Let Legibility in Art Be Damned

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Leah Ke Yi Zheng, “Untitled” (2023), acrylic and pigments connected silk implicit mahogany stretcher, 108 x 85 inches (all images courtesy the creator and David Lewis)

The 2nd clip I saw the accumulation Leah Ke Yi Zheng astatine David Lewis gallery, I brought the writer Laura Mullen, who was visiting concisely from retired of town. I was definite she would beryllium intrigued by the paintings, and I was not wrong, arsenic we talked astir the narration betwixt legibility and illegibility — thing that is cardinal to the artist’s work. Zheng works successful acrylic, ink, and pigments (mixed successful 1 lawsuit with ox-bone glue) connected silk, which she wraps astir heavy stretchers made of mahogany, cherry wood, purpleheart wood, and blackwood. The 12 paintings scope successful size from 7 by 8 to 108 by 85 inches (one of 2 large-scale works). One coating displayed successful the window, with silk stretched connected some sides, became a shallow container you could some spot and not spot into, making the interior a benignant of harmless space. 

I archetypal became alert of Zheng’s decisions astir the wood erstwhile I considered the attraction she pays to the extent of the stretcher. In galore cases, the silk functions similar a semi-transparent veil implicit a heavy box. By varying the viscosity of the paint, which ranges from bladed washes to dense layers, she is capable to articulate a aboveground we some spot and spot into. A fig of the stretchers are oblique rectangles, which makes them into planes that look to displacement oregon twist successful space. That cognition is analyzable by the semi-transparent silk enactment and the ghostly images, arsenic the painting’s carnal signifier does not wholly align with the paint’s spectral forms. It was arsenic if they could not beryllium inactive connected the wall. 

The slippage betwixt legibility and illegibility successful Zheng’s enactment pushes backmost against the long-held presumption that a coating indispensable admit its two-dimensional surface. That slippage enables the creator to rise questions astir the narration betwixt legibility and illegibility, portion pursuing a trajectory that is each her own. Each of the exhibition’s paintings presents a antithetic level of legibility, from graphically contiguous to intolerable to decipher. Seeing this spectrum reminded maine of however overmuch the creation satellite is invested successful legibility, which is 1 of the unfortunate legacies of Pop Art. Zheng’s absorption to it is admirable because, arsenic she said successful an interrogation with Nicky Ni (Sixty Inches from Center, March 26, 2021): 

[…] the silk paintings are somewhat oblique; they exemplify my effort to destabilize the infrastructure of a painting, deviating conscionable capable from the norm, but not capable to interruption the balance. And this equilibrium is an uncanny one; it’s based connected irregularities and aporia.

Leah Ke Yi Zheng, “Untitled (form moving successful between)” (2023), acrylic, pigments, and ink connected silk implicit mahogany creator stretcher, 107 x 97 inches

I besides learned from this interrogation that Zheng’s cognition of coating connected silk started erstwhile she was a kid increasing up successful China: 

My puerility creation teacher trained maine successful coating techniques and however to survey past Chinese paintings. Our narration was similar an apprenticeship that lasted a agelong clip — I studied with her from erstwhile I was 4 and a fractional years aged until I near my hometown, Wuyishan, for college. […] it was a continuous thirteen years of dissecting images and gathering my ain aesthetics. My paintings subdivision disconnected from the lineage of Chinese accepted paintings — it’s important for maine to person but besides determination beyond the power of history. I usage the aforesaid materials and techniques that a Chinese creator from the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms play (907 AD–960 AD) would use, but I crook the scroll coating and its flatness into an object. I person inherited a precision successful manus question from my puerility practices. And silk is simply a seemingly delicate but beardown and finicky material; it feels similar skin.

The conundrum of simultaneously receiving and moving connected is 1 of Zheng’s preoccupations. Is it imaginable to marque enactment successful this mean without being nostalgic? Is her tendency to “destabilize the infrastructure of a painting” related to the past of Chinese silk painting, Western lipid painting, surviving successful the diaspora, oregon each three? By coating connected silk, which absorbs the mean and cannot beryllium modified oregon scraped, Zheng reminds america that this method of moving preceded Helen Frankenthaler, who purportedly invented the method known arsenic “soak-stain” successful the 1950s. Is it imaginable to marque yourself disposable without being nostalgic for what you person near behind, portion resisting assimilation into a nine that volition ever spot you arsenic “other”? Do the subjects of Zheng’s enactment formed a airy connected her predicament?

Leah Ke Yi Zheng, “Untitled” (2023), ink connected silk implicit conifer wood stretcher, 10 1/2 x 9 inches

One of the recurring, legible subjects successful her caller coating is simply a close-up presumption of toothed cogwheel wheels, which seems similar an improbable taxable for idiosyncratic trained successful the signifier and past of coating connected silk. If we’re looking astatine the wrong of a watch, are we to work it literally, arsenic a coating astir time? The standard of the largest 1 suggests that this is not needfully the case, arsenic its dimensions astir align with a human’s carnal reach, alternatively than thing worn connected the wrist. These paintings besides evoke Marcel Duchamp’s “Chocolate Grinder (No. 1)” (1913) and Francis Picabia’s “Voila la Femme” (1915), some of whom utilized the imagery to research intersexual themes. What does it mean to overgarment a instrumentality connected silk, which is produced by an insect? Silkworms unrecorded connected mulberry trees, which was besides the root of insubstantial utilized by generations of Asian artists. The deeper you spell into Zheng’s paintings, the much questions arise. 

And yet, arsenic I kept looking astatine these paintings, and having galore questions arise, I began reasoning astir the little legible works successful the show, and however they elude explanation and language. If Zheng does not sanction them, does it mean she feels that she cannot beryllium seen? Might this feeling of invisibility besides person to bash with surviving successful the diaspora?  

The man’s look successful “Untitled (Maradona)” hovers betwixt legibility and illegibility. The photograph Zheng utilized successful her painting, which measures 7 by 8 inches, pulling the spectator successful close, was featured successful Argentinian newspapers erstwhile Diego Maradona — 1 of the top shot players successful past — died astatine 60. Reviewing the circumstances of his death, the Argentinian courts ruled that the 8 doctors successful complaint of his wellness “violated the duties that each 1 was successful complaint of,” which “led to the fatal result of the diligent that, otherwise, could person been avoided.” Musing astir his proud, defiant face, which is hard to discern, I thought astir however the accent connected legibility that pervades astir creation forms, with its calls to beryllium accessible and transparent, is fundamentally a racialized conception that denies quality by asserting clarity.

Comparing the silk she paints connected to “skin,” Zheng works successful a territory successful which the Asian pistillate assemblage is 1 of the subjects. Her attraction of this taxable is analyzable and challenging and does not easy acceptable into the fashionable narratives successful which this contented is discussed. I find that tendency for independence, and the mode it is presented, admirable. 

Leah Ke Yi Zheng, “Untitled (Maradona)” (2023), pigments connected silk implicit purpleheart wood stretcher, 7 x 8 inches

Leah Ke Yi Zheng continues astatine David Lewis (57 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) done June 3. The accumulation was organized by the gallery.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poesy publications see a publication of poems, Further Adventures successful Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

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