May 14, 2023

Let Legibility in Art Be Damned

The second time I saw the exhibition Leah Ke Yi Zheng at David Lewis gallery, I brought the poet Laura Mullen, who was visiting briefly from out of town. I was sure she would be intrigued by the paintings, and I was not wrong, as we talked about the relationship between legibility and illegibility — something that is central to the artist's work. Zheng works in acrylic, ink, and pigments (mixed in one case with ox-bone glue) on silk, which she wraps around deep stretchers made of mahogany, cherry wood, purpleheart wood, and blackwood. The 12 paintings range in size from seven by eight to 108 by 85 inches (one of two large-scale works). One painting displayed in the window, with silk stretched on both sides, became a shallow box you could both see and not see into, making the interior a kind of safe space.

I first became aware of Zheng's decisions about the wood when I considered the attention she pays to the depth of the stretcher. In many cases, the silk functions like a semi-transparent veil over a deep box. By varying the viscosity of the paint, which ranges from thin washes to dense layers, she is able to articulate a surface we both see and see into. A number of the stretchers are oblique rectangles, which makes them into planes that seem to shift or twist in space. That perception is complicated by the semi-transparent silk support and the ghostly images, as the painting's physical form does not completely align with the paint's spectral forms. It was as if they could not sit still on the wall.

The slippage between legibility and illegibility in Zheng's work pushes back against the long-held assumption that a painting must acknowledge its two-dimensional surface. That slippage enables the artist to raise questions about the relationship between legibility and illegibility, while pursuing a trajectory that is all her own. Each of the exhibition's paintings presents a different level of legibility, from graphically immediate to impossible to decipher. Seeing this spectrum reminded me of how much the art world is invested in legibility, which is one of the unfortunate legacies of Pop Art. Zheng's resistance to it is admirable because, as she said in an interview with Nicky Ni (Sixty Inches from Center, March 26, 2021):

[…] the silk paintings are slightly oblique; they exemplify my attempt to destabilize the infrastructure of a painting, deviating just enough from the norm, but not enough to break the balance. And this balance is an uncanny one; it's based on irregularities and aporia.

I also learned from this interview that Zheng's knowledge of painting on silk started when she was a child growing up in China:

My childhood art teacher trained me in painting techniques and how to study ancient Chinese paintings. Our relationship was like an apprenticeship that lasted a long time — I studied with her from when I was four and a half years old until I left my hometown, Wuyishan, for college. […] it was a continuous thirteen years of dissecting images and building my own aesthetics. My paintings branch off from the lineage of Chinese traditional paintings — it's important for me to receive but also move beyond the influence of history. I use the same materials and techniques that a Chinese painter from the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907 AD–960 AD) would use, but I turn the scroll painting and its flatness into an object. I have inherited a precision in hand movement from my childhood practices. And silk is a seemingly delicate but strong and finicky material; it feels like skin.

The conundrum of simultaneously receiving and moving on is one of Zheng's preoccupations. Is it possible to make work in this medium without being nostalgic? Is her desire to "destabilize the infrastructure of a painting" related to the history of Chinese silk painting, Western oil painting, living in the diaspora, or all three? By painting on silk, which absorbs the medium and cannot be modified or scraped, Zheng reminds us that this method of working preceded Helen Frankenthaler, who purportedly invented the technique known as "soak-stain" in the 1950s. Is it possible to make yourself visible without being nostalgic for what you have left behind, while resisting assimilation into a society that will always see you as "other"? Do the subjects of Zheng's work cast a light on her predicament?

One of the recurring, legible subjects in her recent painting is a close-up view of toothed gear wheels, which seems like an unlikely subject for someone trained in the practice and history of painting on silk. If we’re looking at the inside of a watch, are we to read it literally, as a painting about time? The scale of the largest one suggests that this is not necessarily the case, as its dimensions roughly align with a human's physical reach, rather than something worn on the wrist. These paintings also evoke Marcel Duchamp's "Chocolate Grinder (No. 1)" (1913) and Francis Picabia's "Voila la Femme" (1915), both of whom used the imagery to explore sexual themes. What does it mean to paint a machine on silk, which is produced by an insect? Silkworms live on mulberry trees, which was also the source of paper used by generations of Asian artists. The deeper you go into Zheng's paintings, the more questions arise.

And yet, as I kept looking at these paintings, and having many questions arise, I began thinking about the less legible works in the show, and how they elude definition and language. If Zheng does not name them, does it mean she feels that she cannot be seen? Might this feeling of invisibility also have to do with living in the diaspora?

The man's face in "Untitled (Maradona)" hovers between legibility and illegibility. The photograph Zheng used in her painting, which measures seven by eight inches, pulling the viewer in close, was featured in Argentinian newspapers when Diego Maradona — one of the greatest soccer players in history — died at 60. Reviewing the circumstances of his death, the Argentinian courts ruled that the eight doctors in charge of his health "violated the duties that each one was in charge of," which "led to the fatal outcome of the patient that, otherwise, could have been avoided." Musing about his proud, defiant face, which is difficult to discern, I thought about how the emphasis on legibility that pervades most art forms, with its calls to be accessible and transparent, is essentially a racialized construct that denies difference by asserting clarity.

Comparing the silk she paints on to "skin," Zheng works in a territory in which the Asian female body is one of the subjects. Her treatment of this subject is complex and challenging and does not easily fit into the popular narratives in which this issue is discussed. I find that desire for independence, and the way it is presented, admirable.

Leah Ke Yi Zheng continues at David Lewis (57 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through June 3. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,... More by John Yau