New York

“Tracing Taiwan”

Drawing Center

While certain “international” exhibitions might give the impression that a standardized form of conceptual installation art has, like Sherwin Williams paint in the old ad, covered the globe, in “Tracing Taiwan: Contemporary Works on Paper,” curator Alice Yang showed how the intersection of isolation and cosmopolitanism has, at least in this instance, sharpened rather than leveled differences. For her, the contemporary art of Taiwan both “call[s] into question the continuity of the Chinese tradition” and resists “a strictly Western paradigm” in a way that “is both distinctly Taiwanese and distinctly modern.” (Sadly, this exhibition must serve as an unintended memorial to Yang, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver while the show was still in preparation.)

Beyond this particular set of resistances and responses, the four artists Yang chose Hou Chun-ming, Hsu Yu-jen, Huang Chih-yang, and Yu Peng—share something I would ascribe to the Chinese heritage they otherwise challenge: an ease with the interpenetration of literary and visual elements. While the suspicion surrounding the intrusion into painting of anything smacking of the “literary” is a powerful legacy of formalist criticism, the division lives on in the post-Greenberg era in even the textiest of contemporary art. For that reason, the special fusion of the visual and the poetic, in Hsu’s case, or the visual and the narrative, as with Hou, becomes especially fascinating from a Western viewpoint.

In Hsu’s work, a multitude of minute, dry brushstrokes accumulate (almost the way a doodler’s random marks compose unforeseen shapes) to form fragmentary landscape images that float, isolated, against the predominant white of the paper. The tiny marks themselves seem to be equally related to pictorial elements and to written characters as the building blocks of sentences, so that the works’ titles, inscribed horizontally across the bottom of each, become texturally continuous with the images. In turn, the images seem to inscribe rather than merely illustrate such poetic laments as “In Mountains Through Which the Water Flowed/No Trace of Water Is to be Found/ Only Spots of Sand Remain Here and There,” or, more simply, “Every Time I Go to an Old Place/It Has Lost a Lot of Its Beautiful Scenery” (both works 1996).

In Hou’s billboard-scale woodblock prints (all 1996), by contrast, fancifully obscene anecdotes—couples disguising themselves as wild dogs in order to enjoy sex in the street only to be beaten to death by outraged policemen; religious practitioners receiving enlightenment from their prophet’s eternally erect, amputated penis—shed a satirical light on moral disorientation. Hou’s blocky graphic style recalls propaganda art, yet the effect is quizzical where agitprop is dogmatic. In Yu’s hanging scrolls from the series “The Moon Shines on the Deserted City/The Clouds Cover the Old Trees,” 1996-97—their composition as congested as Hsu’s is spare, yet as elusive as Hou’s is direct—natural and human landscapes merge into an anxious, anomie, yet libidinous dreamland, while in those from Huang’s series “Zoon,” 1996, the individual body becomes the locus for the conflicting impulses conveyed by energetic brushwork. (Unfortunately, the tritely expressionistic manner of rendering this body makes “Zoon” the weak element in this otherwise strong show.)

The artists in “Tracing Taiwan” transcended any simple dichotomy between adherence to outworn traditional genres and allegiance to a universal postmodern avant-garde. Instead, they warped recognizably Asian styles through sophisticated conflations of high-, folk-, and commercial-art idioms, allowing each artist to respond, with wit, passion, and theatricality, to the dissonant present.

Barry Schwabsky