In a small room on the edge of Bortolami’s substantial Tribeca gallery space hang six works by New York artist Brook Hsu, which form an ecosystem unto themselves. Sophie McKinnon looks into this world.
Bortolami Gallery, New York
11 January – 16 February, 2019
Two large ‘carpet paintings’, grasshopper and pond-love, are central, dominating more through scale than form. In pond-love (2018), an androgynous, slightly alien yellow torso and face cradle the face of another being in a pool whose surface ripples out from the touch of a hand. Thick, black, wriggling lines coil and vibrate at the edges. They could be tide, mud, or an extension of the amorphous shapes in grasshopper (2018). While it is certain that the making of Hsu’s work is a laborious process, viewing them evokes a completely different feeling from a woven carpet or hanging tapestry. Without brush marks the artists’ hand is invisible, and without loops produced on loom, there is no micro network of carefully mapped fibres. Instead, rectangles of off-white, commercial carpet tile procured at Home Depot, the New York equivalent of Bunnings, become monumental canvases. The rug pile is fibrous and dense like an actual blanket of moss, a fertile bed for the ripples of acrylic and dye that have been worked into through it, blending coarse materiality with subtle surface textures. Neither painting, sculpture, nor textile art, pond love and grasshopper exist at the murky intersection of all three. This intersection feels to be important for Hsu.
Facing the two wall hangings are four small oil paintings on wood panel. They appear tiny, intimate, and personal. They are like fragments of a larger image, studies in miniature of a sublime Romantic memory which we don’t fully have access to. Two reedy satyrs play with a dog at the base of a single tree in a green glade, crowded by ominously bending shadows of foliage. In another, a dog bounds out from a halo of thick trees, its fleeting reflection mirrored in the surface of the water below. Hsu considered the 1894 novel Pan, in which the Greek satyr god of the wilds lives alone in the forest with his dog, Aesop. Aesop was also the name of Hsu’s beloved hound, who has passed away, but in spirit inhabits the restful and restless canine forms. There is a degree of unease in these pieces, with their swirling dark green hues and flashes of activity. They bring a fervent woolliness to what might otherwise be serene pastoral.
At the risk of a tired comparison, there is something almost Blakeian (18th century English poet and mystic Sir William Blake) about these pieces. Their careful lingering on certain details, the way they carve out space for another realm, and establish a set of their own spiritual references. Perhaps a more apt comparison is Leonora Carrington, a 19th century English painter and poet who spent much of her life in Mexico City, a proponent of magical realism who stated that she ‘painted only for herself’.
Hsu has published a zine to accompany the exhibition. The pieces could stand independently, but the rich language used in the zine, titled moss garden pt 1: pond love, is highly specific, evoking wells of doubt and fear that illuminate the darker elements of the visual work. One poem, beautifully misspelled, tells of the wonder of rain on barn roofs and leavs rusaling, while another details the gruesome tale of a headless grasshopper found in underpants. Some prose describes the smells and textures of a pond in terms approaching adoration, and its seasonally changing form. She writes of an evolving fascination with ponds, particularly ‘心’ (shin) or ‘heart’ shaped temple ponds in Japan, which offer no angles from which you can observe them completely. Hsu begins each stanza or paragraph in lowercase. This has a strangely urgent effect, as if the words have momentum that leaves the reader behind. Place names and certain objects are given capitalized importance while others float free from formality. The zine with its highly individualized typographic ‘voice’ reads like a vital document, demystifying and humanising what you are looking at.
The inclusion of Pan in Hsu’s work is not all decorative. Her first exhibition at Deli Gallery in New York in 2017 quoted the story of the death of the Greco-Roman god as narrated by classical historian Robert Graves, who used the event to discuss the waning of paganism and rise of Christianity. Hsu, who says she grew up not in a religious household but ‘in a world where Christianity reigned and there was no hiding from it’, has gravitated toward a grey area, at the intersection of two religious world views. She describes a particular kind of isolation that comes from understanding religion as important to many cultures but remaining outside or at least sceptical of them. Instead of this prevailing belief system, she pools together a self-mythologizing sense of space, place, and meaning which is entirely her own. She is possibly moved to mention this lest we project an ulterior motive onto the more fanciful yearnings of her figures. Hsu is no millennial mystic, but rather communicates a practice of healing and processing, with layers of autobiography gradually revealed.
Hsu reminds us that ponds are nothing without soil, water, moss, depths and surfaces. They are grounded in matter that is real, even if they function on a symbolic, abstract plane also. The pond we find in Hsu’s work is not a void but a source, a place to be be close to, to draw from, and if we allow ourselves, to fall into.
First published ArtZone #78