Thursday, June 26, 2008
Zhang Huan @ PaceWildenstein
People who know me know that I LOVE woodcuts. Love making them, love looking at them. So, it turns out to be a good thing that this section of the multi-part show encompassing all three of Pace's chelsea galleries was photo-friendly. Their other two spaces featured a strict no-photo policy and the kind of disdainfully weary welcome that could pose a real threat to Gagosian uptown's domination of this particular aspect of gallerism. Actually, it is the other 2 shows, together called "Blessings" that form a single, two-venue show, and this show of large, monotype woodcuts at Pace Prints Gallery on west 26th street is running concurrently to help us grasp how super-duper important their artist is right NOW. On w.25th st. a single, enormous sculpture," Giant No. 3" dominates most of the space, and is said to relate to some of Huan's past performance work. It is a 15' tall cowhide and foam figure which looks like a gauchely taxidermied doll and has another smaller doll-like figure climbing up it ('nuff said). In another part of this gallery are some of his Memory Door pieces that combine photography and wodcarving and are an interesting combination of graphic image and finely worked three-dimensionality, and for my money, these would have made a better focus for the show, might have worked nicely in tandem with the woodcut prints.
At the 22nd street space is" Canal Building" - a huge block of compressed ash (obtained from burned temple incense - a favorite material of the artist) which takes up nearly all of the interior of the gallery and whose upper face can be seen only after climbing the steps of a specially-built viewing platform. It is on this upper edge of the semi-solid ash block that a studio assistant paints, using additional mixed ash, an image culled from a vintage photo of Chinese laborers digging a canal. The ongoing process of creating this image has taken up most of the time during which the show runs, although the assistants are not working constantly, and I don't know if there are several of them involved here, or just one. I have to say that, for me, this reworking of historical imagery into grandiosely complex presentation modes ends up being unavoidably anti-climactic. The press release here reminds us again of the relationship to Huan's past incarnation as a performance artist, and the time-taking unfolding of the work would tend to make folks consider a revisit to chart the progress of the evolving image, as well as to see if the gallery workers have come up with newer, better ways to dis them. One thing I couldn't help noticing while up on the viewing platform was the layer of fine ash dust sitting on every surface (pottery girl knows a health hazard when she sees one). Do the painters spending their days aloft creating this work wear masks? (no). For me, this was the resonant, unintended parallel between the imagery and its current reworking as cultural artifact for today. No photos, please!
So, in anticipation of further disappointment, I went almost reluctantly to see this show of woodcuts. They are beautiful, and wonderfully printed. Again, I have done my best to get a decent photo, without too much success, and what doesn't come across at all in these pics is the places where uninked areas of wood have embossed their texture. I think one reason (besides my affection for the medium) that these are more fun to look at than the other work is that they seem unpretentious. Yes, we learn that the wood panels used here are castoffs from actual doors, as those he uses in other works. That's fine, but it starts to feel like superfluous information. And the iconograpy looks like it may be combining traditional Chinsese motifs and some personal ones, but the sources are not over-explained.