Taiwanese are gloomy. A recent Gallup poll shows that the nation ranks sixth out of 141 countries as the world’s least optimistic — one place behind Haiti. What gives? Is it, as the survey implies, the usual suspects of corruption, government incompetence, natural disasters and a hollowed-out economy? Perhaps. With Intellectual Numbness (智慧失能), Liao Yu-an (廖堉安) offers a different take on the nation’s collective ennui in a new series of large-scale, acrylic-on-canvas paintings.
Liao began his career as a self-portraitist, conceiving a duck-like creature as a kind of doppleganger for his own morose emotional states. His breakout Bird Man: Self Portrait (鳥人自畫像, 2003), set the tone and visual composition for much of his subsequent work, juxtaposing the fowl’s despondent demeanor with a dramatic palette of intense coloring in dot, check and other geometric patterns. The overall effect evokes an ambiguous tension that’s not easily resolved.
His most recent series, Fondle Without Tenderness (不溫柔的愛撫, 2008), depict creatures — one duck-like the other slug-like — in all manner of embrace. As with his other series, at first glance they appear cute and carefree. Closer inspection reveals a neurotic and shifting master-servant relationship. Love, Liao wants us to know, is awkward and controlling, manipulative and hysterical. One walks away from them wondering if they were painted while the artist was going through a nasty breakup.
With Intellectual Numbness, human figures appear consistently for the first time. Ironically, however, these are the most anti-portrait of any series he’s done so far. Faces are obscured in some, while a slop bucket covers the heads of his characters in others. Emoticons replace feelings. Interpersonal relationships are maintained through mobile devices. The paintings also possess a sense of hallucinogenic unreality, heightened by Liao’s dimmed and muted purples, pinks and blues, while the lines have become straighter yet the patterns more varied and chaotic.
Technology isolates the human subject, Liao’s paintings tell us, drawing us further away from our fellow creatures. Not a particularly groundbreaking insight. But the monumentality of the works, and the refined visual language employed packs an aesthetic wallop that perhaps goes a little way to explain why the collective cynicism.
■ Asia Art Center II (亞洲藝術中心二館), 93, Lequn 2nd Road, Taipei City (台北市樂群二路93號), tel: (02) 8502-7939. Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10am to 6:30pm. On the Net (Chinese and English): www.asiaartcenter.org
■ Until Sept. 1