This is the last exhibition that anyone would expect to be interesting. Read carefully the title: this is a show of Chinese landscapes painted by Roy Lichtenstein in the 1990s. A preposterous joke, it would seem--and yet it is not. By toying with the conventions of a graphic system with which his familiarity is evidently cursory at best, the pioneer of Pop Art manages to produce images that feel at once both disconcertingly Chinese, in that they could easily represent the output of an icon-focused Chinese contemporary painter in the mid-1990s, and visually progressive in their mechanical approach (“mechanical subtlety,” in the words of the artist himself) that just barely avoids sliding into the digital. Lichtenstein said it best in a quote reproduced in the exhibition materials: “I’m not seriously doing a kind of Zen-like salute to the beauty of nature. It’s really supposed to look like a printed version.” Works like Vista with Bridge (1996) drive this point home, as several mountain ranges piled one on top of the other into the distance are brought forth through evenly spaced points--the painterly work of an overly intelligent dot matrix printer--that sometimes blend into one another in thin swathes of fog. At the bottom, a bridge that may well have been drawn in Microsoft Paint just manages to intrude onto the canvas.
Roy Lichtenstein, Landscapes in the Chinese Style slipcase; Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery and the artist.
Works like this are the norm--a funny riff on the role of distance and scale, clarity and precision, composition and placement, emptiness and structure in Chinese painting--but it is another piece, Landscape in Fog (1996), hung such that it is the last canvas the visitor arrives at on her way out the door, that serves as the engine of the entire project. Here a similar dot matrix architecture gives rise to a mountain range along the top half of the canvas and a reflecting pond or something similar on the bottom half, executed in a minimal white, black, and blue pattern that thins out toward the middle of the composition. There, where the sparse spots should recede to white, the artist has crafted a fog bank out of a thick and brusque application of oil pigment that swirls in white and blue, like a wave crashing through the otherwise well-mannered picture within a thick but measured band that creates its own horizon. Again at the bottom left, a warped tree with just a handful of leaves edges its way into the field of dots.
Roy Lichtenstein, Landscapes in the Chinese Style Catalogue; Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery and the artist.
Cartoon elements like the tree and the bridge described here destabilize the project as a whole, making it less of an experiment in the rigor of either commercial printing or Chinese painting and more of a play on these disparate systems of image-making. This notion is reinforced on the level of the exhibition in general by the presence of the sculpture Scholar’s Rock (1997), an object in cast and painted steel that would rival (and certainly predates) the best of neo-classical Chinese rock scholar as advanced by Zhan Wang, among others. Elsewhere, a crooked cartoon tree in the same materials sits directly across from an almost digital likeness of itself. These interventions assure that the pop legacy of Lichtenstein remains tangible here, despite the fact that the pictures are trying to do something else of their own volition in their gentle attack on Chinese iconography.
~Robin Peckham, a writer living in China.
(Image at top: Roy Lichtenstein, Landscape in Fog, 1996, Oil and Magna on canvas, 71 x 81 3/4 inches (180.3 x 207.6 cm); Courtesy of Estate of Roy Lichtenstein)