gallery nine5 by Allan M. Jalon
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann says her real start as an artist came when she got a critical stab from the renowned 1950s painter Grace Hartigan.
Insitu1, Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann
It was, Mann recalls, probably her first formal critique in graduate school, at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where Hartigan was a guiding figure as administrator and artist. A tenacious woman of the Abstract Expressionist era, Hartigan had personal magnetism and an acid tongue. The late artist entered Mann’s studio one day in 2008 and pronounced: “You’re not a painter, you’re a draftsman.”
Many student painters would have wilted in the heat of that diva blast. Mann told me, in a recent phone interview, that it hurt. But she reached beyond the “highly controlled” work that reflected time she’d spent in Taiwan, where her mother is from, and began exploring the expressive freedom that drove Hartigan’s generation. She let stains of paint drain onto paper, “bringing in some of that spontaneity that meant so much to her. I think she saw it was always in me, that I was interested in the idea of the volcanic or the explosive, but I wasn’t living it out.”
The encounter has both affirmed and haunted the path that he 30-year-old, Washington DC-based artist has taken since. That’s the impression from her second solo show in New York, at the gallery nine5 on Spring Street in October. The 12 abstract or semi-abstract pieces—including two installations that spread to the floor of the gallery and a wall sculpture—were virtuistic. They churned with a struggle between counter-pulling urges in Mann: The precisionist devotion of the illustrator vs. painterly freedom.
The boldness with which her large pieces wear that conflict on their sleeve gives them their strength, though with a hyperactive density that can disconnect viewers.
Insitu2, Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann
In works that feel more like collages than paintings, the artist pulls imagery from Chinese landscape, Chinese opera costumes, Buddhist ritual, natural foliage, flowers and references to 1950s collage and painting, using the drag of brush strokes as a pattern-making element. Blunt areas of stained paint press against illustration-exact patterns. Mechanistic geometries filter looser rhythms of mountains or clouds.
Mann doesn’t so much dance with space as fill it, or attack it—as Don Quixote does windmills. Repetition feels like an insistent form of play. Relaxing with open space—any relaxation— feels hard for this artist who has openly described her process as “additive.”
Mann, whose family followed her American diplomat father to Asia and elsewhere, has studied Chinese art techniques. She calls the fiercely layered-and-jammed-together patterns in which she combines them with other influences, “baroque abstract.” Rococo is more like it, especially when she cinches the excess with more excess, using ribbon-like strands that drip and bunch in careful profusion. They’re like draw-strings that can’t close overflowing sacks of imagery.
The work is colorful, sometimes assertively so, suggesting the intricacy mixed with color of the peacock spreading its tail or an obsessively meticulous graffiti colorist or the bright but flat glow of animation. Elsewhere, she drops to more basic hues of gray and dark blue, shades of ash and smoke. The work combines painting, collage and drawing, acrylic, oil and ink.
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann
A subject she seems to take on, in Cloud of Oil (60’ by 61’) and Cloud of Oil II (60’ by 63’), is environmental disaster. Here, both graphic and abstract, Mann captures an uncontrollable mess that begs for control— the sort the Koch Brothers and fellow oil kingpins would rather government not regulate. Slick and raw, beautiful and ugly, natural and anti-natural, Mann’s splashes spread to the edges of the paper. Of course, one oil piece could never do for Mann, who an internet search suggests is highly prolific.
Despite her seriousness, key questions remain: Does she resolve the conflict between control and freedom in these relentlessly elaborate forms? Or does she just offer up her immersion in her problem, leaving viewers as captive to it as she is?
I wrestled with these questions, because I felt the work pushed me out more often than it pulled me in. Art should create a role for the viewer. There are different kinds of roles, different viewers. But that place were the artist and viewer can meet halfway matters.
There are compulsions, obsessions, uncontrollable forces inside and outside our skin. They can be monstrous or marvelous, or both at once, and such extremes are embraced in art. They are largely Mann’s subject— the control that is too controlled in a duel with a freedom that is too free. But I suspect she’s fallen prey to knotty problems: How do you make art about excess that isn’t excessive? How do you keep repeating the patterns of a dilemma without building a desensitized machine?
Palimpsest - Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann
I first called Mann to check the details of her sparks with Hartigan and ended up saying what I thought of her work. I told her how, while I found it interesting, I also went numb at the frenzied detail. I told her I’d just seen a show of Robert Motherwell’s early collages, that they had a magnetic quality that made my brain feel it was being tapped by shape and space, a sense the pieces had a secret that was also mine.
I said I missed this dynamic in her work, the feeling it breathed with me, even when it was exciting on the surface. Mann, brave in interviews as when she makes art, answered: “I had a review once in the Washington Post where the reviewer said something very similar. He said he felt that the work was too busy and he wanted more negative space, that there wasn’t a compositional balance that you want to feel in painting. And I’m not that interested in compositional balance…at the same time, I want the pieces to feel seductive, but in another way. I want the viewer to be immersed, to engage with the details, to respond in different ways to different parts of the piece.”
There were pieces at gallery nine5 in which she mastered her chaos with an accessible, lyrical touch. Calcite (66’ by 90’) was an all-over abstraction that filled the frame and satisfied my attention in a deep way. Buffet (105’ by 182’), had areas that reached improvisational freedom, but also clotted densities that felt constrained. Other pieces seemed spun to excess in ways that, again, raised the problem of how much too-muchness is too much and when freedom in art becomes self-defeating. I couldn’t help feeling she’d taken Hartigan’s example in an unusual direction, but too far.
After seeing the show, I was surprised to find evidence on-line that Mann has started making woodcuts from patterns that bubble up in her painting. I felt a charged response to these pieces.
And what is the essence of print-making, really?
Buffet - Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann
With woodcuts, especially, an artist embraces the obstacles of the material, the physical work. Generally, the basic liquidity of paint or ink, even pasting collage pieces in sequences, tilts the process in favor of freedom. But carving wood is laborious, takes muscle, demands much forethought, even danger with sharp edges; then come the skills of inking the surface, pressing the paper, pulling prints. This is the self-limiting, visual arts version of what Robert Frost meant when he talked of playing tennis with a net. It forces a severe degree of selectivity and clarity.
When I called Mann a second time to ask how this was working for her, she announced: “Guess where I am?
She was at a print studio in mid-town Manhattan to which she’s gotten a year-long fellowship. “I am working on a woodcut right now. Woodcuts are going to be happening more in my future,” she said. “It is such a different way of working than painting. It is so slow, carving out a piece of wood. It takes forever. Painting, I can create a very large and intricate piece, but the recipe for the woodcut has to be relatively simple.”
Clearly, Mann is resourceful about making change. I was as encouraged by the latest turn in her work as I felt frustrated, looking at much of her recent show, by my sense of an artist who’d let a genie out of the bottle and couldn’t quite get it back in again.