by David M. Roth
The dominant feeling one gets from Nathan Randall Green’s canvases is one of concentrated energies — powered by clusters of triangular shapes that meet in sharp vertices atop lumpy, pockmarked surfaces resembling those of lunar samples collected during various Apollo missions. Thus, it comes as no surprise to learn that the Texas-born, Bronx-based artist has long been interested in cosmic phenomena, in particular, the length and scale of the universe following the so-called Big Bang. Though obsessions of this sort have become fashionable in the wake of recent discoveries, with artists professing new-found interests in such esoteric fields as particle physics and concepts like entanglement, what springs more readily to mind when looking at Green’s current show, Three Directions, is the collective output of the New Mexico-based Transcendental Painters Group (1938-1941), a group of mystics who drew from the writings of Wassily Kandinsky and the ideas found in Constructivism, Buddhism, Orphism, Precisionism and Futurism. While Green appears to share their faith in the power of geometric forms to evoke transcendent feelings, his paintings, on close inspection, differ in virtually every important aspect: composition, surface treatment, paint handling, color and support structures. These, however, are not things you can grasp from reproductions as they flatten too many of the telling details.
Where the TPG painters sought harmony, Green aims for disequilibrium. He achieves it by superimposing forms atop each other in different alignments, which produce, in any given canvas, a geometry text’s worth of irregular shapes. Some are demarcated with “pinstripes” embedded in layers of paint, others with lengths of painted canvas laid on or slightly below the surface. Frames – subtly carved or deeply gouged at the edges — tug at peripheral vision in ways that leave you feeling inexplicably off-kilter. Wavy surface textures, created with paper pulp embedded beneath layers of pigment, amplify the impact, as do closely modulated gradients bounded by tracts of clashing colors cordoned off in volumes set at odd angles, like tilted horizon lines. The combined effect is of energies being simultaneously corralled and dispersed. As such, the work feels like a new chapter added to an otherwise well-thumbed “book,” one that for far too long has been required reading for those seeking wall space in corporate environments. Green’s bold, messy, roughed-up canvases upend all that; they turn geometric abstraction into a force to be reckoned with, a role it’s not played in nearly a century.
Of equal, if not greater interest, are the prints and paintings of Wen Zhongyan, a Beijing artist, here as part of the gallery’s program of bringing such artists to these shores. I say greater interest because the issues Wen addresses – historic preservation, development, displacement, alienation and electronic spy-craft – are universal and urgent. Like a lot of Chinese artists these days who operate under the glare of government scrutiny, Wen appears to be walking a narrow line between provocation and appeasement; his prints and paintings can be read, alternately, as paeans to the glory days of China’s ancient past and as critiques of its present status as the world’s most efficient, most technologically advanced surveillance state. Oscillating between those two poles, Wen’s works effectively split the difference.
The main thing to know is that they were prompted by the rampant destruction of historic hutong structures near Beijing’s Forbidden City and the demolition of the city wall in 1950. Wen began by photographing the remaining landmarks as an exercise in remembrance, doing so at dusk and then using the prints as the basis for paintings over which he screen printed images of a circuit board from a vintage TV set along with images of a Beijing city map, circa 1950. Since the arrayed components resemble city maps, his placement of them onto actual city scenes lends the finished works the look of archeological excavations viewed through a scrim of an undecipherable text. But more than anything, the circuit boards point to the Orwellian nightmare playing out in China and everyplace else, enabled by unseen electronic networks that both connect and alienate us.
Yet even with those contradictions in mind, the results are at once beautiful and slightly ominous, more so in the paintings than in the prints, because their colors are deeper, more luminous, more tactile. They are also, at turns, thrillingly painterly, evidenced by the squiggly paint blobs Wen uses to depict lanterns that illuminate Shichahai 2009 10.5 and Jingshan Back Street T-junction 2009 1.16. They cast an aura across the two canvases, delineating with greater clarity than in the prints the hieroglyphic character of the circuitry overlaying the scenes, one cast in blood-orange red, the other in a luxuriant floral green. As a group, these works stand as unique palimpsests. They conjure relics of the past as they appear in the present while implicating forces that may someday overtake them.
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Nathan Randall Green: “Three Directions” and Wen Zhongyan: “Wandering in the City, Waking from a Dream” @ Qualia Gallery through October 20, 2023.
Cover image: Wen Zhongyan: Corner Tower of the Forbidden City (Dusk), 07272011, screen print on paper, 37 x 60 1/4 inches.
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.