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Pursuing the Ideal

Leigh Li-Yun Wen at Artemisia, through May 31/ Nicolas Africano at Maya Polsky Gallery, through May 31

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Leigh Li-Yun Wen
at Artemisia, through May 31

Nicolas Africano
at Maya Polsky Gallery, through May 31

Artemisia doesn't have a wall large enough to display the four panels that make up Leigh Li-Yun Wen's Ocean, but the three canvases exhibited here are pretty impressive in themselves. Each has a dense network of tiny wavy pink lines against a black background. Wen created them by painting the canvas pink, then black, then scraping away the black coat in thin lines to reveal the pink underpainting. The lines converge in dense waves of pink and thin out in darker areas. The sensuous quality of the lines suggests not only the ocean but also the caresses of a hand. Almost musical in their rhythms, the individual lines cluster together in patterns that reinforce the work's overall melody. The scraping was done while the paint was still wet--each painting took 16 hours of nonstop work--so some lines appear to be in front of others; their tiny black borders look like the sides of a bridge. The lines are incised into a smooth surface, creating subtle and complex depth illusions that change as you move closer; the whole seems unaccountably alive.

None of the canvases can be said to have a composition in the conventional sense, yet the various effects converge to create an impression of unmeasurable vastness. Lines appear to continue beyond the edges, without regard for the borders, which seem like arbitrary limitations on an infinite nature. But these aren't strictly nature works; the color, for example, is an odd off-pink with a touch of gray and brown, unlike the pink of garish pop and almost the opposite of ocean blue on the color wheel. "I wanted to do a mute color," Wen told me. "The work doesn't have to look like water at all; it describes a space inspired by water." It is as much a painting for and of the mind as it is a representation of an ocean. Evoking the ocean's qualities--repeated waves, sensual surface, enormous space--is more important than a photographic depiction.

This work looks unusual even at the very inclusive Artemisia, and the same can be said of the other 20 paintings and etchings in Wen's show. Born in Taiwan in 1959 to a family of modest means--her father was a farmer--Wen studied Chinese art at the National College of Art in Taipei, which also has a Western curriculum. She was a frequent visitor to Taipei's Palace Museum throughout her childhood, and she cites Sung dynasty landscape painting as a primary influence. "They looked for a spiritual atmosphere," she says. But Wen also points out that Sung painting was based on a close, almost scientific, observation of nature: "They did a lot of studies of water; they do water with a particular kind of mark making. To me they are very, very realistic." Wen cites Western influences as well, particularly Brice Marden and Mark Tobey, two painters of abstract lines who were themselves influenced by the East.

Though the history of Chinese art is several millennia longer than that of Western painting, Wen encountered an arrogant bias when she came to the U.S. for graduate study. One professor, "a really proud New Yorker," looked at her slides and told her, "Put those things away. You're insulting me because you know I don't understand it." Wen says she was "totally ignored" in graduate school. "I hid my Chinese brushes so people would have no hint I was a Chinese art major." Eventually she stopped making art for seven years.

Wen resumed working a few years ago; she cites a group of five white-on-black etchings on view here as her "first breakthrough." Each has a musical title, such as Adagio, Presto, or Crescendo. This refers to her other childhood love: "I also wanted to be a musician, but I never had the chance. My family was too poor to send me to music classes; painting classes were cheaper." Like Ocean, each of these prints is an accretion of wavy lines. The gentle curves of Adagio contrast with the extremely dense network in the upper part of Presto, in which the lines cluster to the point of merging into pure white, just as multiple notes blend into texture in very fast music. In Crescendo, scattered lines near the bottom gradually gather together near the top, converging in the suggestion of an emotional quickening.

My favorite piece is a more recent painting, Ocean No. 8. Though smaller than the panels of Ocean, this single 28-by-76-inch canvas seems much vaster. That's partly attributable to the different palette: here Wen incises lines into a dark blue surface to reveal a light blue underneath. Once again the lines converge in clusters of varying density, producing a variety of effects. The light blue lines echo the dark blue background in the way a whitecap can seem to be a brighter version of the water's surface. Rather than a surface broken by lines, the continuum of color reveals different luminosities interrupting and also becoming each other. Variety is the window onto unity.

At first glance, Nicolas Africano's sculpted female figures and related drawings at Maya Polsky seem a world apart from Wen's work. These limpid nude and seminude beauties seem to present the kind of impossible ideal feminists have been justly critiquing for years: perfectly proportioned bodies, smooth skin, depersonalized faces. What's more, they all appear to be the same woman; in fact, Africano has long used his wife and her twin sister as models. The figures exist outside of time as the perfect male fantasy. A visitor might find them so hopelessly retro as not to be worth a second look.

But the key to their power lies in the smallest of details. The figures are of cast glass, and their hand-polished surfaces have an amazing luminosity. The mixture of preternatural smoothness and palpable suppleness gives them life. The figures are at once naturalistic and distanced, remote. This distance is a quality that owes little to our present age, and it prevents them from even remotely resembling kitsch. They are instead advocates for an unfashionable idealism, their opalescent surfaces managing an improbable fusion of opposites: at once human skin and the embodiment of an ideal. The perfection of Africano's surfaces, the ways in which their smoothness gathers and reflects light, gave me an unbalanced, even expansive feeling, as if these works are about something that cannot be shown at all. In this sense, they recall Wen's Ocean.

Born in Kankakee in 1948, Africano has lived most of his adult life in Normal; his isolation from major art centers has perhaps helped him go his own way. First known as a painter, he began making glass sculptures 12 years ago. A member of no movement, Africano says he rarely goes to movies and never reads magazines; he cites Giotto as one key inspiration. This makes perfect sense: poised at the transition between Gothic medievalism and the Renaissance, the figures in Giotto's frescoes display stirrings of individual emotions, but they also appear as idealized rather than individuated humans. Giotto's colors have a stunning and profound kind of transparency: his surfaces recall the medieval identification of stained glass with the purity of Mary. Africano's women are at once sensual and virginal, sexual and immaterial, a voyeur's perfect fantasy and so aloof they exclude the observer.

The first "Grey Flannel Suit" (Africano's dozen untitled figures are grouped in several series) depicts a seated woman bending over, her suit jacket bunched provocatively about her shoulders to reveal bare breasts. Her pose--head down, arms about her waist--creates a partially enclosed space between her face and her knees, sealing it off from the viewer's entry. What is on display are her perfectly rounded shoulders and luminously smooth back. They exclude the pores and blemishes of human skin in favor of an ideal form underlying the figure.

The woman in the fourth "Reveries" stands erect, her head tilted upward. Her open mouth sings a song we can't hear, her almost closed eyes appear directed toward an inner light, and her inscrutable face reveals little affect. Her breasts are bare, yet her arms, gathered around her waist, give her figure a self-contained stance. Her pose doesn't invite us, yet we look anyway and find her in a separate world. While there are aspects of voyeuristic fantasy--the dream of the nude unaware of the voyeur's gaze--the pose, and the figure's perfection, rebuffs real lust. There's an odd quality of displacement here and in all the figures: we are seeing a realistic depiction, an artist's fantasy, and an appeal to the ideal figures of classical art. Africano seems to acknowledge this. When questioned if the artist portrays his model or himself, he suggested that "in order to have true authority over the rendering of the image, the artist must be all of [these] things: I, you, he, she, they--simultaneously." Africano reserves for himself a voice he refers to as the "fourth person."

These many effects all gain meaning from the way they're balanced with their opposites. Yet it's the feeling of transparency I find most moving. Africano paints some surfaces with enamel; in the first "Grey Flannel Suit," for example, the gray of the pants is echoed in a fainter gray on the lips and a hint of gray in the eyes. In the second "Brown Dress," the dark brown of the dress is echoed by lighter brown hair and a still lighter brown on her lips. She stands fully clothed. Her arms pull the front of her dress back; her legs and hips and breasts are outlined beneath the glass fabric. The fact that her face and hair "match" the color of her dress is more significant than it might at first seem: it suggests there is a continuity among all colors, and there might be among all things as well. The surfaces, bodies, and poses suggest an ideal that exists less in the flesh than in the mind--a mind that sees the human as a window on perfection.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo of "Back to the Pacific II" by Leigh Li-Yun Wen, and uncredited photo of "Brown Dress No.2" by Nicolas Africano.

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