Pearl C. Hsiung

Max Wigram Gallery

Fantasy and humor are fundamental to the work of Los Angeles–based artist Pearl C. Hsiung, a recent Goldsmiths grad whose work is focused on painting but also extends into installation. The six large paintings on view in “To the Big Life,” her second show in London, present scenes from a manga-influenced sci-fi realm whose inhabitants—for so they seem, rather than the bits of scenery one might think they ought to be—are, for example, some ludicrously precarious outcrop of rock that seem to hover in the clouds, one of them capped by a cracked and empty shell and a pink bow (Bros Geodorous, 2005), tilting crystalline towers and crimped strings of pearls or white thread (Gemmy Shafts, 2005; No Points, 2005), or volcanoes that emit, instead of or in addition to fire and smoke, such incongruous items as a red-banded cactus waving a tattered white flag of surrender (Kablooms, 2005), a blank picket sign (Shungri-blam, 2005), or a black cube wearing a leather belt and itself erupting in turn, spewing colored banners along with the smoke (Pyriteous, 2005).

Need it be said that all these gushing, looming, animated protuberances constitute so many blatant jokes about the phallus? Or are they really just about the penis? What’s funny about Hsiung’s jokes is, in any case, that they are double-edged: The object of the artist’s humor is also the object of her insistent, serious attention. The cool, almost clinical precision with which she paints her Pop-surrealist flights of inflamed fancy is infused with a curious tenderness. Still, it might be argued that Hsiung’s efforts to frame the paintings within a full-bodied installational context are necessitated mainly by their lack of internal plasticity and atmosphere; their technique is so illustrational that the images sometimes appear as if at one remove. But the feeling mostly passes, and a bit of time allows the gradual impact of Hsiung’s highly controlled use of color and chiaroscuro to register. Thus her impulse to bring her imagery into real space should rather be attributed to a sort of formal high-spiritedness, a need to manifest her humor in a somewhat less sec manner than her ultraprecise painting style affords.

The surrounding sculptural scatter, You can picket your friends, you can picket your nose, but you can’t picket your friends’ nose, 2006—ouch!—consists of an array of blank monochromatic picket signs, some perforated with their own volcano mouths to echo those in the paintings, and a bow-tied cactus, all set within piles of rocks, while Los Blohos, 2006, is a bunch of similar “hole” forms with small radiating cracks applied as printed vinyl transfers onto the gallery’s large window. Neither of these works would have much effect on their own, but they succeed in pulling the viewer into the specific world of the paintings, giving their psychosexual fantasy a more visceral edge. Hsiung describes a state of excitation without desire and of protest without demands; the preternatural lightness of spirit with which she registers this strange condition should not be taken to imply that it lacks emotion.

Barry Schwabsky