Unspeakably human or unimaginably bestial? at Anya Tish Gallery. Courtesy of the gallery.
As the summer temperatures really start to rise — and many Houstonians start hiding away in their indoor, air-conditioned summer hermitages — the summer begins its bold and exciting programming with an onslaught of exciting new exhibitions across the city. Local galleries and museums, from small, independent spaces to large institutions, have brought in some quality shows this summer that may be just enticing enough to coax weather-weary locals and visitors out of their climated hovels for some much-needed cultural stimulation. All of the fun was actually kickstarted in June with the unveiling of a series of prolific shows. A number of the featured artists, like Gao Hang and Jonathan Leach, have managed to really pull ahead of the pack. It’s definitely worth putting on an extra layer of deodorant to go out and check out some of these shows.
In the beginning of June, Anya Tish Gallery (4411 Montrose) opened up Unspeakably human or unimaginably bestial?, a three-person exhibition featuring the talents of JooYoung Choi, Gao Hang and Karen Lederer. The exhibition, which draws its name from the poem “What do animals dream?,” features a diversity of works showcasing sculptures, paintings, and monoprints focused on popular culture and the aesthetics of our increasingly digital world. The lighthearted and excitable nature of the exhibition successfully dances around the playful processes each artist uses with their medium and subject. Of the three powerful artists, I was constantly drawn to the work of Gao Hang. Hang’s paintings and drawings, which I have seen at The Second Bedroom’s shows around town, may be executed with a light-handed touch, but they are anything but shallow. And, as with a Milton Avery essence, his pieces are rejuvenating and clean. Much of the works are derived from a narrative formed from his everyday experiences of being a Chinese artist living and working in our strange city of Houston, focusing on subjects like truck culture, guns, sprawling urban landscapes and ROUS’ (Rodents of Unusual Size). His paintings are bright, bold, and appear as drawings or watercolor works at times, only giving the viewer the information they actually need to complete the image. The pieces vary in size and come off as illuminated details or massive windows to some surreal event.
Hang’s work at Anya Tish are in line with the theme of the exhibition, and depict several predatory animals from his own place within. A Wolf, Snake, Bear, and Shark walk into a bar…the wall of his work is at first humorously taken in, and the predatory animals seem almost adorable. The wolf is hunched over as if being reprimanded and presented in a shocking orange. Flanking the small painting of the bear is the shark’s head in a series of cool blues (a partner shark painting was added this past friday). Large and emotionless — just as I would imagine a shark’s face would appear while swimming close to the portal from which you are viewing it — it is here that the elements began to click for me. Although they initially appear to be the key players in a bar joke, the potential of these animals to become murderous beings quickly becomes clear. It goes without saying that there is a lot of deadly shit out there that might seem innocuous at first glance, just like a meme of a cute puppy in a police uniform. The paintings, which with his technique and brush work appear as thinly painted, low-resolution depictions of themselves, almost appear to be the last innocuous thing you see before you are torn to pieces. It’s as if your mind has grown calm and painted this picture of this colorful, peaceful creature the second before your mind goes dark. The slightly tainted and dark nature of Hang’s work is always present and covert. The paintings may be painted light handedly, but the strong and dark moment is dwelling just below the surface of the painting.
Unspeakably human or unimaginably bestial? will be on view at Anya Tish Gallery through July 15, 2023.
Around the corner and down the street at the Sonja Roesch Gallery (2309 Caroline Street) is the new body of work, Planes Drifter, by Jonathan Leach. The exhibition explores the schematic before the build, laid bare after destructive excavation. It is a group of works that explore dissection, history, the brutality of laws and order on invention and progress, as well as the folding and unfurling of patterns and logic to create new maps of perception. “Hard-edged painting techniques attempt to conform and control fluidity into definite delineations,” Leach states. The show, within the clean white box of Sonja Roesch, presents a series of new and old works of the past 10 years in a variety of fresh materials and methods of presentation. As you enter into the gallery, you are faced with one of Leach’s newest pieces, “Daylight.” This massive work plays with the new technology of a light box compiled of a fine LED fiber optic network, which he uses as the structure of this illuminated painting. And while trying to dissect it, it’s difficult at first to understand what is going on within the field of vision. The piece features a similar dialog as seen in many of Leach’s earlier works, but he has now found a way to redefine elements of his practice. The grid of LEDs change and alter the movement of the painting and actually create a pixelated effect of the hard-edge lined painting that proves efficacious. I might normally dismiss the work due to the nontraditional material. I was drawn in, however, as seemed to be the case with many of the other attendees. “Daylight” maintains the traditional roots of painting, which I found to be respectable, and the work uses the painted lines as the primary focus of the piece as opposed to the other way around. It was a bold move for Leach that worked quite well.
The other works within the show all present a well-rounded core sample of his labor over the years. Leach, who is known for his hard line abstract works on canvas, plexiglas and plexi-boxes, is using his past successes and experiences to continue to propel his work forward. Instead of riding that single wave of past success until it crashes against the rocks, he has changed course and continues to work through his ideas. It’s a dynamic which is ever-present in the exhibition. With “Rib 1-5,” Leach works with a variety of plexi pieces cut and reconfigured as they protrude from the wall as fin-like appendages. His play on light and shadow, which has been seen in his older work, is presented here in new form. Depending on the time of day and positioning of the light source, the works change completely, as the shadows cascade down the wall in hard dark lines, intersecting with each other, fading, growing, and reforming. The works are simple in original presentation, but the shadows and reorientation of the installation create a new depth to his plexi works. The pieces fall in place as if odd or foreign nautical flags, drawing the eye of the viewer. And much like his other works, there are many ways to view this body. As you move about them, the pieces morph, change, and move with you.
At the end of the show, I found myself coming back to one particular piece. Having a purist aesthetics at times about painting and technique, I revisited Leach’s large painting “Paved with good intentions.” This painting, from 2023, is one of the oldest in the show. I had never seen it before, but it reads as if it could have been painted this year. It features some of Leach’s previous junctures in painting, but one can still see the foundation he uses today. The bold bright lines and colors are reminiscent of vintage German and French prints and poster works in the geometric and abstract years, and the movements of the painting are rhythmic, showing true direction for the viewer.
Planes Drifter will be on view at Gallery Sonja Roesch through August 15.
Building upon their resources, Leach and Hang have elevated their works in a fashion that is ever so prevalent throughout this round of summer programming. Hang, as a newcomer to the Houston scene, shows no signs of intimidation within his paintings and amongst his peers. His topical application of material and tongue-in-cheek impressions slowly dissolve as the viewer investigates further into the subject, elevating his paintings even more. In a similar fashion, Leach builds upon his long-standing career locally and refuses to rely on a “one-trick pony” state of affairs. He continues to grow, escalate, and much like Gao, his works are far beyond first impressions since they contain such a devoted depth and complexity. There is plenty to explore inside and out with Planes Drifter and Unspeakably human or unimaginably bestial?, so try to catch them before they close.