It was less than a week after having a 3cm tumor removed from her head that Ava Hsueh (薛保瑕) quit her job as director of Taichung’s National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts to devote her life to her art.
“The wonderful pearl,” as she euphemistically calls the growth that was removed in 2009, was a tangible reminder that “I was working too hard,” she says with a laugh while discussing Reforming Reality (現實革新), the appropriately titled first work she created following the operation.
Furiously applied horizontal and vertical swaths of impasto blood reds, habanero oranges and pyocyanin greens overlap and bleed down the surface of the canvas, the colors and brushstroke arrangement an allusion to the growth and its removal. The Margins of Movement (移動的邊緣), a diptych that faces Reforming Reality trades in the fiery reds for ultramarine, a reference to the “blue, blue light in the elevator” she saw when she was being wheeled to the intensive care unit after the surgery.
“I see the light, and I think to myself the world is here and I’m alive,” she says.
These two formative and highly personal statements are tucked away, somewhat oddly, in the basement space of Tina Keng Gallery (耿畫廊), and serve as an ideal place to begin looking at the 29 mostly monumental paintings on display in Non-Zero Point (非零點). The title, like the later works on display, refers to painting as an infinite collection of points that are bound up in cycles and numbers, color and form, beginnings and endings. Her later work is also an attempt to formulate a new language of abstraction.
Hsueh’s reputation looms fairly large in Taiwan’s small world of abstract artists. Educated at New York’s Pratt Institute and with a PhD in art history from New York University (where she wrote her thesis on post-1980s abstract art), she stands with other foreign-educated abstract artists — Tsong Pu (莊普), who studied in Spain and Chu Teh-i (曲德義), France — who returned to Taiwan in the 1980s.
Hsueh’s ebullient temperament resembles the busyness of her paintings. When demonstrating her working process, she lopes back and forth in front of the canvas, an imaginary paintbrush in hand ejaculating fictitious strands of acrylic on to the picture plane. Discussing the juxtaposition between the background of expressive brushstrokes and the solid points at the foreground (found mainly in her 2013 works displayed on the gallery’s first and second floor), she bounds towards and away from the canvas, now focusing on parts, now focusing on the whole. Like the act of creating these paintings, her gestures make explicit, the viewing experience shouldn’t be static.
The seemingly turbulent arrangement of superimposed layers of color allows for an interesting contrast with the nine dots of solid coloring in the foreground. In the interstices of this built-up impasto coloring, scraped canvas can be discerned underneath, apertures of texture that draw us into the picture’s surface.
One looks at the paintings and thinks action, spontaneity, perhaps even chaos. But for Hsueh, a painting’s narrative logic unfolds slowly, and only after she picks up the brush. No preliminary drawings are fashioned. Earlier brushstrokes dictate the placement of later ones in a series of problems that are resolved by the actions of the painter. For Hsueh, there is inevitability to her work, though it appears spontaneously rendered.