New York

Tam Van Tran

Cohan and Leslie

Vanitas images are rarely subtle—it’s hard to ignore the implacable presence of a human skull or a solemn timepiece, or to disavow the implications of a decomposing piece of fruit—but neither are they merely symbolic. Efficient vehicles for the display of technical mastery, paintings like Chardin’s Soap Bubble, ca. 1734, or Manet’s Boy Blowing Bubbles, 1867, also use that illusionism to facilitate aphoristic moralizing. Still, soap bubbles on the verge of rupture can only mean one thing.

Tam Van Tran’s third show at Cohan and Leslie betrayed a connection, albeit an oblique one, to such historical concerns, if not to such pictorial conceits. Eschewing realism for the tattered remnants of modernist abstraction, Van Tran’s recourse to the organic (here, beet juice and cabbage as opposed to the chlorophyll and spirulina of the painted, hole-punched, and stapled paper constructions of his 2002–04 “Beetle Manifesto” series) materializes the idea of impermanence. Seven large works on paper take their cues from Buddhist philosophy, which is more specifically referenced by the show’s title, “Entering the City of Omniscience.” Through this appropriation of eighteenth-century visionary Rigdzin Jikmé Lingpa’s aspiration prayer of the same name, Van Tran’s ubiquitous use of food as a painterly medium, a habit that has often been linked to his past day jobs as a waiter and private chef, is philosophically grounded as a meditation on the mindfulness of taste. In the Buddhist tradition, taste is a fleeting experience and an ungraspable idea. The point becomes not to fall prey to a binary structuring (something tastes good or bad) or an occluding tautology (strawberries taste like strawberries) but to fully experience eating without losing that sensation’s immediacy.

Translated into visual terms, such an argument suggests that the act of looking should be paramount. And indeed Van Tran’s oeuvre is decidedly hard to describe in words. Works like Entering the City of Omniscience, Peanut Butter Wolf, Natural Born Hippie, and Rainbow Body (all works 2005) all contain numerous wildly divergent marks, the combined effect of which resists neat summary. Paint and beet juice are applied with brushes, sponges, and palette knives. Liquid streaks down the supports, coagulates in pools, and is contained within floating circles of turquoise, purple, and putty. Razor-thin diagonal slashes of aluminum foil subtly reflect the light. Lines arc, form concentric circles, striate otherwise densely worked passages, fan back out with a gossamer delicacy, or zigzag across space.

But space, too, is unstable. Unlike his “Beetle Manifesto” works, which by some Frank Gehry-esque feat of engineering undulated right off the wall, Van Tran’s recent paintings are compressed into a two–dimensional field in which space is warped and scale convoluted, conflating the microscopic and the telescopic, the fabulous and the banal. Unifying the seven panels are interspersed circles—impressions left by bottle caps—that both hover close to the picture plane and recede farther back. Indicative of emptiness, they abet concentration amid the surrounding noise. They are vehicles for mindfulness practice, training which emphasizes the acceptance of mutability and flux. Stationed in the midst of more malleable forms, these punctuations arrest scanning without implying static resolution or allowing prolonged attachment. Van Tran’s works are constantly in the process of both becoming and decaying, and while they aren’t riddled with skulls, their incipient dematerialization still evinces temporality.

Suzanne Hudson