It was the day after the opening when I visited CHANG Yuchen’s solo exhibition at Fou Gallery, a little gem of a gallery under the disguise of an apartment in residential Prospect Heights. It was much quieter than the well-attended opening night, I was told. I consider myself fortunate because Ms. Chang’s works are in fact better enjoyed alone, in silence.
The centerpiece is a large accordion-bound etching album of a snake, or rather a serpentine abstraction. Each album leaf works well simply as a detailed study of a tree trunk or a scaly alien landscape, complete with certain chiaroscuro-like effect, signs of vegetation on the surface, and sheer indulgence in lines of all lengths and thicknesses. It would be easy to get lost in the lines if not for the airy composition, on each page and seen together. The entire album, sitting delicately upright on the folds, turns out to be a balancing act: an exercise in abstraction and figuration, in indul- gence and restraint.
The parallel between the artist’s process and the snake motif is revealing. The act of etching entails repeated erosion over a long period of time on the copper plate, while on paper, etching produces a string of intermediate works, constantly renewed, ever approximating the eventual work. Erosion is renewal in this medium; so is it in the skin shedding of a snake. It is nonetheless a melancholic process, with old skins and intermediate works piling up, only to be discarded in the wake of the eventual work. It is through the relentless act of forgetting that the final work manages to remember. The earlier traces are hidden beneath the later ones, only to be detected by the delicate souls, in the faint-hearted vibrations yet epic narratives of those lines. Thus the work is not as quiet as it appears; it whispers to those who are willing to listen. It is therefore not surprising to hear Ms. Chang citing influence from Walter Benjamin, who wrote down the following passage on a Paul Klee work, Angelus Novus:
“This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastro- phe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History)
The snake motif took on the pencil-on-paper form in a body of smaller works. Tucked comfortably in wood boxes, in the shelf space under the window sill, these snake drawings occupy similar metaphorical space as the etching: repeated erasure and layering of pencil lines. Somehow the defined lines, the lower display level – well below waist level, and the small size of it all render the works more silent and cute than anything else; their psychological impact pales in comparison to their monumental counterpart.
At another side of the gallery wall, the Bonsai series and the newly commissioned work, Fingerprint offered much to ponder upon regarding the artist’s versatility and aesthetic tendencies. Each of the five pencil-drawings of bonsai plants is placed in a rather precarious composition: slightly off-center, faintly too low, leaving just a bit too much white on top or at a certain corner, etc. The result is an irresistible allure at the psychological level that pulls us just close enough to the painter’s indulgent world of lines. As she says, “The gesture, contour and presentation of the plant areWhen the artist delves into three dimensional works in Fingerprint– fivefingerprint engravings on glass based on artist’s right hand mounted on small wax bases, one start to discern brand new motifs. The curves on the fingerprints marked the cold hard glass surface, while the soft-contoured wax columns embrace the sharp edges of the glass fragments. The act of mark making – often associated with softerorganic and malleable materials such as wax –is done on a hard surface, yet the very masculine act of erecting monuments – often associated with hard materials such as marble and steel –is done on a soft medium. Hard and soft, masculine and feminine, organic and synthetic… polar opposites neatly approach synthesis in this surprisingly balanced work. Chang’s works on paper delineate certain historicity of lines, and with only one sculptural work on view, one can only guess what her next step is. I’m dying of anticipation already.