(Six Stencil, 2014)
Vivien Zhang¡¯s Floating Grids¡
(Okinawa Lions, 2014)
Question. Where to begin when an artwork is neither completely representative nor fully abstract; too abstract to be surreal (the dream world of surrealism being the usual meaning-refuge in these kind of aesthetic situations), but still with objects and parts of objects recognizable as such (rather than with the planes and colours and textures only, that make up the various schools of abstraction as they have continued into the 21st century). Two approaches: through the frame; and from the contents; so beginning with genre and classifying the picture or beginning with the picture¡¯s key elements and combining them int a comprehensive meaning. Otherwise put: starting from the whole and starting from the part. Through the frame; the frame of our expectations here matching the frame of the picture; the frame here is one of genre, of expectations¡ So the question: What does this mean? Translates into: what genre is it? The definition gives the key to the whole. The other approach is that of moving from part to whole, from the details of content to the whole picture (even if the whole is finally a fragmented truth, a balancing of parts, as in many modern and especially post-modern works). But whether we begin with the whole (the suggestion of a genre, an historical affiliation) or the part (analyzing the relationships -often contrastive, contesting- as well as noting the referential force of the parts) we end up in the same place¡
In sum: two approaches¡ Genre¡ the type or kind, a word that tells what to expect (proceeding from the whole to the meaning of the part). And analysis ¨C a kind of jig-saw (proceeding from the part to the whole) or how the parts fit together (if at all) and what does the result mean to us?
In our search for a name, a label that suggests the meaning of the whole, a simile comes to mind¡
A cultural and historical simile: we have seen something like this before¡ and its history is not co-eval with that of modern art. What provides a tip to the memory is the indeterminacy or resistance of certain objects to clear meaning: the ¡®gombocs¡¯, the enigmatic objects repeated in their own small frame (¡®Deeper Bite¡¯), the repeated forms and featured forms of ¡®Untitled¡¯ (2015) and especially the folded masses, creased and crumpled planes (¡®Crease¡¯, ¡®Collidoscope¡¯), always suggestive of ¡. something else - something just out of reach. Moreover, this historical echo also overlaps with the artist¡¯s ethnic background and identity ¨C or rather one of them. When we look at an ambiguity of recognition, a plasticity of indeterminate form, an ambiguity in the form and content of the expression; the recognisable as solid but hard to pin down, and the very placing in context as a question (and the particularity of the means of expression, what is it made from ¨C both as mimesis and quotation, as copy or representation and as fragment or sample). When we address ourselves to these issues, a parallel occurs ¨C but one based upon a very different kind of art. The art of the garden. For these are all problems of meaning so strangely similar to the problems posed by the aesthetics of lithomorphs, the role of stone in Chinese culture; the almost recognisable (but not quite) stone shapes that are found in Chinese gardens - at their best in the gardens of Suzhou. Enigmatic, mysterious, unnamable (except by those moved by panic, or fear to provide comforting labels, look-alikes, pretty nick-names¡ to personify them as comedy in order not to personify them as tragedy, as sublime¡ as terror¡). So again, abstract¡ but not quite; recognizable forms¡ but not really. The sublime evoked by Chinese stones suggests, the natural sublime, the force of Nature, tamed by the Garden space (something beyond the human, brought into a human, Nature-tamed, world). The Eastern form of nature worship, a materialization of Daoism, analogous to Western Romanticism ¨C also a ¡®Nature-first¡¯ philosophy. Our window onto our fear of matter, of real Nature (not the provider, but the destroyer, as much entropy as fecundity, as much chaos as creativity ¨C and the ¡®as¡¯ in the preceding phrases may be read as both conjunctive and adversative). And the ¡®gods¡¯ we fear, we worship¡
The resistance to meaning that makes stones sacred; a resistance which persists in similar forms in the presence; a persistence that evokes the sublime¡
So it is the notion of the ¡®Sublime¡¯ which offers us our first conclusion: that these pictures suggest the very latest version, or incarnation of this very human desire, the desire for something beyond ourselves, in which to anchor ourselves¡ It works by providing an exterior, a-historical, an eternity or a Heaven, an ¡®outside¡¯; a place for the universals and axioms, the ¡®ALL¡¯s of logic and maths where things are ¡®always¡¯ true. A no-place that is the product of human desire. In art the aspects of number (the infinite) and a terrible awe (fear of a greater force), twin transgressions of quantity and quality, carry this desire and actualise it in epochs; Romantic, Modern, Post-modern, the location of the sublime feeling that suggest an art work reveals secrets, is in touch with a greater force, ¡®Nature¡¯ (and the Gothic), Industry (the machine aesthetic, Art Deco), Technology (science fiction as the prediction of our collective future). So most cogently, and most recently, we have the ¡®digital sublime¡¯: evoked, captured, represented, within the picture frame (something beyond the human, brought into a human frame, a wayward part of our Culture tamed, just as gardens and landscape paintings either tamed Nature, or -in the art of the Romantics- tamed the experience of an untamed Nature¡). The sublime question here is found in the suspicion that Culture as Second nature, or as Second culture, has become something beyond the human, Post -human, or to quote Lyotard, ¡®Inhuman¡¯. Our window onto the future¡ Or rather onto the window of ourselves (as the future never comes, only our fantasies about it). Our fears of what a machine world might hold for the merely human¡
If Vivien Zhang¡¯s pictures offer the ¡®modern¡¯ (Post-modern) version of the Sublime once contained in stone¡ (and reoccurring in the enigmatic stones that appear in her paintings), then we can see this reflection of the latest avatar of the sublime actualized in her use of the grid she uses to position her objects; the layers of grid which supports the layers of, the patterns of objects - and whether the space between them represents space or time (read as spatial or temporal depth), position or subjectivity, is anyone¡¯s guess. The grid, as with the trace or ghost of the means of expression, there before the application of paint, the use of the computer to model the space and form, this hidden and post-human, form-giver, again points the way to¡ the landscapes of the digital future¡ Or their insistence in our worried imaginations¡
Concerning the presence of the grid, the verticals and horizontals, an inter-action of planes and surfaces, we are still (but only just) in recognizably modernist space, I found myself looking for objects positioned on arcs, bending lines of sight, vanishing points¡ and circumferential (like the paths of light bent by gravity) Deleuzean ¡®lines of flight¡¯ (and found them in ¡®Cocooning¡¯, ¡®Six Stencil¡¯, and ¡®Folded Stencil¡¯, as well in the implied continuities ¡®beyond the text¡¯ in the artist¡¯s recent works). Traces of quantum/relative or plural post-modern space-time: art and philosophy have in general been so far behind the implications of these development as make us suspect a romantic essentialist resistance¡ a blind eye to the ¡®new matter¡¯ beyond matter; a new space time¡ Yet all now becoming ¡®representable¡¯ by means of our digital imaging extension¡
(Cocooning, 2015) (Folded Stencil, 2014)
(Of course, other, shallower, interpretations are possible: one is that of ¡®hip¡¯ formless forms (¡®informe¡¯) as irony, of form seeking, plastic humour. This is, of course, a possible reading (variations on a theme), but one that stops short of the interesting questions; for all interesting art asks questions of its epoch, as ours of our future¡ never since the atom bomb, so much bought into question. Another approach, geographic, is membership of the ¡®New Asian Pop Art¡¯, generally a lighter playful fare; but here too serious voices have emerged: Murakami and his ¡®Flowers and Skulls¡¯¡)
This first ¡®framing¡¯ has already provided us with one set of (historical) reference points, a genealogy, a set of meanings; now us return to another frame, a meta-frame, the frame of genre (genre as frame) ¨C offering another genealogy. The genre of a picture is a matter of its art history, in which genre tradition, or frame, it is placed. The key move in this approach, I would tentatively suggest, is that of the meaning left to us by the coexisting layers of Braque¡¯s ¡®Atelier V¡¯ (also known as ¡®Atelier III¡¯, 1949-1950) as well as some of Matisse¡¯s experiments - also paintings of his studio. Cubism had promised simultaneous viewpoints, in time as well as in space, but Braque finally delivered in this later sequence of works ¨C with superimposition and ambiguity of plane denying hierarchy.
Another solution, found in the work of artists like Bernard Cohen, Frank Stella, Sigmar Polke and Robert Rauschenburg, was the joining and counterposing of contrasting zones of paint, of colours and patterns, and the further addition of citations; of photographs and other materials ranging from newsprint and handwritten text to the inclusion of non-flat physical objects). This later sense of collage suggests a kind of visual cultural form of FID (Free Indirect Discourse, the mixing of the two ¡®voices¡¯ or ¡®points of view¡¯, found in all narrative structures, that of the narrator and the character, a technique in used in narrative analysis to answer the question who speaks, whose word?). ¡®FID Art¡¯ looks like a patchwork quilt of citations, rather than a collection of symbols; a system of quotations (like a photographic collage) rather than allegories. But here of what? (Despite some work on art in this analytical frame, Mieke Bal, the most interesting theorist of this area, is not much help). The application to art, more particularly to Vivien¡¯s artworks, lies in the opposition of narrator and character (or rather characters); with the framework as the ¡®voice¡¯ of the artist/narrator, providing the arrangement, or framing, of the quotations, images, clips and textures, that are sewn together into a totality: a totality, however, ¡®which is not One¡¯ (Irigaray)¡ rather touching, coexisting on the canvas¡ but without being subsumed, totalized, unified into a single delimited meaning.
Furthermore, this form of genre definition also gives us the clue to the analysis of the parts the various contents of the frame. Their overall form is given by the narrator /artist; just as in Indirect Discourse, where the language of the narrator often frames the emotive, ¡®colour¡¯ words and the other indicators of apparently subjective origin, originally belonging to the characters, that are imbedded in the narrator¡¯s flow or words ¨C here embedded into the narrator artist¡¯s sense of presentation, of the overall form or framing. The language of the characters provides the islands in the storm, the ¡®Free¡¯ floating materials of the characters¡¯ thoughts and feelings; their words, their sentences, their discourse, concrete; richer than any formal neutered paraphrase (so the reduction into elements in a single point perspective or all-defining meta-language). And so the very material or matter of the art work ¨C whether prose or paint, word or image.
If the overall form, the ¡®form of the expression¡¯, implies the role of the narrator/artist: and ¡®the content of the expression¡¯, implies the contents, plural - the ¡®characters¡¯ or elements; then ¡®the means of expression¡¯ (that from which something is made and its contribution to its aesthetics and meaning) also belongs to the narrator/artist insofar as it offers the frame or grid, the lines of force or flight, on which the entities (¡®quotations¡¯) rest. Just as the different elements show different textures and often appear as a collage - although in fact, usually, painted¡ a trompe l¡¯oile and indicator of painterly skill (¡®Untitled¡¯, 2014, ¡®Crease¡¯). Paint (especially texture, brushstroke) therefore may also be read as an aspect of the ¡®characters¡¯, or ¡®personages¡¯, the entities, and quotations, that populate the image, as well as the ¡®narrative voice¡¯ of the ¡®implied author¡¯, the artist, in the text. So along with the actual physical frame of the picture (material and shape, which always contributes to the form) the means of expression, the paint and other elements, contribute a unifying factor¡ (even if only, in works of ¡®agon¡¯ of contrast and conflict, a metonymic co-presence that implies a ¡®whole¡¯, so also a trope - a synecdoche). Just as the rest, the other ¡®voices¡¯, the ¡®characters¡¯ both disrupt this unity and are contained, like a field of force with may vortexes, a pattern, by implication, often extending out beyond the frame (so indeed ¡®a line of flight¡¯)¡ This latter aspect offering an allegory of the mind, and an allegory of the world.
(Fruitility, 2015) (Unlitled, 2015)
The parts hover, organized on the grid. Or sometimes explode in a slash and slice intersection; breaking the form of the design (¡®Fruitility¡¯, Sixstencil¡¯, ¡®Okinawa Lions¡¯). Here we see the artist¡¯s history (¡®Surf: String Theory¡¯, ¡®Moon Bean¡¯), the images that impressed and moved, representing, (referring) to vastly different origins of experience (survival, the ¡®gomboc¡¯; Proustian food-memories, the peach), all arranged according to the law of difference, or differentiation; the nearest thing is the opposite thing. So in one artwork (destined to be one of her classics) ¡®Black Marble¡¯ (2017) solid black organic-like tubular lumps of matter hover in replication, mapped out on the grid; and behind, a contrasting background of translucent, immaterial, ¡®almost-forms¡¯, like the writing or sketching of a draft, the water-colour, or ink-wash sketching of Renaissance drawings and plans or a kind of visual ¡®thinking aloud¡¯¡ Other differences, contrasts are then also found, significant differences, all making meaning, all according to the pattern of opposites that organises this, as many of Vivien¡¯s works¡
(Black Marble, 2017)
If the whole, the genre, or art historical tradition most closely identifiable as Vivien Zhang¡¯s, is that of an aesthetic pluralism: irreducible difference as representation, represented and as derived from the gathering of forms and contents, in a unity of presence, but not reductive in meaning (and so distinguishable from an ¡®ideological pluralism¡¯, where the parts only serve to cover a centre or hierarchy): then if we proceed to the role of the parts, a similar interpretation results. If we begin with the role of details, the inner route of analysis, then this path too leads to a pluralism, a balance of parts, in a delicate but robust structure, that allows one (as with Braque and Matisse) to ask: ¡®where are they?¡¯, which is first, what more present, which is prior; what is more past (more distant) or more related to the future, closer (¡®front¡¯) or further away (¡®back¡¯)? We may ask: which plane? Which object? And find the answers often to be indeterminate - open¡ undecidable. So the objects¡¯ relationship to one another, and often to the ¡®background¡¯, as one that works by refusing any easy hierarchy (figure/ground, centre/margin, prior/secondary, meaningful/decorative) and offers instead a network (or maybe a ¡®rhizome¡¯) of connections, which change value as we add them together, ever new, ever exchanging degrees of presence, never quite adding up to a ¡®round number¡¯ ¨C always there is more¡.
Once art (and criticism too), was about ¡®the answer¡¯. One answer. One single (¡®correct¡¯) meaning. Now we can appreciate work that do not resolve into one formula, a single centre, an all determining ¡®deep structure¡¯ of ¡®essential meaning¡¯; these the fantasies suitable to those frightened by difference and endless differentiation, the hybridity and evolution of a post-modern globalised mass culture. Rather we have an art of adults that includes the complexity and irreducible pluralism of the real worlds we move in, a world of agon and contradiction, process and conflict, but one which is best represented by a vision which does not deny these fault-lines and local centres: which will not be reduced to a single neurosis nor an unthinking political reactivity. Understanding, as well as the good life, begins with difference together with its less abstract co-relate, or physical manifestation, pluralism. Plural presences.
Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2018