Sang Huoyao: Boundless
Sang Huoyao’s paintings at first viewing are deceptively simple. Consisting of a limited palette dominated by gradations of grey occasionally interspersed with marks of white, for example, they are complex works of an ostensibly purely abstract nature.
Sang Huoyao’s paintings at first viewing are deceptively simple. Consisting of a limited palette dominated by gradations of grey occasionally interspersed with marks of white, for example, they are complex works of an ostensibly purely abstract nature. But Sang’s pictures are more than aesthetic delectations; for there is a cerebral quality to them via the artist’s conceptual approach to the brush and easel manifesting in dialectic between figure/ground, center/margin, micro/macro, and representation and non-representation. Sang undermines traditional dichotomies of figure and ground by virtue of broad monochromatic passages that are elegantly intervened by sinuous inscriptions that are diminutive; these marks, that are precisely rendered yet concomitantly frenetic, are formally and conceptually sophisticated through their demure and sublime artistic execution. The former is underscored in myriad ways including an aesthetic congealed from variegated modes of painting that evince a broad compositional purview. These, in turn, drive a conceptual undercurrent that first and foremost challenge the viewer’s perception as to whether the works are only purely abstract or are they palimpsests of phantasmagoria; an amalgam of ethereal forms so dense yet paradoxically translucent it is difficult to discern what it is that lies beneath the picture plane.
Sang’s emphasis, for example, on line amidst gray monochrome simultaneously collapses and expands pictorial space. Consequently, it could be said that the artist explores the contours of painting’s ontology to the degree that his art is as much a formal endeavor as it is a philosophical one. On the one hand, the reduction of color and form is a reference to minimalism, albeit with an ideational edge. On the other hand, Sang undermines the tenets of minimalism by embodying his canvases with meaning beyond the aesthetic of the self-referential. In either case, Sang’s pictures palpitate with forceful yet elegant linearity and are articulated by exquisite demarcations of color and line. Crisscrossing his paintings with finesse and aplomb, Sang’s marks are not unlike Brice Marden’s recognizable painterly strokes that meander across his canvases in undulating symmetry creating amorphous forms that appear suspended in space. While Sang occasionally deploys Marden’s aesthetic penchant for line, he nuances this with a particular type of mark-making consisting of larger, predominate planes of color.
These overlapping sheets that are created from a restricted palette are part of an artistic pedigree as they are evidence of highly independent visual style. The artistic language that Sang’s paintings bespeak is both recognizable yet hermetic; its as if they were semiotic machinations of an atomistic visual lexicon. One can, however, detect traces of earlier artistic tropes that Sang has nonetheless completely transformed into a recognizable artistic imprint. Paul Cezanne’s passage, for example, is a technique of interpenetrating geometries of color that fragment representation. This technique, which Picasso synthesized into his Cubist compositions, Sang has utilized but in an unmistakable contemporary fashion. In the same way that Marden’s paintings partially trope Matisse, or Chuck Close’s ciphering of Seurat’s pointillism, or Cecily Brown’s appropriation of Wilhem de Kooning, Sang updates not only Cezanne, but Hans Hoffman’s “push and pull” figure ground dynamics as well. Like other artists who have excavated painting’s history into interesting configurations be they the artists just mentioned or say, for instance, Glenn Brown and his absorption of Frank Auerbach, or Jenny Saville and her reworking of Lucien Freud’s tactile painterly surfaces, Sang’s citations of the past are points of formal and conceptual departure that indubitably materialize into visually poetic works. This is also underscored in his dialectical aesthetic articulated vis-à-vis a complex métier where Sang creates spatial tension between the center and margins of his paintings.
Here, the artist uses the edge as a negative spatial perimeter or as a kind of framing device that allows his painterly flourishes to achieve dynamic stasis. Although these two terms are often antithetical to one another, Sang poetically couples these idiosyncratically by congealing his abstractions into zones of energy that brim with verve. The aqueous nature of his painterly execution is partly contingent for this aesthetic: each section of his dominant grays seems to overlap like monochromatic membrane that sheaths a pulsating color brought from the unconscious to cognizance. Sang explores this point/counterpoint between center and margin in the same way Robert Ryman subsumed the sides of his paintings as intrinsic to the pictorial whole. Or, another example of the extension of painting’s expanded field is the way Howard Hodgkin utilized the frame as formal device as well as delineator between his canvases and the world that the viewer inhabits. Not only does Sang place equal emphasis on the negative space on which his marks are placed, but there is a vexing relationship between the artwork and the viewer oriented around perpendicularity. Yet at the same time, there is a sensation that one is viewing Sang’s paintings as if from above. This visual experience is triggered by the incongruity of a painterly space that is adamantly frontal yet also appears as if from an aerial perspective. Shifting, then, from the eye to the body and back again, viewing Sang’s paintings engenders a kind of phenomenological experience. Phenomenological in that one becomes exceedingly aware of the body in its totality rather than just the eye in the reception of these highly visual works of art. Sang’s abstractions, moreover, are also terse forays between what can be perceived as his painting’s corporeality and something even deeper that can be characterized as molecular.
One work, for example, appears like a washed out night sky where the dynamic line that runs through it is akin to lightening as it violently splits the firmament. In striking polarity, another work utilizes a similar palette of gray and white but the placement of the latter is off to the side rather than in the middle. Here, the work morphs into landscape or possibly the out focus view from a microscope onto a crystalline world. In yet another painting Sang has superimposed his grays to create a more sculptural effect. But the effect is hallucinatory nonetheless: geometric forms are placed on top of each other as they seem to shift upwards before our very eyes. This is created by a seemingly simple process of layering and dilution. As the stacks of rectangles and squares appear to moving upwards, there is interplay not only between the shapes themselves but also in the physicality of applied pigment. In one sense, each mark is essential even when they disappear into the folds of another; sliding in and out monochrome registers, Sang’s patches of color convey both gravity and levity. Such outwardly minor deviations in form and composition, however, produce astonishing results. One can see that these works are precisely composed, though they simultaneously convey a chaotic beauty.
In other words, Sang is masterful in his ability to create paintings that hover between polarities: are they only purely blissful abstractions with attendant aesthetic puzzlement? Or Are Sang’s monochromes an exploration of how to poetically use limitations to convey painting’s limitlessness? He answers these artistic queries with a plethora of disparate sources that are as much the product of locality as they are global. This is underscored in Sang’s allusion, if any, to Chinese art and its variegated artistic history. Chinese contemporary painting has developed into a practice that has finally eschewed overt iconography characterized as a kind of post Pop art. Sophisticated painters such as Sang have now gone beyond the conventions that initially brought much attention to the West regarding Chinese painting and contemporary art. The first wave of Chinese artists in the West including Cai Guo-Qiang, for example, seemed fresh in their formal explorations with attendant iconography that helped reveal emergent art forms that seemed to conflate aesthetic tendencies from within China with those from abroad. Yet today, one can raise the possibility that this art was entrenched in the expectations of foreign collectors, curators, and critics. Sang, however, has sidestepped trends either within China by perpetually extending painting’s possibilities, or by the global nature of his purely abstract work. It may be better to see Sang as analogous to other artists who have cited their conflicted art histories with interesting results.
Two artists that came to mind who share locality are Neo Rauch and Christoph Ruckhäberle. Both painters are associated with the so-called Leipzig school of which the former was the leading proponent of an emergent painting in the wake of Gerhard Richter. Rauch was known for his reworking of East German socialist realism into something fresh and exciting. The same thing could be said of Ruckhäberle who reached much farther into the past as he mined such sources as German Expressionists including Emil Nolde, Max Beckman, and even farther back to Frankish woodcuts. Likewise, Sang also explores aspects of Chinese painting, but he has extended this in ways that often make it difficult to pinpoint him within its past or even present for that matter. Another way to frame Sang’s work within the backdrop of both East and West is through the theoretical underpinnings of his work.
On paradigmatic moment in painting’s development, of which can be detected in Sang’s complex work, resides the artistic criteria articulated by various theoreticians including the seventeenth-century Chinese painter Shi Tao: “In a flat painting look for space." The space that Shi Tao searched for is, however, antithetical to a correspondence theory of art. Shi Tao was a first a Buddhist and then a Taoist follower of the philosopher Lao-tzu, consequently space within Taoist cosmology is not, in contrast to the West, the absence of something or a void, but an invisible presence that is tangible as matter and an ontologically necessity in the formation of any epistemology. Sang deploys space across his paintings as negative backdrop on which he then marks his gestured and lyrical abstractions. For Sang, areas that are left unmarked are crucial to his aesthetic as his gray is to non-colored areas. This notion of being/nonbeing as indivisible couplet, is curiously akin to the German philosopher Martin Heiddegger as his “hermeneutic circle” is to his ideas expounded in his Origin of the Work of Art(1950). What Sang reveals to us the potentiality of what lay beyond a painting’s surface; an amorphous, transcendent register that negates the either/or ontological conundrum of figure/ground, planarity/depth, within/without; in short, being and nothingness. It is this precipice where the paintings of Sang Huoyao reside. That is to say, there is an interfacing in Sang’s paintings between form/content, figure/ground, and representation and non-representation that cultivate a different lexicon of mark-making. Sang’s modus operandi is tertiary like Tao-Chou En, and he undermines dichotomies that have been endemic to mimesis in the West underscored in Leon Battista Alberti’s On Painting (1434), and culminating with Eduoard Manet’s flattening of pictorial space which, according to the formalist critic Clement Greenberg, signaled the emergence of Modernist painting. As such, Sang deftly explores the medium for its formal advancement and philosophical disquisition as well as way to investigate the self and the world, albeit that he pursues this with a high sense of visual poetics. In other words, Sang’s aesthetic is diverse albeit it that it dovetails on singularity. His use of the monochrome is both contemplative and even meditative, yet it is also a kind of philosophical exegesis.
In this recent corpus of works, Sang has expanded the field of painting in refreshing directions via his abstractions that are mutable in their ontological elasticity: they are metaphors of the terrestrial and the celestial, but they are also atmospheric, aqueous, and even photonic. As such, one could say that Sang’s art is not restricted by his reduction of color and stroke, or by a corralled dialectic of positive and negative space. The adage that less is more is an understatement in the hands of such an artist who embodies well the dictum of a painter’s painter. In work after work, Sang has proven well with a high artistic intelligence that he is a painter who uses perimeters to create a world for us that is protean and expansive; he is an artist whose art and vision is, in short, boundless.