Continuing through April 24, 2021
The “Primary Process” abstract paintings of Laura Hapka, consisting of pairs of red, blue and yellow rectangles (supplemented by other palettes), hark back to the nonobjective, non-representational paintings of modernism’s golden age. Form was reduced to geometry, and color down to pure primaries, as in the mature works of Piet Mondrian, and Barnett Newman’s response to them in his four “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” paintings of 1966-70. But if Hapka adopts (at least partially) the pure triadic colors in “Primary Process,” her use of materials, painterly touch and sense of humor (in her allusive, punning titles) counteract the ivory-tower formalism and pomposity satirized by Tom Wolfe in his book “The Painted Word.”
Hapka works on panels covered with linen, which she coats, irregularly, with clear encaustic beeswax, which both emphasizes the weave of the linen and obscures and occludes it where the wax is laid on thicker. On top of this matrix, which suggests fixed manuscripts or scrolls, or linseed oil halations on unprimed canvas, the artist trowels heavy-bodied acrylic paint in parallel stripes, suggestive of writing and icing. The resulting irregularly-shaped Rothkoesque rectangles, framed by the exposed linen, suggest diptychs, or open books, and, more metaphorically, portraits of couples, or the passage of time. When the painted elements are mounted to the wall, as in “The Yellow Press,” or painted directly on it, as in “The Primary Report,” hand-made paper sheets also come to mind. If post-minimalism with its covert anthropomorphism humanized the severe geometry of minimalism, these materials-focused abstractions humanize the impersonal, superflat, machine-look geometric abstractions of the 1960s. Hapka’s color blocks floating in space owe something to Hans Hofmann’s push and pull aesthetic as well.
But if Hapka adopts certain formal limitations and historic antecedents, she also offers resistance to them, if playfully. The nine-diptych, “Red States, Blues States, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter,” with its 3x3 array of panels, evinces both her aesthetic rootedness and independence. Hapka moves beyond the primaries into a darker palette of the four “Tone Down” paintings. The color blocks are mismatched — in size, as in “Red Before Red,” and in color, as in “Nostalgic Purple Void.” These are painter’s paintings that embrace art history without being constrained by it. As Ben Shahn once said, “the ancestors are looking benignly over your shoulder; they’re not your enemy.”
WOMEN我們: From Her to Here
Chinese Cultural Center, San Francisco
by DeWitt Cheng
Last year’s Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements shook America to the core, focusing long-overdue attention on ancient injustices institutionalized by law and custom. The prejudice of ’real’ Americans—white, straight, and male-dominated— toward the racial and gender (or sexual) Other has been aptly characterized by the historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as “the white normative gaze.” That gaze is increasingly backward-directed, as post-election and post-insurrection attempts to forestall the future include serious measures like voter-suppression legislation and hate-crime attacks on Asians, and trivial distractions like the culture-war hysteria over ‘classic’ children’s books and toys.
In this fraught context, WOMEN我們: From Her to Here, at San Francisco’s Chinese Culture Center (February 19-August 28, 2021) offers an alternative vision that is global and inclusive—and forward-looking. The Mandarin term for ‘we’ is ‘wǒmen,‘ and the playfully-titled From Her to Here, is the third of a series exploring women’s and women artists’ roles in the Asian diaspora. By employing archival imagery and digital technology, it melds respect for the past (e.g., ancestress pioneers) with hope for a future of gender respect, solidarity and tolerance. CCC Curator Hoi Leung: “I want to present feelings and experiences rooted in the nonbinary, where individuals are given the freedom to define who they are, what their safe spaces are like, and what their communities can be.” CCC Executive Director Jenny Leung: “WOMEN我們 is a bold voice for equality and social justice.”
Eleven LGBQT+ and feminist artists and art collectives or teams from the San Francisco Bay Area, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Beijing were invited to participate. Their works range from prints and photography to video, film and installation.
The three artists from Taiwan are Chen Han Sheng, Huang Meng Wen, and Yao Hong. Chen’s mixed-media installation, When I Was A Child, employs floral and botanical imagery in a screenprint and a sculptural array of stainless steel boxes, each bearing a single leaf that moves, intermittently, to commemorate the murder in 2000 of a Taiwanese teen, Yeh Young-chih, who was deemed effeminate by bullying classmates for making artificial flowers; his death in the school bathroom eventually led to reformist legislation. Huang’s Suits and Corsages series pays homage, via a video of black-and-white vintage snapshots, to the sartorially splendid cross-dressing “Teddy Girls” of 1950s Taiwan who defied conformist fashion expectations financially, too, running a corsage business; her color group portraits, with their youthful subjects posing casually while attired formally in tailored black business suits and floral cheongsams, exalt their cultural descendants today; and vintage studio portraits framed by defocused period backgrounds add an elegiac note. Yao’s Erotic Wallpaper, framed by digitally printed tiles, covers the gallery foyer walls with dazzling color and pattern, and snippets of imagery and text; the artist’s free-form, non-associational “neurotic visual texture that defies common sense” may express the anxiety of contemporary Taiwanese life in our uncertain era, but the more-is-more effect is as weirdly exhilarating as it is claustrophobic.
The photographer Nicole Pun and the gay archivists/activists of the Queer Reads LIbrary and Mixed Rice Zine are based in Hong Kong. Pun in her In & Out series photographed against black backgrounds the caressing gestures of lesbian lovemaking. The Queer Reads Library, a collaboration of three artists, writer Rachel Lau, editor Kaitlin Chan, and publisher Beatrix Pang, is a collection of LGBTQ books created for young readers created in response to censorship by HK libraries. J. Wu, the Bay Area-based creator of Mixed Rice Zine, named after a term for Asians who prefer white sex partners, curated. Besides the publications, the display features an interactive aspect, the Queer Reads Lexicon Project, which employs QR coding (note QR coded meaning) to collect gay slang in various languages.
Moving west, we have the team of filmmakers Luka Yuanyang Yang (Beijing) and Carlo Nasisse (New York), and the spoken-word performer Brad Walrond (New York). Yang and Nasisse collaborated in the affecting 2019 film Coby and Stephen Are in Love, about a former nightclub dancer from San Francisco Chinatown’s Grant Avenue Follies and her experimental-filmmaker partner and soulmate. In his video, Blood Brothers, Walrond declaims passionately and poetically about the onset of the AIDs crisis, his words in English and Mandarin accompanied by images from artist Steven A. Williams; if we could once have comfortably relegated that tragedy to history, it resonates particularly powerfully with us now, struggling through the covid and opioid crises.
Rounding the terrestrial corner, we come to the Bay Area, home base to filmmakers Heesoo Kwon, Madeleine Lim, and Tina Takemoto, and painter Chelsea Ryoko Wong. Kwon’s digitally created videos employs Second Life software to generate 3D animated figures, nude stand-ins for her female relatives, who inhabit a tropical paradise atop an island floating through deep space, or enveloping a 3D flyover representation of the Chinese Culture Center’s distinctively inverted-Y-shaped building (on the third floor of the Holiday Inn). In Kwon’s invented religion, Ley Museoom Town is a multi-generational peaceable kingdom of sisters and daughters partially clad in snakeskin, a borrowing from Korean folk culture; utopianism is always iffy, but the current dystopic myopia calls for hope. Lim’s acclaimed 1997 video, Sambai Belacan, named after a Malaysian shrimp dish, portrays the daily struggles of three Singaporean lesbian immigrants; employing a variety of styles, the film captures the complexity and contradictions of new Americans negotiating life suspended between the old and the new, between reality and dreams. Takemoto’s film, Ever Wanting (for Margaret Chung), takes as its subject Margaret Chung (1889-1959), a pioneering Chinese woman physician who lived an adventurous secret love life; the film is evocative rather than expository, so that you might not discern its subject matter from its oblique, allusive shots of medical paraphernalia, Lily Pons, Anna May Wong, WAVEs and WW2 Flying Tiger fighters, all speckled with orange and brown flak suggestive of combustible nitrate film stock. Last but not least, Wong paints cheerful scenes of a gay alternate universe in bright tones and flattened shapes reminiscent of Romare Bearden’s collages or Joan Brown’s paintings. A Secret Place: Li Po Lounge depicts the Chinatown hangout for 1940s gays, still in operation, as a fit milieu for the legendary poet who drowned while trying to embrace the moon. The Forbidden City illustrates not the imperial center of Beijing, but the 100%-Asian Union Square nightclub of the 1940s and 50s that inspired the novel and movie Flower Drum Song. No chastely alluring fan or bubble dancers inhabit this cheerfully feminist painting; it’s a place where the drop-dead gorgeous sisterhood might warble with delight Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I enjoy being a girl.”
The exhibition was online only (https://www.cccsf.us/women-from-her-to-here ) due to pandemic regulations, but is now open for scheduled visits via the website.
Fault / Lines 2001: Paintings and Assemblages by Katherine Fishburn
Contemporary art is a confusing free-for-all. Paintings and sculptures are made with bizarre and sometimes perishable materials; conceptual artworks conjoin ideas and disciplines that have no obvious connection or affinity. There is no mainstream trend in art any more, as there was (or appeared to be) during the modernist era, roughly 1900-1980. The art world’s focus on one style at the time, the new succeeding the old, had a certain simplicity (if you ignored the contradictions), but it also stifled or hampered creativity that did not fit the stile du jour (which of course changed every few years). When abstraction was de rigueur in the 1950s, figurative painters felt that were treated as reactionary enemies; the abstractionist Philip Guston was reviled as a traitor to the cause for returning to figuration and even storytelling during the1960s, with the nation riven by racial tensions and the Vietnam War, for refusing, in his words, “to adjust a red to a blue.” Now that the idea of the avant-garde army marching in lockstep is blessedly over, artists have more freedom and more options, although, truth be told, the myth of historical inevitability made for easier marketing in postwar America.
If contemporary artists enjoy more creative freedom than before in today’s pluralistic, nonhierarchical art world, they do still have to forge their way and personal, eclectic, subjective style. The Maryland-based painter and poet, Katherine Fishburn, has created such a style by hybridizing or combining twentieth-century freewheeling Abstract Expressionist paint application, pure color from nineteenth-century Impressionists and Fauves, and even political and philosophical concerns, perhaps not immediately apparent to the casual viewer, but informing and expanding the meaning of her paintings and assemblages. Fishburn:
My inspiration comes from everywhere: from my studies of world history, biology, literature, philosophy and politics. From what I have discovered walking along the shore, wandering through fallow fields and hiking at high altitudes. Most important: it comes from encountering great art… Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan and other female artists of abstract expressionism—also … the Spanish painters Goya, Dalí and Mirò.
The show’s title, Fault / Lines, reflects simultaneously the current societal and intellectual fractures in Western society (most notably in the USA)—and the uncertainty of contemporary life, a fundamental precept of the existentialists and their like-minded peers, the Abstract Expressionists; it’s a philosophical idea that has been around for millennia but was lost in the post-World-War-Two triumph of American culture and materialism, only re-emerging in the past two decades, after 9/11, when the myth of Fortress America tragically collapsed.
To express the complexity and contradictions of contemporary life, Fishburn creates, often without preplanning, oil paintings in which palette-knifed patches of strong color and abstract form vie with incised words invoking the artist’s concerns. The artist's immersion in “pushing paint around,” to cite an AbEx trope, would seem at first an incongruous fit with sociopolitical content, but these are personal artworks, not propaganda, even, perhaps, exorcisms, in a certain way. For Fishburn, laying the paint on “thick, with gouges and scrawls,” was “liberating. It was also a way to externalize the strong emotions I have about what is going on (i.e., wrong) in the world today.” The titles sometimes come after, “discovered,” and sometimes precede the painting process; clearly the immersion in painting brings to the surface issues lingering in the subconscious, as does all her art up to this point. According to her, she “resolutely mines the subconscious, making visible harsh truths and raw emotions that many in today’s world would disregard—preferring to avert their eyes and dismiss the difficult questions her work generates.” In addition, the titles are not always explanations of the abstract imagery: sometimes they are merely suggestive, or even in ironic counterpoint, as in Goya’s satirical Caprichos etchings. With their vibrant, bravura energy, the paintings catch and hold the eye of the art-centric viewer; but the sociopolitical messages contained therein, not always planned, make the images commentaries on public matters, or, in Latin, res publica, the etymon of our word ‘republic.’ They’re painterly abstractions that morph into covertly dissenting history paintings.
Doctor’s Orders presents another Still-like abstraction, primarily in black and white, with patches of red, blue and purple. The word “script,” inscribed at top left, has a variety of meanings, from the common shorthand for prescriptions to handwriting itself, to money markers, to screenplays— and might also be seen as an homage to artists using writing in their works, from Miró (one of the artist’s favorite painters) to Picasso and Jasper Johns to Eric Wool.
In Country is Fishburn’s response to the Vietnam War and its veterans, whom the artist taught at Michigan State University: “They were hungry to learn and soaked up everything I had to offer, unlike most of the other students in the class. They made teaching that damned course a joy—we both had a purpose. They had learned the hard and dangerous way the value of getting an education.” The vertical-format painting presents an ambiguous slice of verdant landscape, set afire, undoubtedly based on the napalm and Agent Orange bombing campaigns designed to defoliate the jungle or rainforest, depriving the enemy of cover for weapons resupply. A 45-degree right triangle is superimposed on the landscape, suggesting, perhaps, the use of military vectors and triangulation in target siting, also perhaps a pun is invoked as there was nothing “right” about the war, except for the Hawkish administration’s cabinet and the generals’ endless lies that we could win it. “In-country” was GI slang for Vietnam (as opposed to the “the real world” of the US). A perhaps long-forgotten battle waged early in the war occurred in The Iron Triangle (War Zone D). As Fishburn writes, “word-association is the name of the game,” so it is not farfetched to see an echo of the Bermuda Triangle, a so-called “wormhole,” where all at sea is lost—as we, too, lost the war to a well-organized rag-tag army of citizen soldiers who knew and loved their country far more than the arrogant American invaders, burdened down with their gear and heavy armaments—puzzled as to why they were there in the first place.
Nine Eleven was inspired by the lacy steel-girder scaffolding that remained standing after the towers had fallen. Fishburn writes that during the weekend that followed the attack, she drew in colored pencil a rough sketch of the horror, trying not so much to “understand it but to defeat it by creating something.” Her scene of national trauma is depicted semi-abstractly, as a welter of orthogonal blue-gray brushstrokes, surrounded by explosive flames of yellow and orange, all set against a darkened sky. The high-contrast gestural brushstrokes may suggest certain visionary landscapes of El Greco or the expressionist apocalypses of Franz Marc and Ludwig Meidner that seem in retrospect to have foretold The Great War.
As a postscript, Fishburn writes:
I guess maybe I am only recognizing now that I created “ships” to both escape the plague (by losing myself in the act of creating them) and to bring the outside world to me. I chatted with almost every vendor on Etsy from whom I bought the components of my creations; it was very social, one of the very few interactions I had with other people all year. Also, one of the first haunting images of the pandemic was the ironically named cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, anchored and quarantined at Yokohama for a month because it was infested, not with rats, but with highly contagious Covid-19 passengers. Conversely, there is Katherine Anne Porter’s 1962 allegorical novel Ship of Fools about the rise of the Nazis. Ambiguity and paradoxes delight me.