Paul Chan at Night School and The 7 Lights*

by Art Fag City on September 8, 2008 Events + Reviews

Paul Chan, 3rd Light, 2006

In light of Paul Chan’s upcoming talk this Thursday at the New Museum’s Night School lecture series – an event that comes complete with its own a pre-selected elite group of art conversationalists (students) — I’ve decided to post a review I wrote a while ago for the L on Chan’s The 7 Lights. His New Museum show came down at the end of June, and won’t be the topic of conversation — he will be discussing his much lauded staging of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot in New Orleans in collaboration with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and Creative Time — but the given the theatrical and political nature of both pieces the connection seems enough to warrant the post.

My background in web publishing betrays me; I find myself irritated with the title of Paul Chan's exhibition at the New Museum, The 7 Lights because strikethroughs are now completely out of vogue on the Internet. In the artist's defense, he titled the show in 2005 — a veritable hayday for the cross out — though I still wish for a title update, if for no other reason than it would also solve its trite expression of the simultaneous presence and absence of light. Given the name, almost predictably, the exhibition largely takes the form of silhouettes, be it the humbly poetic torn black paper placed on musical scores, the elegant and largely abstract black and white collages on Styrofoam, and a variety of beautiful projections, all but one featuring a building number of slowly falling (or ascending depending on where you stand,) objects, animals and people. Three awkward representational works also grace the show, two Joan of Arc drawings, and a still life projection, Untitled (After St. Caravaggio), in which fruit floats out of its bowl.

It doesn't take too much effort to discern the impending seven day pseudo rapture-narrative within the work, whereby various war atrocities will be relived eternally. It sounds like an easily digestible concept, and it is. That point does not change much either knowing the artist has a reputation for being well read and regularly receives accolades from brainy art-world personalities. ArtForum editor Tim Griffin's 2007 best of list in which he lauds Chan's version of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans comes to mind as an example, as does the scholarly art journal OCTOBER's decision to run a 20 page interview between the artist and the magazine's editor George Baker in which Chan refuses to discuss his work.

And yet, while the simplicity and even didacticism of the exhibition's narrative ultimately takes away from the work, the show at least fails with grace. Admittedly, this judgment stems from my own interest in the work's aesthetic and conceptual connections to Paul Emile Borduas and Les Automatists, an important but relatively obscure art movement outside Canadian art making circles of the 1940's, such that it is unclear if Chan himself had any knowledge of the group. While best known for their investment in the Surrealist practice of spontaneous writing and drawing processes, and Refus Global, a manifesto challenging virtually everything including the Catholic church, the group's preference towards opaque materials, often in the form of torn paper collage and gouaches propose at least a few points of commonality to Chan even if their palette ranges further than black and white. Undoubtedly the strongest connection comes from the often named head of the movement, Paul Emile Borduas, who executed Etoile Noire and similar paintings sometime after it had dispersed in 1957. The black and white abstract series about motion, the simultaneous presence and absence of light, and space couldn't provide a clearer link to the collages, much less Chan's more illustrative video work.

Mind you, the artist doesn’t live up to Borduas, whose great mastery of material allowed him to communicate his own belief and dismay that culture had no ability to grow or change, without having to spell it out with falling bodies, or the crutch of art history to loan meaning to an otherwise inert works. Given the difference of some 50 years between the two works however, such comparisons ultimately have to be made with the understanding that while one approach may have been more effective at a given time, it’s not necessarily the right solution for a contemporary artist. The hope of course, is that we refer to these benchmark works, and build upon them. I wish I were more convinced that Chan’s formal dexterity was enough to counter the clumsy conceptual framework of The 7 Lights.

*Wordpress headers don’t allow strike throughs, so I’m not able to title the exhibition properly

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