuppose some knowledge of the subject matter depicted, but to the extent that an abstract painting represents a triumph of style over subject matter, it can transcend linguistic (and temporal) barriers.

The paintings of George Tun Sein at Tally Beck achieve this transcendence, while at the same time giving subtle evidence of a range of experience that synthesizes West with East.  Born in 1958 in Burma, Tun Sein was educated in Australia, and has exhibited in India, Germany, Poland, Washington (DC) and California. The current show is only his second solo show in New York, though he is now based in the New York area. The paintings, a modest selection done over the past fifteen years or so, are quiet and unpretentious. The gallery, which specializes in work by contemporary Southeast Asian artists, employs the term “meditative” for these paintings, which – rightly or wrongly —  links them to Southeast Asian religions.  Certainly, there is nothing sharp or cartoony or shrill about this show: melodious and even nature-oriented would be nearer the mark.  The works are divided more or less evenly into medium-sized oils, small oil pastels, and still smaller watercolors, with the oils in the largest, front gallery, the oil pastels in the next and smaller gallery, and the watercolors farthest from the entrance, in the smallest gallery of all.

In composition, the paintings vary from quite busy and detailed, with lots of little shapes, to almost monochromatic and unmodulated . Most of the best, however, are neither fussy nor overly simplistic, though to confound generalization, one of the busiest pieces, which is also one of the smallest, is among the most appealing: Romance in Mandalay (2010). The reason this painting, an oil pastel, comes off so well is because its coloration, while varied, is on the pale side.  And the two best oil paintings, which are both in the front gallery, combine bold, decisive colors with compositions in the middle range (equidistant from complex and minimal). One is somewhat misleadingly titled One Touch of Tan (2002). It is mostly a rich deep orange, but with a broad vertical stripe of pale yellow on the right-hand side.  The paint surface is thick and rich, almost a paste laid on over the canvas. Next to it hangs Green Doors (1995), the star of the show, with the entire canvas different shades of green, long vertical green strips of paint complemented by smaller horizontal and diagonal green strips. The brushwork is loose and free, but not obsessively gestural nor narrowly geometric, either.  It is so restful to contemplate all that bucolic greenery that it summons to mind the famous phrase from the Metaphysical poem, “The Garden,” by Andrew Marvell: “a green thought in a green shade.”

Not all the show is equally creative.  Here and there, hints of other artists obtrude, in one small Klee-like oil pastel with a funny little house shape, and in a handful of thinly-painted small oil pastels depicting vertical rectangles in a way vividly reminiscent of Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series. Still, among others of the smaller pictures, talent carries the day.  In the very smallest and last gallery hangs the watercolor Windemere (2011), a saucy little parade of vertical triangles charging cheerfully across three registers, done with exquisite economy in red, yellow and blue.

George Tun Sein, One Touch of Tan, 2002. Oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches.  Courtesy of Tally Beck Contemporary, New York
click to enlarge
George Tun Sein, Green Doors, 1995. Oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches. Courtesy of Tally Beck Contemporary, New York
click to enlarge