Feb. 19 – Mar. 1, 2020
Flushing Town Hall
137-35 Northern Blvd.
Flushing, Queens, NYC
By MARK BLOCH, March, 2020
Nina Kuo has command of her main art form, painting. Her show is called Art Deviation but she herself has never deviated from her path. From her heart, mind and soul, she expertly layers deep meaning, via carefully applied paint onto canvas, bravely plunging into the unknown.
“You make work that has more surprise and mystery, that is more thought provoking, pleasing and enticing so that it's not just technique,” says Nina Kuo. “You are trying to draw them into a conversation, to bring in something unusual, to make the viewer sense there is a tantalizing experience.”
Whether it is pushed around, scrubbed on, carefully stroked, or surgically applied, she is not afraid of coming back without answers from the places of mystery she relentlessly pursues. This inspiring quality was spotted in the early 1980s when important curators noticed not only her fearless voice and actions but also heralded matter-of-fact determination to side with the underdog and stalk causes with uncertain outcomes in all things, not just painting.
Kuo, the daughter of a Chinese-born abstract painter, chased her own sphinxlike vision by superimposing her art training over Chinese Tang Dynasty ideals, Scholar rocks and brushwork that sparkled with the spontaneity of calligraphy but as metaphor only, never autobiographical material. She was not interested in biography or being perceived a “woman artist” or an “Asian artist,” or a “Chinese-American artist” despite sometimes feeling caught between worlds or having studied with Judy Chicago in upstate NY. She was only interested, as she is now, in deviating constantly and defiantly from any overly safe, petty or predictable path to being an artist living in the city. And adjusting to life in the city was what she and her peers were doing. She compared notes with colleagues, she built community and soon Kuo found herself showing with other artists of color, sharing their struggle, fighting racism and forging a collective, alienated and sometimes isolated “outsider” trajectory. She drew strength from the circles she travelled in and contributed her own strong voice to an undefined but incarnate “way forward” that they all sensed was there.
“We never knew how weird it was going to get. How do we prepare ourselves for the future?” Kuo asked. “You have to be a good listener today, not just a good artist because everyone, even the viewer, wants to express themselves now.”
She never strayed from her chosen direction. She became a skilled painter, talented from the start and improving over the years, always adventurous, always sharing her current experiments with one community or another, showing constantly, and eventually collaborating prolifically with her partner, musician and media artist Lorin Roser, on time-based computer graphic animations and other projects. Consistently using her history with photography, another medium she first picked up in Buffalo, she continued her “never deviate” course, daringly using photograms, multiple exposures, developing her own film and employing other dark room techniques to create a complicated chemical equivalent to her layered brushwork and attention to detail that she kept expressing in her distinctive, complex paintings.
When other artists took up Super-realism in the 70s, Kuo seized instead the use of multi-colored dots early in her practice and she does so now, having become a master of their utilization. “I keep coming back to the dots and to Pointilism,” she said. “And how keenly the eye can focus on each dot and clusters of dots to see perspective and movement and interaction.” She remembers Larry Poons and of course Seurat and Signac and Divisionism. She also loved Olitski, Pousette-Dart and Klee. She has returned to dots not as a decorative element but as a way to illustrate her vision of a world constantly in a process of “exploding.”
Another technique she has re-employed in her current show to literally bust out of the picture frame onto the wall. Kuo has always employed dark lines and dark areas very effectively to add depth to the inscrutable forces that move around or through her work, with energy changes in full force as she depicts invisible activity living between the physical world and some other unseen place, unknown forces at work or perhaps at play. Here she does so, playing herself a bit, bridging the gap between canvas and wall.
She courageously experiments with taking the image outside of the four corners of the surfaces that she uses so well and onto the wall of the Flushing Town Hall and into other realms, bringing the viewer with her into new paradigms, beyond the dead ends of tired art perceptions. She calls the show Art Deviation because she wants to use her choices, her dots, her unlikely color combinations, her unexpected brush strokes, and her unorthodox unrecognizable subject matter to jolt and push her audience into going somewhere they did not know they had to go.
In a work called “Spears-Purple,” spears or spikes, like the ones that would hold down a tent, invade a canvas from outside. Stakes that one forcefully drives into the ground, stakes that taper off to go in easier, stakes surrounded by white, isolated in space, are made to penetrate. What do they penetrate? A sea of purple, dark red, dark pink, white and grey, occasionally green. Muted yellows that combine with white and light greys, muted and blurry. Textured. Lumpy. Chunks of paint. Dozens of Gerhardt Richter-like blurs but cobbled together—like when Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was called “an explosion in a shingle factory.” The stakes penetrate. They are raining down from the wall on the upper right, right into the painting, entering the picture plane from outside. Spikes, recalling needles that do harm and deliver medicine, reminiscent of Chinese workers who built American railroads. Spikes bringing things together, driving them apart.
Another device Kuo has always employed to disorient in a familiar way are like floating veils, geometrically-contained but ghostly energy fields that hover in space, sometimes near recognizable subject matter, other times not. Sometimes they are the subject matter. Not quite abstract, not quite representational, in ”Dot Three Mountain Veil,” two tree or shrub forms are made up of elongated arches, giving off an orange appearance constructed out of burnt siennas and burnt umbers and yellow ochres, brown splotches, climbing toward a hovering green veil, a green field of dots in a sheet. Everywhere light earth tones are covered with dots, mostly pinklish beige but also powder blue and occasionally a rose color. Pink dots inhabit a pink background, grey areas of dots cover a grey background. Transparent black dots and minty green dots. Everything is twinkling and alive like the details of a half natural, half extra-terrestrial Van Gogh landscape.
“Dot Rock Wow” infuses inert objects with an other-worldly lifeforce surrounding them that also seems to leak into and out of reality. Kuo often paints organic and inorganic materials that give off energy via a kind of architectural entropy, inspired by buildings and neighborhoods crumbling around her in New York and combined in a dream-like awareness with earthquakes and environmental disasters in news reports. Scholar rocks or “gongshi” in Chinese, is the name given to individual stones that have been appreciated by the educated and artistic in China for centuries, with references in poems dating as far back as the Tang dynasty (618-907), a period of Chinese history that Kuo holds dear. She sees hunks of granite dug up around city buildings as her own kind of urban Scholar rocks which appear in paint as other worldly, atmospheric destructive forces. Earthquakes in Haiti, at Fukushima in 2011 and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China attracted her not quite as beautiful but something futuristic and formidable to be faced directly.
In “Pink Brick Wall” Kuo constructed an amorphous and fictional but very inpenetrable barrier out of Scholar rock forms, painted bricks and other imaginary building blocks weaving her unique textures, layering and brush strokes into unearthly cityscapes that evoke our territorial culture. “Not to mention the shameful Trump border wall,” Kuo adds.
“Tang 3 Ladies Vacuum” is also about architecture falling down but then rebuilding. Ladies with vacuum cleaners are cleaning up a metaphorical city. The ladies are drawn in white. In front of them are structures, cityscapes, piles of debris. They inhabit a space with a dark background, vague reds and yellows. The women seem to be vacuuming up architecture.
Kuo calls these women her “Tang Ladies.” The Tang period was a golden age of Chinese literature and art, a high point of Chinese civilization, a period of cosmopolitan culture, progress and stability. Chinese poetry, literature and art and culture in general flourished and matured during the Tang era. “What is a Tang Lady?” Kuo asks, “The Tang dynasty was renaissance era of enlightenment and refinement. Women invented make up, beautiful hairstyles and robes. To be accepted in the court you had to paint play a stringed instrument. That is what I am emulating: trying to fit in.” Kuo has successfully used this image for decades to make various points. In her work, Tang Ladies connect to each other and to men with their pigtails, Tang Ladies swim or stand beside giant lipsticks or wash ashore in boats. In one video created by manipulating a painted image, Kuo animates swimming Tang Ladies, penetrating abstract space the way the spikes or needles or stakes abstractly penetrate in “Spears-purple.”
Kuo showed several video animation at her opening here. In “Happy Tang,” ladies float, dance and sway over Scholar rocks, rocking to the beat of Lorin Roser’s electronica. "I make a painting and then it becomes an animation,” she says. “Or vice versa. I move rapidly between paint and animation and back again. Videos add dimension to paintings. Images from a painting can turn into dots and then mold themselves into another shape.”
Other videos show Tang Ladies swimming through abstract colors as in her paintings, but more 3-D, or multi-layered images of stores in Flushing—in danger of going out of business due to real estate speculation—reminiscent of Kuo's early photographs that were featured in two books by Lucy Lippard. “Rich people have no ethnicity,” Kuo tells me, referring to local gentrification.
During a recent studio visit, I see Kuo's earliest work and see she has always used dots. Black dots, gold/orange dots, dark red, baby blue, muted blue dots. Fields of dots. A consistent field then elsewhere waves of dots. Bands. Strata. Waves forming out of a field. Dark bands of dots, stripes being created. “Landing strips for dust” is what John Cage called Rauschenberg’s white paintings. The dots in Nina Kuo’s dot paintings are like freeze frames of dots ready to take off, in swarms. Her imagery lends itself to animation.
Kuo's work with art collectives also solidified feminist attitudes and Asian American sensibilities that still creep into her themes. Despite her abstracted subjects, she feels a commonality with present day artists.“Not just people of color. Younger people are having a kind of struggle now. Younger people trying to make it in the art world… they see you as an Asian American mentor, as a teacher. It’s different from being a career artist. There are so many private expressions that people are trying to unfold.”
Kuo was curated early on by Fred Wilson, Thelma Golden and Dawoud Bey when they were coming to terms with art world “equality fairness” in gallery representation. After Kuo's work in Asia, Kellie Jones, Lucy Lippard, and Marcia Tucker also featured her work in Feminist shows that provided her with new alliances to explore.
Finally, in “Dot Microphone” Kuo uses the metaphor of a microphone as a symbol of our attempt to reach out, while at the same time remaining isolated and trapped. “We are trying to be a self-made person,” she told me. ”But we encounter difficulty finding who we are. The cellphone, the computer own who we are. The microphone is a symbol of our self-absorption. The Internet and the overloading of information distracts us.” She began to see the microphone as a powerful symbol, not of broadcasting, but of the solitary. That’s why this exhibition is called Art Deviation. Kuo wants to jar and jostle the viewer into breaking out of a humanity in isolation that she sees as individuals speaking only to themselves. Nina Kuo seeks to deviate from that norm. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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