New Originals at Gallery HO

GALLERY HO | JANUARY 23 - FEBRUARY 22, 2014


Despite their differences in themes and materials, the three female Brooklyn-based artists—Fay Ku, Hiba Schahbaz, and Manju Shandler—in Gallery HO’s New Originals share a common premise: the use of challenging subject matter, public and private, for the creation of contemporary art. Each artist’s vision is, as the exhibition’s title suggests, excitingly original. Ku makes drawings, often of herself, that reflect her identity as a contemporary Taiwanese artist; Schahbaz, rooted in her training in Pakistani miniature painting, creates erotic, dreamlike allegories in which she is the primary protagonist; and Shandler looks to literary and historical precedents (such as Japan’s 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami) for inspiration regarding her thematically complex treatments of myth. The imagery from one artist to the next is not in any way similar, yet the show hangs together well, likely because all three rely upon the weight, and grace, of history to support their inspired pictures.

Ku, a remarkable draftsperson, makes line drawings that relate to the imaginative life of both adults and children—but are in fact troubling allegories that convey a reality far darker, and much more adult, than the sum of her supposedly innocent details. In the drawing “Are We Having Fun Yet” (2011), six identical young women—who considerably resemble Ku herself—sit in rollercoaster cars, posed at the top of the tracks holding their hands high in the air. Although one might think the picture innocently conveys the puerile thrills of theme park rides, the similar faces of the women are grimly impassive. One begins to imagine horrible endings: a deadly crash, impending doom. In Ku’s exquisitely articulated drawings, the gap between what is shown and what’s implied is troubling and affective.

The miniaturist Schahbaz is a highly talented painter who learned her craft at art school in Lahore. Like Ku, she deploys her technical skill toward psychologically disturbing self-portraits, in which she often portrays herself naked. Schahbaz’s female nudes seem to offer themselves in opposition to the codified modesty of contemporary Pakistan. Her paintings have recently become larger in scale, perhaps in response to her move to New York, where big expressive paintings are privileged over the less-understood genre of miniature art. In a large triptych titled “My Selves” (2012), multiple, mostly nude portraits of the artist stand in profile across a fanciful rendition of the New York skyline. Like Ku, Schahbaz weaves allegories of herself in modern life. On the right-hand panel, one of the artist’s naked avatars vainly casts a fishing rod against a backdrop of blue skies and cumulus clouds. Directly beneath her, a mythical yellow and mauve bird of paradise stalks a school of small red fish. A technically brilliant artist, Schahbaz pursues the challenging inheritance of miniature painting by suggesting lost utopias specific to South Asian culture.

In “Tsunami” (2011), Shandler resorts to a personal mythology in her treatment of the Japanese natural disaster. In the lower half of the composition, the sand is littered with white cars, swimming babies, and a small shark. These images are rendered in blacks, grays, and whites, while the top half of the image is in full color: pagan gods of Shandle’s own making play amongst themselves on the edge of the sea. Prominent in their company are a hawk with a trident, an elephant, the same swimming babies, and a naked classical goddess. Pelicans endowed with women’s legs inhabit the skies. This absurd image communicates the terrible dislocations of the event, while suggesting a divine cause for it. Shandler may well be implying that the phenomenon is not purely natural in its occurrence, giving her the chance to mythologize, but also eulogize, what happened.

The three artists in New Originals have produced images that stay with their viewers long after an initial viewing. Each creates an ad hoc narrative that has a legendary aspect, no matter whether the content is personal or political. Gallery HO has been showing some very interesting art recently, including last month’s Clouded Presence, an exhibition of surrealist-inflected contemporary photography. Curator Grace’s vision in New Originals maintains a high level of connectedness, and refuses to turn its back on public or private pathos. The result is an excellent show.





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Contributor

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.

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