ART JOURNAL: A rose by any other name

Szeto Keung’s recent paintings make use of a timeless symbol to represent his longing for home

By Noah Buchan  /  STAFF REPORTER

Wed, Sep 30, 2009 - Page 15

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Szeto Keung (司徒強) says distance is necessary to create. A wanderer since youth, the China-born, Taiwan-educated, New York-based artist says remaining in his homeland would have stifled the creative impulse. And yet, as with many exiles, the 51-year-old artist constantly dreams of returning home — an idea he examines in his latest series of paintings currently on display at Eslite Gallery.

“I don’t like America, but I’m used to it. I’ve lived there for a long time. And yet I’m lonely. But I think this is a good way to think about the meaning of life ... Loneliness is necessary to create,” said Szeto.

Szeto’s 29 paintings continue with the themes and styles he has been developing and refining over the past three decades. His early canvases were rendered in a realist style with abstract undertones and depicted objects found in his immediate physical environment. In this show, he has branched out to include more timeless symbols that represent his homesickness.

Like a handful of other Chinese painters working in mid-1970s New York, Szeto came under the influence of photorealism. China-born and Taiwan-trained painters such as Han Hsiang-ning (韓湘寧) and Hsia Yan (夏陽) followed this style, portraying New York streets and its people. It’s almost as if by painting New York’s inhabitants and neighborhoods, these artists were attempting to make the city their own.

Szeto’s canvases, however, differed from those of his expat counterparts in two ways. Instead of street scenes, he used trompe l’oeil realism to paint mundane objects in his studio, which he would arrange on the canvas in an abstract manner.

In New York Moma, for example, a matchbox hangs from a piece of string, itself fastened to a corkboard that serves as the painting’s background. A piece of masking tape is painted horizontally across the upper right side of the canvas. Below the tape is a small rectangular zebra-colored bag affixed to the corkboard with a tiny sliver of green tape. Viewed up close, the work is astounding in its realistic and tactile depiction of these objects — it looks as if the viewer could pull a match from the box and light a cigarette.

From a distance, however, the realistic detritus takes on the appearance of an abstract canvas. Objects painted realistically appear on a background of abstract coloring — often shades of gray that reflect Szeto’s feelings of alienation. By playing these visual games, Szeto directs the viewer’s attention to the plasticity of painting: what appears real is in fact illusory.

“I wanted to emphasize broken pieces, because life is full of broken pieces and you try to piece them together,” Szeto said.

In the current series, Szeto replaces man-made objects with a rose. Sacred Relics in Pink (桃紅舍利) shows the flower suspended in front of an abstract background. Like all the phenomenal objects in Szeto’s work, the rose is painted with a clinical eye toward realism and detail. The background, with impasto reds that build up and blend with charcoal black and are dotted with flecks of white, offers an abstract motif of tempestuous space and suggests the monumental struggles Szeto undergoes to create his works.

“Every piece is a kind of failure,” Szeto said. “It’s a kind of a celebration of your failure ...

and because you fail you just want to do it again.”

As with the earlier “broken pieces,” the rose symbolizes an aspect of the artist’s state of mind. It sometimes flowers in creative bursts of energy (Fire (火)) while at other times it wilts on the vine (Sacred Relics 1 (舍利1)). Another painting, (Black Hole (黑洞)), features petals floating across the expanse of abstract space, which symbolizes the artist’s rootlessness.

Eslite Gallery’s exhibition literature interprets the abstract background literally, as if titles such as Black Hole refer to scientific phenomena. I disagree. Szeto’s concerns are purely human-oriented (whether love, religion or art) with center stage given to the limitless expanse of the human imagination and its ability to reinvent itself and overcome the endless cycle of doubt that artists encounter in their professional and personal lives.

Whereas Szeto’s earlier paintings tried to make sense of space and his experience as an expatriate, the rose is a symbol of a homeland with all the security and predictability that Szeto has left behind. Although he may view his paintings as failures, they must be considered beautiful ones for their sublime execution and the tempestuous frustrations that will certainly speak to any person who has lived abroad for an extended period of time.

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