On ViewArsenal Contemporary
Chih-Chien Wang: A Bright Circle
March 10 – April 29, 2023
There’s a quietness to Chih-Chien Wang’s photographs, in aggregate as well as individually. Like Vilhelm Hammershøi and Giorgio Morandi, he’s a stay-at-home artist for the most part. In fact, he stays mostly in the kitchen. His humble poetry of daily life has an opportunistic iconography, pleasant things noticed while going about his day. But the signature subject is groceries. The fruit and leafy things he eats, or their detritus, are shot in morning light against backgrounds tinted pale. The neutral studio lighting promotes the isolated subject, but sometimes a darker setting is used for more insistence. Generally, these portraits of comestibles aren’t tantalising. Cut or otherwise abstracted by meal preparation, they may be partially or even largely consumed, or just shy of expiration.
As I took in the single-gallery show curated By Erika Del Vecchio at Arsenal Contemporary’s bright new space in Tribeca—there are a dozen pictures on view—I wondered why all this food didn’t make me hungry. I concluded that older produce induces poignancy rather than salivation. The puckered flesh of fruit, leaves on the cusp of desiccation, two last shrivelling grapes on the stem of a dwindled bunch… a lifetime of surfeit has made me equate nourishment with freshness, so not this. Nor does Wang trade in the sentimentality of rot. He looks for the sweet spot between desire and repulsion that lets us see his subjects as plants altered by domesticity; maybe not my dinner, but not yet his garbage.
He is subtle, but he isn’t exclusive. There are other subjects besides produce, small exquisite sensations caught on the fly—a frozen puddle scratched into ambiguity by traffic, bolts of searing sunlight snaking up the drapes, a green and clear-winged insect stilled in meditation. There’s a gentle semiotic rhythm to the show. One non-comestible subject in particular caught my attention. The back of a postcard, shown vertically, is covered in Chinese handwriting. I was attracted by the cursive strokes of a ballpoint pen, less familiar to my Western eyes for which ideograms are usually brushed or typeset. Reading the verso sideways, the picture on the unseen recto in Glimpses: – Smoker (2012), is identified in English as another work by the artist: Grape in a Glass (2003). Its imperceptibility rhymes with the subject of the handwritten text that had to be explained to me. One day out on an errand, the artist saw a man in the street on his phone, waving two fingers like a mime holding a cigarette. Amused, Wang reached for his phone to capture the comic gesture, but he hadn’t bought it. Finding a postcard and a pen instead, he wrote up a description of the scene in order to remember it. An invisible cigarette, half a conversation, a hidden reproduction, a script indecipherable to me, the phantoms pile up. I took note that this photographer chose to write, rather than sketch, as an alternative to taking a picture.
Wang doesn’t exaggerate his thematic rigor, but he severely restricts the information in all of his pictures. He wants you to consider one thing, two at most. Sometimes hands hold the subject. The overall tone is of a studied informality in shades of green. Although these are conventional and relatively cold studio shots, the subjects and their treatment manage to be calming. In fact, there are a couple of pictures in this show that it would console me to live with. The first is Rhubarb Leaf Front (2020); imagine a stylized green flame. Dehydrating edges, craggier than a rocky coastline, curl up to a point that bends towards collapse; tiny insect holes concentrate the pale light of the background through a leathery green surface veined in red. Rhubarb leaves are notoriously poisonous; why does this dying one strike me as noble?
The second picture is of a limp shirt that hangs just out from a corner, probably on a nail. Unevenly tinted, the subject of Green Shirt (2007) may have once been white before it was washed with something that ran. Is it the picture that I want, or is it the shirt? Wonderful allusions flooded from memory as I pondered this question. Long ago, I read about a young knight who had donned a white dress and rolled down a grassy hill, again and again, until it was green. Imagine the emotion of the girl to whom it was returned. And then there was the teary coda of Brokeback Mountain, the shirt of the murdered lover that made thousands of us weep. Then an old Naskapi hide coat came to mind. Painted with the staining juices of berries, it was lovingly crafted by a woman over winter to be worn by a man for the hunt in spring. Out of respect for their sacred prey, Indigenous men of old were meant to look resplendent when hunting. Wang’s shirt seems to echo the green plants surrounding it. Could this be an expression of mystical solidarity between a man and his food? Feeling slightly foolish, I turned away.