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Guo-Liang Tan’s Ghost Screens

The following reflection was originally published on the now-defunct

I blink furiously as I step from the sunny outdoors into the gently lit gallery. I smile at the girl at the reception before turning left to peer at the exhibition. A wall slams up in front of me, blocking my line of sight. I walk up to the painting hanging on it, unsure as to which way to go. A small corridor yawns up on the right on my approach and, led by the vision of another of Tan Guo-Liang’s paintings, I move forward but forget it almost immediately as I get distracted by the room that opens up on my left.

No matter how much we like to pretend, the contemporary art exhibition visitor never does ‘see’ the artwork on first look. This is especially true in non-museum spaces, which are often smaller and apprehensible in a single (or double) room. The typical visitor would walk quickly in to the ‘main’ gallery for their first impression, before choosing their favourite direction (researchers would probably tell you that people tend to turn right) and making a slow round of exploration, with the rest of the exhibition held in their mind.

At Ota Fine Arts, the host for Guo-Liang’s second solo exhibition, Ghost Screen, the ‘single space effect’ is enhanced by the open roof design in the main hall. Several floodlights shine up at the ceiling, producing suffused lighting for the entire space and highlighting the beautiful barracks’ roofing that has been conserved with whitewashed wooden panels. The exhibition space on the floor is darker in comparison, more delicately lit by softer spotlights that seem to aim for even illumination.

It is in these spatial conditions that I try to make sense of Guo-Liang’s current series of paintings. This series is not new; Guo-Liang has been working on it for a number of years now. However, this is the first time they have been presented as a group totality, independent of works by other artists or from other series. The works on show are dated from 2015 to 2017 and provide seductive hints on how the series had evolved over the years.

The most recent paintings are lighter in tone, more indiscernible against the wall. It takes a decent amount of effort to really appreciate the subtle gradations across each painting– the initially white fabric is repeatedly treated with a highly diluted solution of acrylic paint, retaining the fabric’s translucency while profoundly transforming its visuality. The uneven distress of paint on the fabric results in naturalistic yet highly controlled gradients of tone and colour across the painting’s surface.

Perhaps one way to look at Guo-Liang’s work is through his technical precision. With Untitled (Cassiopeia) and Violent Faults, he creates visions of layered fabric and the elusive idea that the fabric has been torn. A closer look reveals that the viewer’s eyes have been tricked. While the paintings had initially seemed to be completely made of washes of paint, the small build ups of pigment on the paintings’ edges and surface indicate that things are not that simple. What seems like pure abstract work is being communicated by a figurative vocabulary, especially if you begin to see, as I did, stockings tightly stretched across the wooden stretcher bar.

Her Master’s Voice is pinkish on first look. When I approach, the colour dissolves under my gaze, becoming fleshier and suggesting hints of brown. Some patches of white remain – I think. Since the fabric that Guo-Liang uses is translucent, it actually comes into being as surface when treated with colour. White patches are particularly distressing to a lazy-eyed viewer, since the effect of white patch against a white wall is opacity. At the same time, these patches accentuate what is really evident in the images here, but much less so in person: the visibility of the stretcher bar. The colour swatch of this painting and Guo-Liang’s mastery of paint makes it hard to decide whether the dark lines along the edges and the cross that divides the canvas into four is real or painted. Oscillating between the painted and unpainted elements of this work, deciding what was real and what was not, is particularly intriguing.

After a satisfactory excavation of some of Guo-Liang’s paintings, I take a step back and look again at the room. My eye identifies the elements that I had learnt to look out for: the illusionary stretched cloth, the gradation of colour and the visible stretcher bar. By now, my dazzled eyes have fully adjusted to my indoor situation, and subtle tones of Guo-Liang’s work, and the paintings are coming into sharper focus. They almost shimmer in the calm conditions of the gallery. I decide it is an effect of the fabric itself, but I am not too sure. Could he have done something with the paint? Now that I am so far away, I cannot tell.

Maybe I should take another look.

Guo-Liang Tan: Ghost Screen at Ota Fine Arts
8 September – 21 October 2017