– Gottfried Knapp
Salzburg 3: The Kunstmahle Presents the Artist Paul Ching-Bor
When, as is currently possible in Salzburg and Munich, one sees not one but two larger exhibitions by the painter Paul Ching-Bor, who was born in China in 1963 and presently lives in New York, one wonders why this distinctive artistic personality hasn’t yet been co-opted by the lobby of big gallerists and big collectors, as well as by the directors of art exhibition halls whom the gallerists and collectors tow along in their turbulent wake. The principal reason for this reticence could well be related solely to the nature of this artist’s painterly techniques: Ching-Bor works exclusively with water-soluble colors on paper, i.e. many of his Chinese-born and internationally successful contemporaries, he doesn’t throw himself around the necks of his viewers with brash colors and large formats. Instead, he foregoes all overwhelming methods and voluntarily restricts himself to the watercolor technique, which has been used for millennia in China, and to papers in commonly available formats. By virtue of these self-imposed limits on his painterly techniques, he achieves effects with a suggestiveness of which his spoiled colleagues can only dream. When he wants to raise his atmospheric visions into large format, he hangs two, three or four sheets of paper side by side or one above the other.
Black, with all of its more or less opaque variants, and watery gradations of grey, admixed with minimal traces of blue, yellow and brown: this is the medium through which Paul Ching-Bor wrestles with the modern world. Laborious processes of painting, washing out and painting over lead to the creation of urban and industrial monuments imbued with a shadowy, almost unreal intensity: high-rise apartment houses, bizarre harbor facilities. elevated train tracks shoving themselves into the picture like nightmares. steel bridges distorting the sky with Piranesi-like constructions.
Columns of light rise from the darkness above the excavation at the World Trade Center site
Works by Paul Ching-Bor have already been shown on several occasions by Nikolaus Topic-Matutin, who operates the Neuhauser Kunstmuhle gallery, which is located in Gnigl, on the outskirts of Salzburg and directly beside the federal autobahn that leads to Salzkammergut. This time, Topic-Matutin is showing pictures that create new accents and in which the painter turns his attention to Berlin Cathedral. But at the White Box in Munich, Ching-Bor responds in gigantic formats to the columns of light which are illuminated each year on September 11th above the excavation at the World Trade Center site in New York. Incidentally: on September 11, 2011, a discussion about the consequences of the catastrophe that transpired nearly a decade ago will take place in front of these pictures.
Exhibition at www.neuhauser-kunstmuehle.at till September 10. Exhibition at www.whitebox-ev.de through September 11.
– Gerard Haggerty
“What is great in man is that he is a bridge, and not a goal.”
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
The painter Paul Ching-Bor does for buildings, bridges and factories what Piranesi did for prisons, depicting grand, imposing structures that echo the labyrinthine architecture of the mind. His chosen motifs are simultaneously site-specific and resonant as metaphors wherein ideas, history, and dreams all meet.
A New Yorker who hails from China by way of Australia, Ching-Bor works in watercolor: a fact that reflects his hybridized background, flourishing as his medium of choice does in both the East and the West. This particular truth necessitates a caveat. The word “watercolor,” is routinely stereotyped as a synonym for “transparent watercolor,” conjuring up small, precious sun-struck pages wherein the white of the paper is the only white that’s allowed in the picture, and gouache is utterly disdained. Thus spake the authoritative voice of England’s Royal Academy, for two centuries.
Ching-Bor’s enormous watercolors encompass everything that the Academy’s dictates preclude. Individual sheets as large as ten feet tall are often conjoined to form mural-sized diptychs, triptychs and quartets. These paperworks’ gargantuan size matches their vast ambitions. In a single word, Ching-Bor’s pictures look drenched. The verb describes the artist’s working method, for he soaks large sheets of rough, heavyweight watercolor paper with washes of gray and jet black ink. Layer upon layer, intermingled with opaque paint, saturates the huge pages. Repeatedly. The sum total of all or this labor yields a world of 99 percent humidity: that sort weather where the foggy atmosphere is palpable, and walking feels rather like slow-motion swimming.
Ching-Bor’s Etherealization series derives its title from a lovely albeit arcane term that connotes the transformation of objects into atmosphere. The five paintings collected under this rubric reference the destruction of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. Etherealization #5 does not portray the catastrophic moment when the buildings fell, or the dreadful event’s immediate aftermath. We see instead the eerie calm that followed the storm, witnessed from a vantage point that’s sufficiently distant in time so as to fit William Wordsworth’s description of poetry’s origins as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Six months after 9/11 marks the tipping-point when news became history.
Insomnious Lights IV suggests a narrative that’s rooted in our proclivity to read from left to right. The left panel starts with an ashen strip of land set against a pitch black sky. The center panel transitions into velvety gray mist surrounding the silhouettes of a lone, tall building and construction crane. The right panel concludes with a circle of bright, white light, shining through clouds of fog. The entire ensemble could be interpreted as a tale of despair that morphs into hope. In Ching-Bor’s symbolically-charged image, details recapitulate the overview. Countless rivulets of paint blossom into spore-like forms that often seem to rise up, up and away. A trope for the ascension of the soul, perhaps? A luxuriant surface, most certainly.
The subject of Ching-Bor’s monumental triptych is itself a sublime monument created by 88 xenon searchlights that sent two rectangles of light skyward. Known as The Tribute in Light, it is brilliant in every sense of the word. Its power and that of Ching-Bor’s work which it inspired, both hearken back to a host of great baroque precedents wherein light is an agent of the drama. This idea underlies masterpieces like Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa and Rembrandt’s Three Crosses. Art history offers us lofty precedents for what we see here, but so do motion pictures. Ching-Bor’s darkly luminous watercolors put the noir in cinema noir, bringing to mind one of best movies ever made: Carol Reed’s The Third Man. In the course of shooting each night, the director repeatedly hosed down the sets, at great expense. Meaning that in order to achieve those rich, luminous blacks that shimmer on screen, Vienna’s streets were quite literally drenched.
Gerard Haggerty teaches at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. His work has won the support of the national Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Ford Foundation.
Nebulous Skylines and the Question of “Gothic City”
– Manfred Schneckenburger
After having studied art in China, the 33-year-old Paul Ching-Bor arrived in 1996 via Australia in New York City, where he initially painted street scenes and steel-framed buildings in romantic moonlight or ominous firelight. He soon found his personal theme, which still captivates him today: the urban scenery of Manhattan with its skyscrapers, street crossings, bridge constructions and harbor facilities between the Hudson and the East River. But his large-format figurative aquarelles steer clear of the documentary objectivity of vedutas and can only seldom be exactly identified, even when precise topographical information accompanies them. The airspace oppresses the city like a pall of smog. It spreads with the grey monotony of diffuse droplets of mist or as a crepuscular twilight, rarely in an ephemeral brightening, and almost always amidst an utterly uninhabited metropolis. An oppressive atmosphere permeates these bleak skies. An almost ghostly dreariness swallows and expunges every noise, every sound and every lively activity in the big city. It seems as though Ching-Bor’s city were burdened by a clandestine threat, a first intimation of decay, a latent pull toward abandonment and dissolution, an apocalyptic overtone.
But these urban landscapes and monumental bridges were obviously erected by engineers and armored with steel. A direct line on the historical horizon can be drawn from Paxton’s “Crystal Palace” to the Eiffel Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline. Manmade urban mountains tower above precipitous street canyons, but the contours are lost in shadowy zones and a grey melting. Steel frameworks repeatedly expand, stretch beyond the format like tentacles that brace, embrace and enclose their interior space. Snared in a confusing perspective of intersections, nodes and transverses, the gaze leads directly into the entrails of the steely strutted construction. The view from below has been left behind and the interior is seen from a considerable height. The lower floors of the stone buildings are cropped so the viewer is abruptly drawn into the picture and immersed in an undefined absorption. Where foreground and background interpenetrate, nearness and distance cancel each other out. Ching-Bor virtuosically plays with captivating presence on the one hand and vanishing architectural fragments on the other. Central perspective and bird’s-eye view interpenetrate, work in opposite directions, and ultimately merge to create an inextricable interweaving of near and far, tangible presence and insubstantial mirage.
If human beings are present at all, they’re consigned to a penumbral existence at the outermost margins. Iridescent as though shredded, their contours flicker like will-o’-the-wisps in jagged white light beset by massive blackness. They turn toward the front to face the viewer: are they lost zombies in a dead city? What had once been secure and coherent now unravels. Even majestic copulas and gigantic steel constructions seem tattered: not because they pale in the glare of impressionistic reflections of sunlight, but because they have become the fodder of a voracious darkness. The masonry leaves it unclear whether bright reflections or blackish splotches are assailing its surfaces. In the most extreme case, even steel beams crumble into fragile gossamers or transition into imaginary lanes of shadow.
Hard cuts and steeply plunging slopes accentuate the dynamism and the drama of skyscrapers and bridges. The lighting design, which juxtaposes nocturnes and bright lights, presents this against a background of theatrical contrasts. The corners and edges of buildings shove the sky forwards even as it simultaneously withdraws into murkiness. Perspectivally dominant intrusions of parts of buildings direct the viewer. Although human beings are seldom visible in these urban spaces, they nonetheless arrive here. The populace is absent but paradoxically present through guided and refracted viewpoints, before the eye is caught by fleetingly shifted lines and all is lost in nebulosity.
Considering the ill-omened void and the vertiginous verticality of these darkened “Cityscapes,” could one justifiably draw a parallel between these and Batman’s “Gothic City,” the American-style megalopolis suffocating in gloomy criminality? Looking farther back in time, could one perhaps recall the “Gothic tales” that firmly established themselves as a permanent literary notion in English Gothic novels since Horace Walpole? Does Ching-Bor’s gloomy urban world evoke an intimation of nightmares which Elmar Zorn, in a wide-ranging article about this artist, summarizes with a reference to Edgar Allan Poe? Peering still more deeply into the past, could one resettle these overcast “Cityscapes” amidst the tensions arising from the Industrial Revolution? After all, skyscrapers and engineers’ buildings number among the late triumphs of the Age of Steel. Unforeseen consequences followed Edmund Burke’s introduction of the notion of the sublime into aesthetics in 1754. At risk of oversimplification, this idea also stands for experiences with the emergent heavy industry upon which modern metropolises are largely based. A traveler wrote about the valley of Coalbrookdale in the mid 18th century: “Blast furnaces and ironworks belch tumultuous plumes of smoke that make all the buildings horrifically sublime and well matched with the rugged cliffs in the valley.” This reef-like character would later find its way into Ching-Bor’s urban landscapes. Does early industrialized manufacturing cast its twilight into the future and onto this painter’s vision of Manhattan? Francis D. Klingender, the art historian of the great upheaval, phrases it in even more drastic terms: “If the painter John martin painted hell in the image of industry, then contemporary illustrators make views of industry appear like scenes from hell.” Do such ambivalences from the early years of steel continue to exert their effects in an era when steam hammers and smelting factories await the wrecking ball? Or can nothing but exaggeratedly audacious speculations bridge the gap between intimations of hell and Ching-Bor’s miasmic skies?
The shadows and gray zones brighten occasionally. Then copulas, steel struts and skyscrapers have less in common with Piranesi’s “Carceri” and are more akin to the airy New York aquarelles of the American John Marin, not to mention older Chinese ink paintings. Blue streams into the cloudy sky, and the mountain range of the architecture continues in meteorological phenomena: sunbeams and sheaves of light harmonize with the constructed world. The painterly historical background draws a connective thread from William Turner, through James McNeill Whistler, to the spirituality of Mark Rothko. Fluid light glows from the depths, especially where the sun touches the water, e.g. in the series entitled “Your Boat Will Come.” The Hudson appears in the mythic gleam of Wagner’s “Rheingold” and even the harbor basins join in the shimmer. Along with the sun, a breath of utopia penetrates into this nebulous world.
Ching-Bor’s artistic means are glazes of the sort that only watercolor painting can layer onto heavy handmade paper. The high percentage of inks achieves colorless homogeneity with nuanced transitions. Not denying a strong affiliation with contemporary Western art, there can be no doubt that Chinese tradition also inspires the uniquely expressive quality of the airspace, even if this tradition’s Taoist immersion doesn’t resonate here. The aquarelle brush elicits both compact impenetrability and liquid transparency from the flow of watercolors, but this airspace repeatedly exhales an aura of latent eeriness. What Nikolaus Topic-Matutin called “layers and distortions, parings and spraying procedures, washing and wiping processes” merge in a technique that builds resistances and dissolves them. The ambivalence of the “Cityscapes” extends into both the style and the technique.