New York

Shirley Tse

Murray Guy

“Voluminous changing forms are to be constructed out of some mobile, plastic substance,” declared Lucio Fontana in his Manifesto blanco of 1946, a prognostication that seems to have been fulfilled by Shirley Tse’s proliferating, self-consuming nonpaintings (all works 2002). Bringing together the sensual/antiseptic properties of plastic and the trope of the painting’s surface as a surrogate skin, Tse’s cut-and-sutured sheets of pastel polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA) hung on the wall realize painting’s double dream of perfect flatness and sculptural dimensionality. Each forty-eight inches square, in pink, yellow, or blue, the soft, latexlike panels have geometric bits excised from them; these fragments are twisted into various curves and flourishes and fastened back into the panels with plastic rivets. Negative and positive play footsie across the surfaces, with patterns of white wall peeping through and constructed attachments projecting outward. The idea is simple, and in spite of associations ranging from prosthetic devices and surgical scars to motherboard circuitry and architectural models, the predominating impression is of cheerful, almost cute abstraction. The Los Angeles-based artist has called her second exhibition in New York “Polytocous,” which means “capable of multiple births”; her basic subject is a polymorphous, faintly perverse energy, a whimsical, ironic fecundity that declares itself as intrinsically inorganic.

In this Tse shares an area of inquiry with other gatherers and scatterers of artificial yet biomorphic stuff—Diana Cooper, Sarah Sze, Jane South, and fellow Angeleno Heidi Kidon, for example. Different as these artists are, their assemblages of mostly abject materials are predicated on the finicky arrangement of small parts into irregular but integrated topographic wholes; their processes bespeak obsessive repetition purged of angst and a channeling of minor physical labor into oddly diffuse, unbodied, yet handcrafted objects. More painterly, and more minimal, than these peers, Tse sticks to a single material rather than concatenating disparate ones. Her work, like theirs, addresses phenomena of growth and reduction, decoration and adjustment, but she makes the cool, pliable PEVA fold into or fall away from itself without disrupting its homogenized integrity. As a stand-in for paint, the plastic both offers and withholds the pleasures of texture. Cuttings, twistings, patternings, and fastenings articulate a set of surfaces more perfect and more seamless than paint controlled by hand could ever be—though “perfect and seamless” also necessarily implies remote and insipid. The actual cuts and attachments are of course more tangible than most painted gestures, and in foregrounding references to handwork practices like sewing, in which wholes depend on the presence of seams, the sculptural aspect of Tse’s work is rearticulated against the flatness. Nevertheless, this tactile dimension seems to collapse as one looks, the material’s all-of-a-piece-ness constantly smoothing out the impression made by the actual texture.

The example of the “work to be nonwork” proposed by Eva Hesse is perhaps more relevant than Fontana’s legacy when considering the interrelation of Tse, Cooper, Sze, et al. Hesse’s aesthetic of what she called “‘absurd’ minimalism” casts a long shadow; her demarcation of the zone where the biomorphic blurs into the mechanomorphic and both assume shapes defined by their materials, along with her insistence on an object that “accedes to its non-logical self,” continues to define an arena in which contingency, accretion, eroticism, exuberance, and introspection swirl. If, in sensibility and skill, Shirley Tse is one of Hesse’s nieces (Hesse was too sui generis to have daughters), this bodes well, suggesting that the sprightly smoothness of the PEVA works will evolve into further lamination of texture and form with psychic suggestion, rather than flatline in mere material cleverness. To earn the inheritance, Tse will have to keep discovering new substances and processes from which to bring forth her polytocous creations.

Frances Richard