Arthur Ou: To Preserve, To Elevate, To Cancel
508 West 26th St. #318
New York City
May 10 – June 16, 2007
Arthur Ou is a Taiwan-born artist whose concerns include the legacy of modernist art and photography’s predominant role in visual culture. Although Mr. Ou earned an MFA in photography at Yale in 2000, he is perhaps best described as a multi-media artist rather than a photographer per se.
The cross-references in Mr. Ou’s current solo exhibition, “To Preserve, To Elevate, To Cancel,” are elusive yet interlocking. The show presents not only black and white photographs, but also a full-scale replica of a fireplace designed by modernist architect Marcel Breuer. Small niches among the white bricks hold four white cast porcelain vessels from the artist’s series “Double China.” From a distance, these delicate sculptures resemble small plumbing fixtures, but they are actually based upon vases and incense pots of various types. As sculpture, the coupled forms intersect at odd angles.
East-west themes are also featured in a series of finely printed photographs depicting landscapes and set-up still-life. Mr. Ou’s largest and most ambitious photographs, measuring 42” x 51” framed, were shot at Mirror Lake in the volcanic caldera zone of Yellowstone National Park. The artist floated small ink paintings of Far Eastern landscapes on the water’s surface. As pictures, they bring the representational systems of eastern drawing and modernist gelatin silver photography together, inconclusively, using the post-darkroom Piezo print process.
Meanwhile, several smaller photographs entitled “Earthworks” depict earth mounded on wooden pedestals. (Inexplicable dark shapes hover in the silvery background.) Mr. Ou, who constructed these tabletop still lifes, makes a titular reference to outdoor Minimalist “Earthworks” sculptures of the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, they refer to an ancient Far East tradition wherein fantastically shaped rocks were brought from the wild into the studio for contemplation of nature’s forces and forms.
The show also includes a wall relief worked in cut paper, displayed in a plexiglas case. It spells out the exhibition’s title, “To Preserve, To Elevate, To Cancel.” This phrase is an English translation of the German concept “aufheben,” which 20th c. cultural critic Walter Benjamin updated from Hegel’s 19th c. philosophy of history. Out with the old, in with the new – to put it simply. For Benjamin, the burning crucible of modernism in war-torn Europe was a fearsome threshold to an unknown future. His texts survived; he did not.
In retrospect, the dislocation of people and things at the dawn of the 20th c. was a foretaste of globalization. For Mr. Ou, the legacy of modernist art, even with Benjamin’s and Breuer’s help, presents an ambiguous model. Technology, design, and photography are waking dreams in 21st c. daily life. As much as Mr. Ou’s fascinating show explores east-west themes and transitory visions of reality, its enduring message is the migration of ideas through art.