Report from… Beijing
Mengyun Han: In Between Islands was at the Today Art Museum (Beijing) July 7 to July 21, 2013
These days the Beijing art world appears to be treading water. 798, the famed art district there, has become heavily commercial, for instance, and the quality of criticism is unfortunately low—due to the custom whereby the artist and not the magazine pays for the article being written, ruining even the pretense of objectivity. These problems, coupled with the burst bubble of high prices associated with the vertiginous peaks of the market in the mid-2000s, have slowed the pace and weakened the creativity associated with robust dealing. The painter Mengyun Han, only in her mid-20s, offered a very strong show of lyric abstraction at the Today Art Museum; yet her accomplishments, strong as they are, must be seen within the constraints of Beijing’s scene—for example, the fact that the space in the Today Art Museum can be rented despite its origins as a public institution (it is now private). In China, the business of art proceeds without too much trouble, but it is impossible to find an independent writer who can rise above its cash-in-the-hand exchanges. Indeed, one of the last things said to me during my recent stay in Beijing was that a writer cannot make a living in the city.
All of this combines to dirty the waters artists, curators, and writers swim in. Apropos of which, a disclosure before I comment on Han’s paintings: I wrote the catalogue essay for the exhibition. But I can say with assurance that she put up a show remarkable for its sophistication and accomplishment. Han is determined to maintain a mostly Chinese view of things—this despite the fact that she spent four years at Bard College in upstate New York and a semester in graduate school at Rutgers University. Her influences, she maintains, have to do with Taoist philosophy and traditional ink painting, although, perhaps inevitably, one also sees the work as being inspired by mid-20th century abstract expressionists, whose influence still is felt among painters in New York. But, to be fair, she made it clear in conversation that her esthetic is based upon a measured view of both Western and Asian cultures—an outlook that adds to her unusual complexity as an artist. Indeed, she uses both oils and ink in her paintings, not so much as a compromise but rather as an example of dialogue.
Letting, (2013) is a fine, densely painted pattern of vertical threads, rather like an abstract tapestry; it is very large (120 by 48 inches) and commands the space by virtue of its subtle patterning, achieved by her coloring certain areas brown and gray. Its composition reads clearly to someone familiar with Western abstraction, but it would also register in the thoughts of someone interested in Asian calligraphy—a merger that is present in much of the art in the show. A much smaller painting, Momentum, (2013) is very powerful, even monumental in the thrust of its movement. Composed of ink on paper, the painting consists of two broad bands: a vertical black stripe rising upward, with part of it bleeding into a semi curved, lightly inked horizontal surface. The combination is striking.
Wandering Mind, (2012), an oil on canvas done in black, gray, and white, conveys the noise of the mind when it is not directed toward a single point. Samsara III (2012) is a large, four-panel painting that folds across the corner of two walls; it consists of a white composition with a V-shaped design painted into it, and this is followed by three darker panels—ostensibly the blindness of death coming after a shortly lit period of life (one remembers that samsara is a Buddhist term, referring to the cycle of life and death). It is an ambitious work of art, whose size induces extended contemplation; the viewer feels as if he could walk into the painting. In these paintings, Han shows off ambition of a genuine sort, transcending the very worldly terms surrounding her as a Chinese artist.