New York

View of “Yanyan Huang,” 2016.

View of “Yanyan Huang,” 2016.

Yanyan Huang


View of “Yanyan Huang,” 2016.

Some seventy or so years after its heroic American heyday, Abstract Expressionism has seen a lot, having been debased, parodied, subverted, enshrined, disavowed, mocked, and reinvented a thousand times by as many artists to as many different ends. An indelible metonym for modernism, it is, as they say, overdetermined, so much so that to make a gestural mark today is to court a certain generic quality—and the nagging sense that whatever you’re doing has, regrettably, been done before.

Which is not to say the weight of history dooms gestural abstraction to cliché; to the contrary, its legacy can be wielded as a feature, not a bug. A case in point is the work of the Los Angeles– , China-, and Italy-based artist Yanyan Huang, who, even as she earnestly and skillfully inhabits AbEx’s traditions and tropes, is also strategically self-aware about its past and how that might be mobilized today. For her first solo show in New York—which was organized with Alex Ross, director of the Lower East Side’s Hester gallery—Huang displayed six AbEx-ish canvases along with four ceramics (a vase, two cups and a plate) and two prints (one on silk, which hangs in the window; the other on self-adhesive wallpaper, which covers one side of the gallery).

Considered as a group, the six paintings have many virtues: Created with gouache and ink, they feature thick, abundant smears of stained color alongside playfully delicate lines. Their palette is lush, Tuscan, and a little bit wild, creating a sumptuous, at times even botanical, feel. The works also have an unmistakable sense of energy and propulsion: The calligraphic scribbles and swirls of gouache promiscuously overlap and mirror one another as if in a pas de deux. One highlight is Being become present III, 2016, which embodies the open, airy look of late de Kooning.

Though the paintings are thoroughly entrenched in AbEx, when Huang moves off the canvas and begins realizing her gestural marks in other media, she invariably situates herself within another, more recent spectrum of art practices: those that seek to explore the effects of consumer digital technology. To create the wallpaper and silk prints, she first made high-resolution scans of her gestural watercolor drawings (which were not on view here), collaged them together in Photoshop, and then printed the files out at several times their original size. In the resulting work, she makes no effort to hide the evidence of digital manipulation and mediation. And these artifacts—the jagged, pixelated edge of a dark smear of paint, for instance—may put us in the mind of artists such as, say, Josh Smith, whose process involves the scanning, printing, and collaging of his own paintings as a way to visualize the mutability of images in digital and material networks.

But in the case of Smith and his peers, the choice of medium was often arbitrary, little more than a neutral backdrop for a larger argument about the dissemination of data and information. Huang’s choices are more pointed. When she brings her gestural abstractions to ceramics, silks, or even billboard-scale wallpaper prints, she means to inhabit the history and specificities of those media, to assimilate their properties and unique cultural baggage. It is, she says, “my way of injecting my mark into different narratives.”

In a nod to AbEx’s humanist myths, Huang lets her abstractions act as signifiers of her own subjectivity, which she braids together with other cultures and traditions, from ceramics to fashion to advertising. In its intertwining of the generic and the specific, the universal and the unique, handmade and the disposable, Huang’s project becomes—in its own abstract way—a portrait of selfhood today.

Lloyd Wise