Leah Wong at the Sherrie Gallerie
Art review for January 28, 2010
The Leah Wong paintings currently on display at the Sherrie Gallerie were painted on extended travels in China, her birthplace. When you step into the gallery, though, youll believe that she sojourned on the shores of the Gumdrop Sea in Candyland. Glossy and gleaming with yellows, pinks, oranges and reds; with those hot colors against blues and greens, the canvases will treat you to images of bathers in the ocean, lily pad ponds, girls on swings, fireworks and birthday cakes. Its beautiful.
Wong serves up a lot more than eye candy, but let me pause to observe that she is a master confectioner and to admire her for that. Many of her seductive paintings are based on palettes that require a lot of knowledge and technique. She uses oranges and yellows that are hard to control, the little goes a long way colors that can sink a painters enthusiasm and kill the viewers appetite.
There are two series in this show: one of bathers standing in the shallow surf of the ocean; the others can perhaps be compared to a Chagall floating world, in which space and time shift constantly as the eye moves from image to image. Wong describes this as working not from the basis of foreshortened perspective, but from Chinese mist perspective.
The mist paintings are of several sizes (from wall-sized to move-up-close-to-see-it). They look gay and are very approachable. These are filled with colorful swirls fat and thin: the kinds we associate with snaking Chinese dragons, with crepe paper ribbons, jets from fireworks, smoke from wet fires. The subtle differences in the associations I make with these marks reflect the imagery that is both revealed and hidden among them.
In Things I See, (a beautifully neutral title) a man sits back with knees crossed in an easy chair, reading the newspaper, dog at his side. Chinese schoolgirls in uniforms chat in a group. Theres a group of floating birthday cakes, a boy with a sparkler. Theres also a large collection of skulls with small oil lamps lit before them, and armed American soldiers with German Shepherds. All part of a life, related somehow in time, now part of the viewers experience, no more necessarily pinned down than for the painter.
These paintings feel as wonderfully exploratory as they look. They have a sketchbook quality. The best of these feel like drawings and even have graphite sketches in them. Wong has also painted on papersmall pieces of a few inches square pasted onto the canvasin a few of these. I think the closeness to drawing keeps the works relationship to the subconscious/memory fresh.
The paintings featuring shallow-water bathers with tubes, sunglasses and swimming caps picture scenes both wry and sad. In each of these, the people are clustered in small conversational groups. But close inspection shows that each face is looking past every other: Every person in the populous frame is in his or her own space. These are meditations on privacy in public.
This series of paintings also explores light on the water at times of day when it is most vivid, like sunrise and sunset. In each of these paintings the water is a different deep and rich color with spectacularly vivid highlights. Though they dont hang all together, I found myself wishing they did. Because the subject is essentially the same in several of them, it occurs to me that the group forms a Monet-like series, in which the shifting color and light on a fixed subject is a great part of the interest.