East and West: The Meeting of the Twain

Cathy Eckdahl, a New York-based artist and Wei-An Huang, born in Taiwan but now living in New York, have in common a deep and longstanding engagement with Chinese art and aesthetics, language and history and with Buddhism. They both have also been trained in Western modernist traditions, in particular Abstract Expressionism and, furthermore, embrace a range of contemporary materials and strategies, demonstrating that in our age of blended heritages, inclusive models, multiple centers and global outreach, East and West not only meet but meet with increasingly rich and provocative results. Presented as two complementary solo exhibitions--Eckdahl’s of sculptures and Huang’s of large-scale, painterly abstractions—the connection between the two artists is further underscored by the inclusion of a pair of paintings (We Will Meet Again in the Mountains, 2011; Untitled Sutra, 2011) from a series they recently made in collaboration. It was a spirited, cross-cultural exchange about Buddhist practice and imagery, text, AbEx and calligraphic brushwork. Eckdahl, for instance, painted on the canvas and Huang responded or Huang initiated the dialogue and Eckdahl responded; additionally, they worked simultaneously, the results a realization of process, spontaneity and interaction. This conversation and collaboration between two artists whose works are quite different, from different cultural backgrounds but with shared interests, creates a kind of post-national colloquy that is becoming commonplace and offers so many possibilities, including a more expansive field for exploration and experimentation.

Cathy Eckdahl’s sculptures--eye-catching, much embellished heads that are often colorful but here restricted to black, white, grey and red—were inspired by Buddhist iconography and an imaginative interpretation of its cast of strange, exotic characters. Some are benevolent, such as a recent work of a “female” Buddha (Female Lotus Buddha with Necklace of Words, 2011), and some are fierce, such as one of a hybrid fox/monkey with deer antlers (Dark Monkey: Guardian in Death, 2011). They also suggest ritual African figures, studded as they are with intricate patterns composed of nail heads and are often guardian figures. The monkey protects the sleeper who journeys into darkness and the unconscious, ensuring a safe return to the external world, the small death of each night followed by a resurrection and transformation. The female Buddha, covered in poems, is a guardian of culture, of teachings, language and literature, symbolized by the bamboo brush that it contains within it, still loaded with ink, the same brush used to write the poetry. As a hallmark practice, Eckdahl’s sculptures are composed of an extensive, innovative selection of mixed media, combining mass-produced industrial objects with the natural: aluminum, wood, nails, pins, wax, silk cords, horse hair, deer antlers, stuffed birds, feathers, dragonflies, among other materials.

Wei-An Huang’s abstractions, on the other hand, are classic abstract paintings, at least at first glance. Around six feet in height, more in width and overall, open-ended in composition to signify that which is measureless and expansive, her subject is based not so much on modernist formality or subjective expressiveness as it is on the Buddhist concept of emptiness or nothingness, paradoxically defined as form. Form, then, is emptiness; emptiness is form and in that void, in detachment, enlightenment takes place. Huang’s paintings in this exhibition with evocative titles such as With No-mind #2, 2011 and This Moment, In Solstice, We Sent Our Prayers, 2011, are tonal, in black, white and shades of grey although color is important to her practice, as it is to Eckdahl. Brushwork, composition, color, space and form are the means by which she conveys the profoundly spiritual nature of her work, reminiscent of many American modernists in the 1950s and beyond, such as John Cage, who were greatly influenced by the writings of D.T. Suzuki in their formative years and aspired to the merging—or dismantling--of cultural polarities and thought of art as a state of mind, a state of being rather than as simply an object. Layered, spatially nuanced, translucent and opaque, light and dark, with glimpses of the geometric and the gestural, both present and on the verge of vanishing, she offers them as meditations on cultural divergences that she seeks to bridge and unify. They are also questions about the nature of existence, as something ephemeral and profound, harmonious and dissonant, simple and complex, in flux and eternal.

Lilly Wei

Lilly Wei is a New York-based independent curator and critic.