Yan Geng’s MFA thesis looks in many ways like just another exercise in modernist painting. In fact, the exhibition has already been criticized as just. From a distance, as I approach each painting, it is almost all too pretty. But I also have trouble with the assertion that with so much criticism of Edmonton’s modernist history lately, a young artist could seriously practice pure formalism without bringing in some discourse from the past thirty years.
Geng has taken up a keen interest in the sub-conscious and the subsurface by probing deeper into the human psyche. His paintings are figurative, but the faces have been removed because he doesn’t “believe that the face itself really shows us very much truth on the surface.” As a figurative idea, I think this is a dull realisation; the sub-conscious and sub-surface realized though strict modernist painting is cliché – I’m recalling the work of the late Surrealists and the Automatistes here. Artists like Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle uninhibited themselves in some way to unleash their subconscious mind, reflected in abstracted forms with narrative titles. It’s interesting, but without further investigation, this method of art making has run its course.
Image credit: Yan Geng "Perplexed" 2009. Acrylic and Oil on Linen, 57"X39.5"
But, underneath the seemingly pristine surfaces is an undulating, filthy texture, which breaks the surface and hints at something both fascinating and distressing underneath. I’m charmed by Geng’s texture. The pure surface of the paint is tainted by some wretched something trapped under it. If I were neurotic, I’d scratch it out when no one was looking.
The works that drew me from across the room is a series of three paintings, hanging around the corner of the upper gallery. They are three large paintings that look almost like colour-field works, titled "Perplexed", "Exhausted" and "Insidious". Though still vaguely figurative, the shapes have been so abstracted that they have lost meaning. It’s a head, I think. The same shape is repeated across all three canvases, but the colours are pop, almost neon. The emotions used to title the pieces are not symmetrical (I’m thinking, tritely, of symmetry like agony and ecstasy). I’m glad that Geng doesn’t try to bow to our need for balance and meaning and investigates all feelings, as asymmetrical as they exist.
Overall, I think its very odd that a so-called modernist painter would choose a subject matter that rejects the surface as any source of truth, pointing out that in our own realities, the surface is a thin, inexpressive veneer for a complex machine working underneath, which contains content that cannot ever be expressed visually or literally or emotively.
Geng is satirizing painting at the end of painting. That a style meant to effuse all meaning and method in art has become just as emotive and inexpressive and perplexing as its predecessors. And yet, as artists, as a community we’re still obsessing over the surface. It’s humorous, and it’s an interesting direction for an artist to take his formalist training.
- S.H. Edmonton