BENEATH THE SMOOTH SURFACE: ON HUANG HUA-CHEN’S LATEST WORK


“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust certain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstance, in circumstance in which you are not yourself to blame. And I think that says something very important about the condition of the ethical life. That it is based on a trust in the uncertain, a willingness to be exposed. It’s based on being more like a plant than a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.” [1] ——Martha C. Nussbaum Emotions and Relationships Since her previous series, Family Album, Huang Hua-Chen’s work has clearly focused on close observations of (interpersonal) relationships. Relationship is an important aspect in Huang’s art. Every image represents the minute details of human relationships, endeavoring to reflect the subtle yet volatile display of emotions. Huang’s solo exhibition, Bright as the Day, builds upon the same theme and showcases some seemingly fragmented images of daily life, which continue to reflect the most indescribable “human” emotions. The paintings appear to have been gently cut out from the artist’s everyday life before being rendered into the following images: 1. Interaction between two mutually attracted individuals that abounds in ambiguity and subtle meanings. 2. A gesture that is frozen in time yet emanates endless waves of vitality. 3. The forlorn sight of the back of a mysterious stranger. 4. A stranger with hollow and deep eyes who seems almost dispirited and pensive. 5. A stare at a random everyday object which appears insignificant at first but is indeed very intense. At first glance, these journal and poem-like images appear fragmented and disconnected. The entire work seems like a bunch of random displays of life at the micro level. However, upon closer look, we notice the artist’s unique touches of the protagonists provide a subtle consistency to the painting. Viewers need to look really hard to grasp the implicit dialogue between individual paintings. Indeed, Huang Hua-Chen’s works carry a tone of intimacy. The warmth and candidness that permeate the paintings trick viewers into believing that the work is a depiction of the artist’s life story, or a collection of random snapshots born out of the artist’s everyday inspiration. Some may also think that the entire work is simply a collection of Huang’s personal memories. Moreover, in the previous Family Album, the missing piece of the “father’s absence” prompts some sensitive viewers to imagine a single “storyline” upon which the paintings are presumably based on. However, all of the details are well-conceived to guide the viewers to appreciate the artist’s unique style. It was never the artist’s intention to encourage viewers to indulge themselves in a cycle of stories or memories of the past. In other words, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to questions like “Whose father is it?” “Whose family is it?” “Whose friend or life is it?” when trying to decipher Huang’s work. Instead, we should pull back a little and ask ourselves: Whose intense glance is it? Who the objects of the gaze calling to? These questions will allow us to better understand why the artist insists on the ambiguity between the painting and the painted. We will also come to understand why the artist “Eliminated the features of the subject matter and smeared away all emotions to process my work from a distance”, so as to render her protagonists in as empty and complex individuals.[2] The Skill of Self-reflection Viewers shouldn’t rush to get the answers immediately and should maybe direct their view towards those pairs of dark and empty eyes instead. Careful viewers will discover that all of the Huang’s protagonists are under a strange state. On the one hand, their expressions and postures seem to be loaded with meanings, yet their brimming emotions are suppressed. On the other hand, they appear dispirited and bland, as if have partially lost their mind. These people (or objects, to be more exact) are like puppets with the appearance of human but remain inanimate, which creates a subtle but intriguing relationship/distance between the objects and their viewers. These human figures are in “between”, that is, they are not sophisticated renderings of actual persons, nor are they symbols with special meanings. These figures represent the masses and not individuals. Their dark and hollow eyes resemble “holes” that suck in viewers’ emotions. The use of random faces can better evoke viewers’ personal life experiences. The artist’ intention is not to depict a single and specific storyline and force it upon the viewers, but rather to create human paintings sharing unspecified memories and stories. The protagonist could be in a state of trance, surprise, confusion or withdrawal. Either way, Huang never limits her paintings to one single interpretation. Instead, she encourages viewers to relate the painting to their personal experiences. Such approach to creativity renders a unique emotional texture. Gradually, feelings of the artist, the protagonist or the viewer become indistinguishable; like entangled threads that resemble an emotional force transcending stories/memories. “No matter the number of individuals or whether the subject under discussion is us or others, I have endeavored to discuss the relationship between people (or our inner selves) to analyze some of the parts of the whole picture. This could be considered a shared emotion that could exist in every kind of relationship. Because of the differences between individuals as well as the fact that we all will die one day, these parts seem especially real and profound to me.”[3] Over the years, Huang’s artwork has continued to explore a tricky theme that borders on cliché. In many previous Taiwan Fine Art Exhibition and non-professional art societies showcasing second-rate artworks, the theme on emotions and relations was often portrayed as tacky, rigid and boring paternalism. Against such a backdrop, Huang’s approach to realign her work with viewers’ emotions with great success becomes even more unique. In the collection, Family Album, instead of the mushy and shallow depictions of intimacy, Huang allegorizes the human desires yet to be fulfilled, so her paintings do not become just another representation of motivational family TV series. In Bright as the Day, Huang seems to depict the all-too-familiar theme of “People” with a greater sense of aloofness and simplicity. Her paintings candidly depict issues such as growth, the path to maturity, and even self-reflection and an exploration of personal talents. (Of course, her artworks have not yet fully matured, but they are worth studying nevertheless to see how young artists such as Huang use paintings as a way of self reflection.) In other words, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to simply evaluate the success of her work, but rather to appreciate the sense of belief expressed therein. Such belief goes beyond the sentiments depicted on the surface level and the true emotions conveyed by the painting. It is the belief that paintings reflect the truth disclosed by someone and realistically illustrate the painter’s life; how she gets along with herself and others. The painting reconnects with the conventional theme of “Self discovery”. Under the surface theme of “Human emotions and relations”, the painting will eventually reveal an inner self that has remained disclosed, until now. The Vulnerability of Paintings Compared to the philosophical contemplation or the moral examination, this path to art is even more complicated. To a relatively inexperienced artist, there is still a long way to go. However, what matters most is not the self-observation which reflects the profoundness of the artist, but the belief and frankness manifested by Huang to shows us that paintings will “mature in this self-observation”. This is also illustrated by a kind of precociousness and sophistication evident in her works.[4] This kind of obsession towards painting can also be extended to a topic about contemporary art, or, the vulnerability of art. In a nutshell, Huang’s works can be viewed in the following context: how can contemporary art avoid the manipulation of pure form of symbols and stay away from being overdramatic or cliché? At the same time, can we avoid the commonplace criticism of social phenomenon often seen in contemporary art and discover a future vision of this old form of art? In the face of a long and complicated history, this pursuit is often subtle and difficult while the philosophy behind it intricate or even dark and hopeless. In other words, the questions contemporary artists ask themselves is not “How is it possible to believe so firmly in art?” but also “How can contemporary art extend its life and find new directions while others are declaring and mourning its death?”. Perhaps in today’s society, the pursuit of excellence in art is like people’s pursuit of excellence. The artist needs to face complicated conditions as well as the greater environment, or even face up to the numerous factors beyond control. This is the reason why contemporary art is so “vulnerable” but also why it is so precious today. American philosopher Martha Nussbaum used Pindar’s grapevine metaphor to discuss the excellence and vulnerability of men. She said that the excellence of humans is like the growth of a grapevine, the result of the rain and water, and among those who are intelligent and just will see clear skies[5]. The poet compares the kindness of men to a plant, which depends on external conditions and the environment to survive. If that is the case, then why judge human nature? Why try to decipher which parts are due to the larger environment and which are what we are both with? Nussbaum feels that the goodness of men relies on the outside world, and that even in Greek poems and songs, the excellence of men is viewed as a need rather than something perfect or impeccable. This is the reason why human nature seems so vulnerable. Yet at the same time, the beauty of human nature also lies in its vulnerability. This beauty is a kind of gentle mildness rather than rock solid and dazzling like jewels[6] The discussion of human nature may also apply to contemporary art: the vulnerability of art lies in the fact that it is susceptible while self-sufficiency is extremely difficult. Especially in today’s world, contemporary art needs to compete with emerging new materials/media as well as other skills of production, deviating from the simple material and one unique focus point. (The Weak Painting exhibition of 2009, which Huang was also a part of, was also based upon the same discourse.) Because painting is a form of art so subtle and sensitive, and also a form which reflects the profoundness of men as well as skills of self-governance or self-reflection, it is also easily manipulated to become a type of fashion or craze, or simply a show of artistic skills which is nothing but shallow and superficial. In other words, the vulnerability of art is that it is easy to make revision and to cover up past traces. Its changeability has made it a second-class tool which is used to pursue the superficial rather than the profound. Originally, the discussion about paintings on “what-it-is-not” is a way to find its dark side, a way to discover the unknown, and a way for paintings to negate itself. In this light, paintings need to constantly face random threats. Paintings can easily become simple illustration, images of certain concepts (philosophical or theological), portrayal of landscapes, narrative of a story, or the reflection of contemporary image or signs/symbols which are in fashion, etc. In short, the essence of paintings can be diluted since paintings can be interwoven with anything else, crossing various boundaries. If this is the case, in today’s world, in which paintings are no longer self-disciplined, why continue to pursue painting and how to transform this skill (both old and new) to exert the identity of the artist? Also, as a tool for taking action, how can paintings help artists voice their inner thoughts and opinions? Conclusion These kinds of questions are hard to answer directly, and there are no definite answers. Contemporary art is like a pendulum, wavering between two ends of a spectrum. At one end is people’s desire for a transcendent state of purity and sufficiency, to reach a state of rational self-sufficiency and to rid oneself from the control of nature or circumstances, just as proposed by Plato. At the other end, art reflects the non-rational part deep within our soul: the pursuit of desire, sensuality, and sex continues to connect us to this irregular, mad world. This is also the case when we look back at Huang’s works. The subtle changes in the relationships between men, the goodness, the friendship, the romantic love, etc., are in between the two extremes of sense and chaos. Furthermore, there are also structural factors or limits which have influenced the young artist. For instance, the implicit pressure from the commercial galleries on the artist’s subject matter and form, the exposure which came with awards and exhibitions, the decision between whether to be conservative or bold, the pressure to generate income and to make a living, or whether to succumb to newer and more popular materials, etc. These uncertainties place the exploration and persistence of contemporary art under an even more vulnerable and unsustainable structure. Therefore, beneath the smooth surface of a glamorous or sentimental painting lies a complicated problem. Underneath the layers, besides the moderate or even indifferent feelings of withdrawal, viewers may ask, is there a calling which has brought paintings through an unknown world filled with different media to our face? If there are too many external factors which have shifted the nature of paintings, diluted it, or even phased it out, what kind of determination has kept it standing, just like the grapevines in old poems. In other words, when we see a young artist still using this old form of art to work, the metaphor of the grapevine once again comes to our mind. We are reminded to look at the precious part of contemporary paintings and also to reexamine them to discover their true essence as well as initial aspirations. More than that, we are prompted to ask why this form of self-reflection also incorporates the necessities interrelated to a modern lifestyle. [1] Taken from an interview with Martha Nussbaum: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/archives/docs/woi_nussbaum.pdf(retrieved on 2011.09.10). For the full interview, see: Bill Moyer, A World of Ideas (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p448 [2] Taken from Huang’s comment on Bright as the Day [3] Taken from Huang’s comment on Bright as the Day [4] From my comments on Huang’s works, Truth from a Confessor: on Huang Hua-Chen’s Family Album, 《藝外Artitude》, volume 18, 2011.03, pp. 71-73 [5] Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University, 1986), p1. [6] Ibid., pp2-3.

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