Dolby Chadwick Gallery is pleased to announce Spool, an exhibition of recent work by Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann, on view from November 7 to 30. Mann’s paintings sit at the nexus of multiple worlds, occupying that in-between space where landscape drifts toward abstraction and back again. Layers of stylized foliage, traces of the geologic, and suggestions of rain and water-logged terrain coalesce as dazzling, feverish energy. Other visual references, many of them decorative in nature, also enter Mann’s mise-en-scenes to shift their tone and confer new meaning. The paintings are fragmented and full—maximal in a way that conjures unfettered abundance rather than congestion.
Mann uses color, texture, and a mixture of techniques to achieve the work’s lush, emphatically immersive effect. She almost always begins a piece by pouring ink and diluted paints onto a sheet of paper laid out on her studio floor. The media is allowed to evaporate over a period of several days, with the resultant alluvial marks and dried pools forming the skeleton around which the painting builds up. Trained in traditional sumi ink painting, Mann introduces further layers of ink as well as paint, collage, and printed elements to produce a sense of “simultaneity and incongruity.” “A print and pour are such different languages—even the speed of making each is opposite,” the artist observes. “I like the tension of bringing the languages of different techniques together, which dovetails with the different visual vocabularies.... The work is about creating an image or object that is full of contradictions and yet that somehow holds together.”
While each work uniquely engages Mann’s personal vocabulary, they all deal with the larger tradition of landscape painting and with her relationship to landscape in the Western and Chinese traditions. As a biracial Asian American and the daughter of an immigrant, she feels partially disconnected from both canons: the Western because of its frequent colonial and violent subtexts, and the Chinese because of a certain degree of personal cultural distance. As a result, she makes art that sits between these two worlds and references both, but that ultimately emerges from her own experience.
The paintings’ enveloping, mesmerizing qualities—parallels to which can be found in the art of Julie Mehretu, Judy Pfaff, and Sarah Sze—are amplified by their large scale and seemingly limitless recession into space, which she renders without using three-point perspective. Their impact can also be traced to a site that has recently played a significant role in her work: the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, China. Representing many dynasties’ worth of Chinese art history, the caves are covered in Buddhist murals and sculptures. She notes that painting—specifically the painting of repeated forms—here takes on the status of a magical act. “Just like you would repeat the Buddha’s name in a mantra as part of a magical ritual, painting his image over and over again is itself a magical thing to do.” In Mann’s work, as at Mogao, the immersive is the locus of the magical.
Magic is also apparent in Mann’s reworking of a set of motifs that carry very distinct art historical and socio-cultural associations: bows, baubles, ribbons, and pearls. She uses repetition to assign these traditional signs of femininity new meaning, turning them into patterns or metastasizing masses that she transforms yet again. In Small Planet (2019), for example, fluttering orange and red ribbon weaves and loops through the composition. The shapes that adorn it are reminiscent of ovoid leaves, echoing the painting’s foliage elements and assimilating the ribbon into the larger landscape. The shapes are also suggestive of eyes, which is further reinforced by their sclera-like centers. Such interventions help overcome tired tropes; in this instance, ribbon is able to deepen the work’s connection to nature and, perhaps more strikingly, is imbued with a curious omniscience.
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann was born in 1983, in Madison, Wisconsin. She earned a BA from Brown University in 2005 and an MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2009. She is the receipient of numerous grants and awards, including a Fulbright to Taiwan and a recent residency at Mass MOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. Her work has been exhibited across North America, Europe, and Asia. This will be her first solo exhibition at the Dolby Chadwick Gallery.