Text / Robin Peckham
In Han Bing’s new paintings, fragments of urban space appear as portraits. Torn posters and sprayed tags and coils of chain-link fence coalesce into veritable personalities—not faces, nothing recognizable, but the sense is there nonetheless. There’s a whole genre of art and film in which the personification of architecture allows personal dramas to play out in the space of the city: think of everything from John Smith’s The Black Tower (1987), in which the ominous structure of the title seems to follow the paranoid narrator, to Entourage (2004-11), in which the city plays itself as arguably the most important member of the entourage comedy. It’s a manifestation of an unstable sense of self, in ways, and an ink blot test for the architecture of the selfie. Consider a painting like Overlap (2017), in which an undulating blue field is interrupted by several vertical barriers that break the composition into repeating sections defined by the anonymous gestures of intervention on the street: written graffiti, here in yellow and orange, always covered and altered so it remains just illegible; wheat pasted posters put up randomly and torn down violently, but with all graphic or textual content obscured, here leaving large swaths of grayscale biting into the picture plane; and temporary architecture, in the form of rolling doors, construction barriers, and curbs, here including two broad horizontal swaths of black and gray along the bottom that emphasize the compositional nature of the riotous forms above them. Discarding the overdetermined symbolic meanings of certain colors and forms, forms within the painting group themselves together into subjects that speak with distinct personalities, in this case revealing the struggle of a site caught between an openness to the new and a harmony with the wider world. It is clear that, though Han is immediately attracted to certain moments on actually existing streets—compositions of chaos and design that might exist in a given state only for a matter of moments, just long enough to snap a picture, before they are altered or destroyed—she is also invested in the act of painting, of taking these painterly moments from nature and encouraging them to resolve themselves into paintings in the fullest sense of the word. Pieces like Mott Street (2017), in which competing picture planes collide massively and dramatically, prove painting’s value in maintaining multiple states of being simultaneously in a way that photography and objects, as they exist now, cannot: a whorl of torn paper and yellow spray paint marks tornadoes its way across the canvas from upper right to lower left, seemingly picking up and tearing away coverings of unclear gray material to reveal vibrant fields of fiery orange and royal blue, a moment that must have almost existed—a personality on the brink of collapse that is brought into being in order to be captured, explored, and worshipped before it is pushed over the edge.
Some pieces, particularly those on the smaller side, resolve quickly, asking to be read as paintings—or images of paintings, precisely because they appear so ready to be consumed—as soon as one steps in front of them. Paintings like this functionally stand for singular portraits, rather than groups in which a certain compositional tension is necessarily present. East Wave (2017) works like this: against the same undulating blue field, a favorite background even though it does not refer to any common urban texture, broad shapes of several hues of yellow stand in for torn-out areas of paper, while gestures of orange and black spray paint beneath them again come close to spelling out real referents. This picture, simply, plays itself. In its nearly square format, accentuated by black letterbox strips along the top and bottom edges, the paintings can’t help but point towards Instagram, and the way these works originate in photography. Han Bing uses her camera to capture fragments of the city like notes or sketches, which then return to the studio and are printed and recomposed. Because their compositions appear so in tune with contemporary painting, it is easy to forget that the logic of composition that underlies them is actually incredibly dependent on the smartphone, that pervasive frame that already defines so much of how we see the world. Indeed, paintings like East Wave also feel ready to be consumed through rapid scrolling formats like Instagram, except for the fact that they stick—East Wave is the image your thumb slams down on as it threatens to slip by. This viewing experience dovetails with the ephemera nature of the accidental assemblages that Han finds herself drawn to in the first place, which she refers to as temporary architecture. It’s a way to tie herself to a place and time. There is, naturally, a potential conflict between these modes of expression, in that painterly composition and smartphone photography work, respectively, outwards from the details of manual gestures and inward from the totality of the instant. It would be easy for a painting made by the tools of Instagram to feel like a painting made for Instagram, like the oft-maligned process abstraction of the past few years. This is where it matters that the painting sticks. In LES Nights (2017), two major compositional elements guide the eye (and magnetize the thumb) simultaneously: an oddly romantic wash of purple, orange, blue, and white in a gradient along the upper third of the canvas, an aspect that looks like a sunset with a spray tan, and a dramatic hard-edge patchwork of black, gray, and yellow on the right third, where different eras of tearing and pasting meld into a single phantom limb. These two elements are connected by a dynamic pair of strokes that mimics the counter-clockwise swipe around the lower-left quadrant of a clock, tearing up or revealing new sides of both. It’s like an Arnolfini wedding portrait for a corner that hasn’t made up its mind if it wants meth or Sudafed. It punches hard, even though it never forgets its roots.
That’s how it feels to look at these paintings. Intellectually, they tend to call to mind debates about monumentality and appropriation that are hardly the hottest critical currency of the art world today, but still feel important and unresolved. What does it mean to take the mark-making practices of the street, be they as artistic as New York graffiti or as engineered as the utility markings of underground installations, and place them—sanitized, for lack of a better word—within the reified space of the gallery or museum, on the white walls of our contemporary temple? Does Han Bing want to save for posterity the ephemeral moments she captures, and elevate them to the status of monuments? It seems important, in answering these questions, that she is not overly interested in one particular system of marking or another, but rather in their accidental juxtapositions and coincidences, in finding a kind of spontaneous joy in the most unlikely places. And, rather than reproducing the marks directly or somehow lifting them from their natural environment, Han works with a particular process of recomposition to flatten the hierarchies and structures that exist between them—be they cultural or material—and use them as raw materials from which to produce a Painting, Painting with a capital P, as part of an ongoing dialogue across time and space. The process references Robert Gober, whose sculptures of familiar objects like sinks and furniture are both uncanny and forgettable, but, where Gober produces objects that cast aspersions on the status of the ready-made for a visual semblance belying studio origins, Han performs a balancing act that walks in the opposite direction: the intervention of the artist is unmistakeable, and yet, when one compares the painting with its originary photography, absolutely minimal. There are shades of Sterling Ruby, particularly his paintings and painted constructions, in her use of spray paint, color palette, obsession with the graffiti mark, and tendency towards rawness, but Han Bing demurs from that level of production—that masculine American tendency to vomit material into the world. Instead, her paintings allow ephemeral moments to live on in perpetuity, and create an archipelago of spaces and times in which the artist can allow herself to exist. It’s a firm, assertive gesture, but not a violent one.
These paintings, which tend towards a set of dimensions best explained as approaching 1.8 meters on one edge or the other, echo this conceptual structure by just exceeding the scale of the human body. They begin life as tiny smartphone photographs that, through the bodily mediation of the artist, are returned to life-size, or something like that. Torn posters and stray graffiti marks in these paintings are more or less the size of those things found on the surfaces of the real city, and they are often produced through the same methods: some tears are actually the product of torn paper, and many graffiti loops are actually sprayed from a can. This series of parallel experiments is made clear in a set of minor works, smaller paintings that act as testing grounds for new techniques as well as, ultimately, convenient showcases for these gestures, where they cannot be buried by the overall composition of a louder piece. In this sense, they function as legends for the overall map, pointing to the meanings of certain significant individual things happening in the larger works. Some of these smaller pieces show how paint is being used, as with Ruins (2016), a gradient that fades rapidly from bright orange to bright purple, with both colors functioning as artificial shadows for painted imperfections in the wood. Aside from providing a way into some of the more expressive color choices often employed in these new paintings, this miniature states clearly the name of the artifice of painting that forms an invisible core to Han Bing’s practice. Similarly, Canal Rubber (2016) isolates a few brushstrokes and tear effects on the unique substrate of rubber, revealing the modularity of many of the tools and ideas that Han repeats throughout this particular body of work. Then there are pure material studies, like the “Untitled (Camo)” series, in which camouflage-pattern nylon textiles are stretched directly over bars, some with minimal painted interventions across their surfaces and some presented purely as-is. Most important of all, however, is the series “Process,” which consists of framed newspaper clippings with wiped, sprayed, dripped, and dried paint splatters over them. The paint—in gold, black, silver—interacts with the found images (from the New York Times, mostly) in unpredictable and often hilarious ways, distorting and hiding and highlighting everything from fashion ads to news about the financial misdeeds of the art world. While the works are so crisp and clever as to appear staged, Han started the series using actual newspapers that she tore off the surfaces of her paintings in order to create the simulacrum torn-poster effect. There’s something to be said here, again, about the reality and artifice of technique and reproduction. Mostly, though, the brilliance of these minor works lies in their quiet but assured insistence on the concept of portability: the idea that it is possible for a texture, a color, a shape, a feeling to travel across time and space, from the palette to the floor to the surface of the painting, or from the overlooked street corner to the studio to the gallery.
There is a quotation of self-identification here, and a suggestion that perhaps Han Bing’s willingness to dissolve the city into multifarious personified surfaces is a gesture not of a lacking sense of self but rather an affirmation of confidence. In the way she speaks about her experience as an artist always on the move, working, over the last few years, between short-lease studios in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Shanghai, Han seems to locate herself within the network of temporary spaces and structures she finds everywhere. The more or less uniform nature of the style of this body of work would suggest the universality of anonymous urban forms, but most of these paintings draw on New York (SOHO, Broome, Mott, LES—Los Angeles makes only a brief appearance in DTLA, and Shanghai goes unnamed). Many New York paintings, however, were painted in Los Angeles, and some Los Angeles paintings were made in Shanghai. In the slickness of constant motion between these geographic poles, Han Bing finds a way to build a language and, perhaps, a capacity for self-empathy. In endowing the scenes that she is drawn to for compositional reasons with all of the trappings of personality (“Instagram Photos with Faces get 38% More Likes”), she is not so much displacing herself into the built environment as she is discovering a community of peers. If instability, unmoored scrolling, and gliding images are the lingua franca of art today, the key to staying power—monumental, permanent, or simply sustainable—must be making it stick.