Leah Ke Yi Zheng
April 28 through June 3, 2023
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, July 2023
Leah Ke Yi Zheng, educated in China at Xiamen University, and then at the Art Institute of Chicago, is offering an unusual series of paintings that span the gap between Chinese materials and cultural history and the conceptual bias found in much recent American work. Her twelve paintings hover between the abstract and the understandably seen. Having studied traditional Chinese painting in China, and now living in Chicago after taking classes at the Institute, Zheng is poised between traditions not known to mesh easily. Her artworks reflect a baroque complexity that does justice to the complexities of folds and forms that take up her work. There are paintings that look like drapery and, strangely, pieces that depict a fusée, a large screw shape, often used in the mechanisms of watches, although the size of Zheng’s images is too large for such a function. Thus, the function of the object, industrial in nature, shift to a nearly abstract object: a contraption with contemporary weight
Part of Zheeng’s obliqueness comes from the infrastructure of her art. Frames are stretched to maintain curving lines as well as straight ones, Mahogany and purple heart wood are used to construct framed supports that range from the conventional to what we might call the misguided, although deliberately so. Zheng’s abstractions and contraptions call the past forward, into the present. This is done by a reading of the past as an archive of shapes capable of contributing to an original point of view.
In an untitled work from 2023, Zheng has painted a deep golden to burnished bronze painting, lighter on the left side and darker on the right. Blue rhythmic lines cover a machine of unknown origin, whose circular pedestal supports a column in two parts - the higher element displays vertical grooves. The pedestal, in its turn, upholds an umbrella–like form with flanges whose ends are rounded. The unknown machine serves a purpose beyond our knowledge. So, the machine’s structure inevitably turns abstract; its visual otherness makes it slightly strange–but also contemporary.
Another fusée, very transparently painted in a tannish brown, rises from a pedestal. The background is white. This painting is also unnamed, obscuring an accurate interpretation (artists need to name their works!). Four circles of increasing diameter rise from a pole set in a pedestal; its exterior is marked with vertical lines. The top of this eccentric device has wave-like forms covering its curved edge. Again, the form escapes recognition regarding its use. So, the shape becomes as important as its unknown use; it’s a mysterious shape, not so very different in obscurity from the grinder in Duchamp’s Large Glass, is a large statement no one can parse.
In another painting from 2023, Zhen has painted a purer abstraction, in which a white, cloud-like form takes up most of the center. Patterned sets of blue lines and a large blue blot occur on the left of the cloud, with two unidentifiable, unstructured forms underneath it, on either end. The background is a deep, dark mauve on the left, while a thinner strip on the right consists of a single color: a–a dark orange. Zheng’s work is an astute study of organic abstract form, in keeping with American 20th-century art. Zheng is Chinese, but she has been here for a while, and studied art in Chicago. Her experience and training in this country have influenced this work more than Chinese painting.
For more than a generation, American art schools have been accepting students from Mainland China. Their painterly hand has often been outstanding. Yet the Western and the Asian traditions are so different as to defy a merger. Zheng wishes to be true to both parts of her experience. So she attempts a union in which nuance, detail, and even themes are conjoined as experiments. But Zheng is not a scholar; she is a contemporary artist. Her eclecticism proves her so. Given that Chinese artists have been traveling to the West to study oil painting for some time in the last few years, and that oil painting is an art genre highly popular in Chinese art schools, exceptional mergers are taking place. It is wrong to say Zheng is a Western artist, even should she handle line, color, shape, and theme in the Western manner. Zheng’s subject matter–folds, drapery, obscure machines, even pure abstraction–reflect influences across geographies, so her hand is mixed. Her many influences are congruent with the spirit of the time. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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