by David M. Roth
What is the color of memory? If you ask Stella Zhang, it’s ash-gray or off-white. They dominate a series of 12 paintings that resemble what I imagine Pompeii looked like after Mount Vesuvius buried the city in volcanic rubble. In a video accompanying the show, Zhang, a native of Beijing, explains that the works arose from conversations with her mother over tea, during which they traded memories of their former lives.
If remnants exist in these paintings, they’re visible only to the artist. Most of what we see in them resembles high-altitude views of the earth: cracked mud, shifting sands, dry riverbeds, eroded mountains, and mineral-stained rock deposits laced with lengths of cloth; the latter poke out from under layers of accumulated sediment, traces of lives vanished.
From that description, you might be tempted to see these works as bleak visions, analogous to something out of Cormac McCarthy, but they are not. Zhang wrests considerable beauty from humble materials (paint, rice paper, tea, cloth, ground rock, seed pods), which, when seen close-up, mirror geological
processes and the effort of sifting them to uncover buried memories. What we see, however, are not representations of those memories, but rather, artifacts of the artist’s attempt to recover them.
Reflextion, a large triptych, exhibits many. One is a lovely craquelure that spreads like a rash; others recall fossil-like imprints, possibly of plants, while others resemble porous fissures, like those left from dormant volcanic activity. The long view calls to mind a dry flood plain, darkened at the edges by wisps of fire that turn out to be tea stains. The artist employs these more prominently in another work titled Yellow River, showing a horizontal stream of rust-orange sliced through by ridges of scrunched-up rice paper. The only perceptible conjuration of memory resides with Doors to the Past, a pair of soot-covered window frames propped against a wall: portals through which only dim light can pass.
Zhang, who’s lived in the U.S. for the past 20 years, previously spent 13 years in Japan, where she earned an MFA from Tokyo Art University. Besides studying that country’s traditional painting, she also encountered Gutai, a post-WWII movement whose adherents pushed themselves and their materials to extremes, often in works that evidenced great physical energy. Passage, a scabrous off-white painting, reflects that aesthetic; it shows a pair of buttocks disappearing into a hole at the top of the canvas with similarly shaped lumps in the lower corners – a throwback to earlier fabric-based sculptures the artist made with strong sexual overtones, reminiscent of Yayoi Kusama’s (minus the polka dots.)
Zhang is paired here with electronic media artist and composer Paul DeMarinis. His works also probe memory, and for that reason, the two shows appear side-by-side under the title Wunderblock, a reference to a 1925 text written by Sigmond Freud in which he compared the ephemeral nature of memory to a child’s toy of the same name. It consisted of a wax slab stretched with cellophane, upon which text could be written and just as quickly erased by pulling the cellophane off the slab. Of the four pieces DeMarinis presents, Memories for Japan registers strongest owing to the source material and how DeMarinis uses it to address the exhibition’s theme.
In the early 1950s, his father, an engineer, moved the family to Japan to help the government assess the impact of nuclear radiation. DeMarinis, then a child, was given a 16mm camera which he used to record his father’s interactions with his counterparts; of this, there’s only scant footage: a few minutes of a dinner at which the elder DeMarinis and his hosts seem to be having a swell time. But as this collage of moving and
still images progresses, we see other things: nuclear test explosions, scenes from the family’s excursions around the countryside, and clips from Japanese horror movies – all accompanied by sounds from those films and martial music. What gives the installation bite is the projection of these images onto a bed of phosphorescent sand. It’s raked by a motorized comb that traces a semi-circle, wiping the “memory slate” clean with each rotation: a photo-mechanical answer to Freud’s Wunderblock.
The result, finally, is two divergent views of memory. Zhang gets at it the old-fashioned way, through acts of remembrance memorialized in hand-crafted objects that stand as records of her mental process. DeMarinis emphasizes the degree to which mechanical reproductions – still images, movies, sound recordings and the like — have become our memories. One consigns memory to the human brain; the other relegates it to machines. The differences — and the implications — are profound, each pointing to a different mode of consciousness.
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Stella Zhang and Paul DeMarinis: “Wunderblock” @ Qualia Contemporary Art through March 31. 2023.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.