Collector and DIADEM contributor Michael Cavendish (DD) interviewed painter and sculptor Arlan Huang (AH) on December 3, 2013.
DD: Let me ask, right off the bat, when did you first pick up a paintbrush and discover that you have this natural brushstroke that renders the, let’s call them ribbons?
AH: Well, it’s not a natural stroke. It’s a confluence of many things, seemingly unrelated, but connected. It comes out naturally, but it’s not natural. Sort of an educated spontaneity.
Like calligraphy, it has a certain kind of brush, and lends itself to an expressive quality. Asian calligraphy, you practice and practice characters. And through practice, you begin to find your signature. There is a type of calligraphy where the brush never leaves the paper.
The brushes I love are old brushes; the hairs are down to a quarter of an inch. That gives you a fuzzy edge, which is pretty nice. Essentially what I try to do is get into the painting and not look beyond the inch that I am doing at the moment.
DD: If you are pursuing a practice in abstraction, a stroke like the one you’ve found can produce a form that is both volumetric—in its circumference—and also lyrical, in the length and turnings of the, again I am going to say ribbons, is a tremendous starting point, or advantage. Have you acknowledged that internally?
AH: I think they are far from original. The most influential inspiration there is Sol LeWitt. Sol is an old friend, my former neighbor. I have his work all over my walls. I said at one point, ‘what is he up to?’
Sol LeWitt worked in gouache; many of his smaller drawings he gave away as gifts. We would trade, and it is his gouache drawings that influenced me quite a bit.
Sol at one point was very geometric. His wall drawings were. And then, he had these wall drawings called loopy doopy! Which were all lines and all curved lines, and the color was bright. And when he did those, it blew everyone away.
What I started to see and wanted to do—to go back to basic things in painting, illusionism, 2D is 2D, but what gives a painting three dimensions? Its foreground, midground, background; you make the foreground the biggest object. Another thing is overlap, once you overlap something, there it is. And I just wanted to explore that a little more.
DD: Does anything else influence that ribbon form?
AH: I do a lot of fishing. So actually a lot of it is like the knots, and unraveling the knots.
DD: You have painted with whites. Few painters have tackled white as their protagonist. Looking back, do you think that is a market reality—like white AbEx paintings are colder or tougher to cuddle up to for the viewer—or is it that with white there is a greater difficulty in getting the painted image close enough to the image in your head?
AH: Well, my paintings aren’t really pure white and I don’t consider what people buy as a factor.
Another of my favorite painters is Bob Ryman. We used to go over to his place, he’s another crazy guy.
His palette is white. His studio is all white. He’s got a beige car he never drives. He’s got a Pepsi machine. He loves Pepsi. I love his work. And I love what he does with whites. He makes everything the right kind of white. The frames, the hinges, everything.
At one point I was having a lot of problems with color. Everything I painted ended with the same colors. They would come back, I could not get away from them as hard as I would try. So I thought I would pick colors randomly. Pick five colors, and that’s what I’ll deal with.
The only latitude I give myself is I can add umber, and white. And that’s how the shades of white paintings developed.
I would pick out colors that, literally, I would never use. Violet, purple. I would never use these. I would have to deal with them. It was exhilarating, and the use of white and umber made me mix paints again.
The more whites I used, the more subtle they became and the more nuanced. The umber grays the tones.
Color is always about the color that is next to it. All color is beautiful by itself. When color is next to color, you see the subtle nuances of the color working off each other. And so that is how I got into tinted whites.
These become kind of stunning paintings, especially the big ones. Nothing to do with the market, everything to do with paint.
DD: Viewing your paintings put forth in gallery shows in the
past decade, a typical Arlan Huang is like a 72 x 84 inch square-tangle. Is that a size that suits you, like a boxer in a gym where all the punching bags are just at the perfect height and volume of air, or is working at that size a market driven thing—the old over-the-sofa thing?
AH: It is the biggest size I can deal with in my studio. I love the size. It’s about being in the painting. At that size, you can’t help but fall into it.
And I paint very close, my nose right up to the canvas. I like to be in it, and not look at what I am painting. In that respect, it’s much more about process.
DD: Someone did a sneak peek of your studio, I think it was to promote the open studios nights in the neighborhood where you work, and there were lots and lots of small paintings in view. Do you have an affinity for the small painting, under 24 inches? Are very small works more or less interesting to you, as the maker?
AH: I actually just started painting these small works, four years ago.
I started painting them because I was going to have a show in Japan, at my friend’s gallery, frame shop studio, a very small, a 150 year old house in Nagano, Japan.
So that’s how it began, and I was pretty tentative in the beginning, because I never paint small, but I discovered that it was so easy to fall into a small painting, a 5 x 7 inch painting! That was a revelation. That, and they are so fast to finish.
I have a frame shop at my studio. The frame shop’s been in existence for 37 years. And there is a ton of plexiglas hanging around. I’ve used it for pallets for years. I’ve also been painting on glass, called reverse glass painting.
Only about 3 years ago, it occurred to me to paint on plexiglas.
I painted on one side of the plexiglas and reversed it, and it was a revelation. It creates another level of dimensionality, a physical dimension.
On the little paintings you can look very closely and see shadows, and you are not quite sure what it is. So these little paintings turn out to be little gems.
DD: An Arlan Huang red is a nuanced red. There is a darkness to it. Not like a black cherry darkness, but almost like a clove scented darkness, if that makes sense. How conscious are you when you mix your paint of just how benighted your reds, or your blues for that matter, are going to be?
AH: I can’t take credit for the red. It is the paint manufacturer. I buy paints from Visari classic oil colors. They make all their own paints. They are luscious.
I’ve used them for a long time. They make the most glorious paints. They sing. The reds I am using are all from them and are straight out of the tube. And then it is always about the color next to them.
This goes back to painting on plexiglas. Painting on the back. It is the acrylic on the back layered with the oil on the front. And the colors next to each other.
The red paintings started with a commission. A client in Japan was told by her fortune teller that she needed a red painting for good luck. I did it for her and I fell in love with the reds.
And those reds, let me tell you, when you open a $200 tube of paint, you are going to paint as hard and as good as you can.
DD: You’ve painted in representation, in figuration, also. Some writers will tell you they prefer to jump back and forth between fiction and non-fiction, that it keeps their voice fresher, it keeps their ideas less shopworn. Do you get anything like that from taking a break from your abstract practice and painting a scene of some sort?
AH: I can go back and forth, and I don’t see any restriction against it.
I enjoy doing drawings, what they call contact drawings, where you look at still life objects and you don’t take your pencil off the paper.
You are just looking at the object and drawing it as you think you see it. I always find that fun to do. It’s liberating.
One time many many year ago, I was at this bookseller’s place, Lucian Goldschmidt, and he showed me a couple of notebooks from Matisse. He let me thumb through them. I don’t even think I wore white gloves.
And there was this one book that was just pages and pages and pages of an arm; so that is a practiced spontaneity. Each one looked so natural, but you can tell that he’d been drawing that arm throughout the whole notebook.
DD: You’ve been at painting long enough to know who you are and who your painterly ancestors are. Who speaks to you, who are you in commune with when you think about your abstractions on the great arc of posterity?
AH: My sources, my heroes, they go back so far. They live in the creases of my mind from art history. From the cave paintings on up. Caravaggio, Vermeer. Then painters who are my friends. My favorites.
DD: Your sculptures have this Romanov-Faberge quality, or perhaps a Ming vase, Treasures of the Pharoahs, quality, that initially pushes the button marked ‘Avarice’ on the viewer. People want to clutch them, I suspect. Do you see viewers struggle to get past that in order to receive the deeper artistic currents that flow from the works?
AH: That’s the glass factor. A pizzazz factor. You can’t get away from it. A lot of people try to make the glass ugly. But it’s part of the glass. Part of the beauty of glass, that pizzazz factor. You bet it affects people.
The glass collecting community is very different. A collecting community unto itself.
But pretty much all of my glass has been directed toward my installations and public projects. I don’t so much have a glass collecting community collecting my glass.
DD: Another thing about your sculptures is that, depending on the colors and the line work you feature on a given piece, some of them seem 21st century, and some of them seem to belong to the mid-century era of the 20th, or to perhaps, to what was afoot in the 1970s when everything was starting to look academic. Are you giving yourself that freedom, and is there something about sculpting or sculpting glass that enables that emporium type of approach?
AH: I just kind of embed myself into an idea, and things come out that way.
If I am thinking about the Italian Murano school back in the 1950s, it will just automatically come out. The glass will automatically look like those other eras sometimes.
Glass blowing is so difficult; it looks so easy.
The guys who make it look so easy are maestros. I’m just a beginner. But I was blessed with a great glassblowing team. A lot of the end result goes to the team
DD: I’m really quite curious about the palette and the colors of the sculptures. The colors you get for the end results, I’m thinking about the greens, the ice blues, the red glass that has raspberries in it, how much of that is what you can dream up and then find and how much if that is—hey—this is what the glass does when the pigmentation occurs?
AH: It’s all of that. Glass colors are very different from paint, they are very hard to mix.
One of the biggest frustrations I have had in glass is that I could not get the exact colors that I want. And with the tints and whites. But developing, searching, trying combinations, I discovered new things, and the nature of the glass is what it is, so you work with the colors you have.
Some colors are stiff, some are soft, so when you combine the two, different things happen.
My main glass blower would see a color combination and say, ‘Oh that sucks.’ But for me. I might say, ‘This is great.’
Some of my glass discoveries were not acceptable to the glass blower. The colors were too haphazard. But to me the colors were right.
You control it by working different patterns. You put a hard color over a soft color, and then you just let it go, you just let it happen.
I have to say that changing mediums is the greatest thing for an artist to do.
One reason why I got into glass is I was having painter’s block. And my friend John Brekke came over and said, ‘Blow some glass,’ and the minute I picked it up it was just magic.
Glass blowing is expensive. Actually, I haven’t blown glass in three years. If I don’t have a project I can’t afford it.
DD: You’ve talked about getting into a trance-like state as you paint in 2D. Can you do that when sculpting, or do you have to be more pragmatically minded, so as not to burn the studio down?
AH: Blowing glass and painting are very different approaches. Painting is a solitary thing. It’s just me and paint.
Glass blowing is a team sport. You have to be relating to the team. It’s a very verbal thing. You’re there, you’re dancing, you’re talking, so your head is in a very different creative area.
And you have to be skilled, or hire someone skilled.
DD: Rothko was given the opportunity to make a chapel. Have you ever done a room for someone where your big abstraction paintings are on the walls and your sculptures are in the center of the room?
AH: We did that at the last gallery I showed at, but the sculpture wasn’t big enough. There wasn’t enough glass. That’s always been something I would like to do.
DD: I read that the first 100 sculptures that you made, you were thinking about each of them as a chapter, or maybe a page, in your personal story of your relationship with your grandfather? Who was he?
AH: Wong Jack Jones. I came to New York because he lived here. I wanted to know him. So, family wise, I am the oldest of the oldest. In Chinese families, I theoretically hold a high position. But I always wanted to know what he was about.
And so part of 100 Smooth Stones is about his story, but also it’s about the stories he would tell me over dinner. Each stone is coded to a story, or a relationship about his stories.
He owned a grocery store. And in that time Mulberry Street was still little Italy. So it was a Chinese-Italian market.
And his wife, my grandma, was uneducated, couldn’t write in Chinese or English, and after he went to get her in 1926 in China, he immigrated through Vancouver, worked Alaska, worked the salmon canning factories, and then heard there was opportunity in Bangor, Maine.
And so he opened a restaurant in Bangor, Maine. On the boat ride back from China he’d met a Shriner, and the Shriner changed his life, and got him into the Shrine. My father and his brothers all became Shriners. That gave him opportunity in Maine, and he was successful there.
WWII and the Korean War changed everything. My father went to California. His brothers went to Florida. His daughter met a Chinese man there and opened a Chinese restaurant in Jacksonville.
That’s what 100 Smooth Stones is all about. That’s a seminal piece, smooth stones for Grandfather.
DD: Sometimes you’ll hear poets or memoir writers say, looking back, they’d like to erase how much of their personal experience they’d put into a particular piece that gets in the public domain, because it became tougher with age to have to share the memory or the emotion with strangers, with the unknown. Has a feeling like that ever crept up on you concerning the sculptures that tied to your grandfather?
AH: Doing those stories gave me the opportunity tomove on and do abstract. To fulfill the burden of representation. To fly freer.
DD: There are artists everywhere now, kids to you and me, who are running around with spray cans and making it look so easy. Is street art putting a weird pressure on the older, studio-based forms the way that Pop seriagraphy put the squeeze on the first gen AbEx painters?
AH: That’s always been the case. Street art is at critical mass. It’s no longer avant garde. It’s a commercial success.
And I think all through art history it is about the new, doing the new, and all artists trying new ways of distinguishing themselves, and finding an avenue to make a splash.
Street art is way different than what it was in New York in the 1970s. Banksy and those guys, they’ve made it into a capital venture. But having said that, there’s a lot of great street art.
With street art, there’s a rhythm in it. It’s all about painting over, and dissing, or giving other people respect. I can see the beauty in it.
DD: The other thing we see with the street art phenomenon is this emphasis on large murals outdoors. Your painting style and technique is technically ideal for muralism, for huge outdoor, warehouse-sized wall paintings. Do public murals interest you at all? Would that do anything for you at this point?
AH: From 1972 to maybe 1979, I was involved with this group called City Arts Workshop in New York, and we would do murals every summer, community murals.
There was this whole mural movement at the time. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia. It harkened back to Diego Rivera.
So, I can do it. But the opportunity has not come up.
DD: New artists seem to have to follow this pattern of presentation to the public that begins with group shows, and then, ideally, concentrates on solo shows, and then matures into a year-round representation by a fixed gallery. Very few artists who get through that process end up where you seem to be, where you have a foundry-like studio that makes paintings, sculptures, installations for a stable base of collector interest, and a growing base at that. Are you at that place? What is it like to be there?
AH: I think this is where you mistake me for someone else!
All boxers, as they get older, gain weight, their bodies mature, and they have to go up in weight category. They become champions in other divisions, and it’s even more prestigious.
For me. I’ve gained the weight, and I’ve matured, but I really haven’t gone up in weight category. I still toil in the flyweight division in terms of commercial success. Albeit in my heart, I’m a Super Fly!
Sustaining my art career through selling has been a cyclical thing. It’s not about the talent, it’s not about the look, it’s about something else. If I knew what it is about, I would be out there more. All I can do is work.
DD: The marketing, the networking, does the need never go away?
AH: I no longer really party. The thing with partying is that you no longer have time to do work.
The partying is even more necessary now than before. Given the largeness of the art community, and I’ll refer to the ‘why’ as a critical mass of artists.
Now, many galleries in Manhattan are small storefronts. Many are in my neighborhood where I live. This is the manifestation of the next generation. You have to start somewhere.
Sometimes I come home from work and I see a huge crowd, and I see these young kids there, and I kind of walk in, and these kids kind of view me as the neighborhood old Chinese guy, ‘doesn’t know anything about the art.’ And I am the old Chinese guy getting a free beer!
But it’s this generation thing, it keeps on going, churning in New York. And I’m not part of it. I can’t be part of it. I’m too old school, can’t wear the hat.
DD: Looking outside in, Brooklyn has seemed to throw off the notion that it is going to be Chelsea’s off-Broadway circuit, and instead Brooklyn is now like an entire San Francisco plopped right smack into its own cozy borough, in terms of the visual arts scene. Can Brooklyn take these new artists striking up a practice there all the way to where you are? Should they care about Chelsea, for all practical purposes?
AH: It’s very exciting. It’s kind of new. Manhattan is like a theme park. And it’s been that way for many years.
What Manhattan used to be is happening in the outer boroughs. Brooklyn, Queens. The ethnic communities; there’s really nothing in Manhattan.
Go to Flushing, you’ll see all the different communities, all the foods. It’s happening with art, right before me, and I can’t get a grasp on it because it’s happening so fast.
But I can do the work, I have to do the work. And I’ve met a lot of young artists through the open studios movement. There seem to be a lot of artists who are very dedicated to art.
DD: Let’s talk about contemporary painters in New York. Whose work would you stand on line, in a long line, to see more of?
AH: I don’t stand in line for dinner! Having said, that, I stand in line for some of the older artist like Yayoi Kusama.
There should be a line for my favorite painter, Chuck Yuen. Barbara Takenaga, Tomie Arai, and John Brekke are terrific.
An old school mate of mine, Jeff Davis, is a fascinating painter.
Sometimes it’s not about what they paint but how they conduct themselves, how they view their world through art.
DD: Who is an artist you would have the art world focus on?
AH: Mel Chin. Oh, man, Mel Chin is based in New Orleans. Under. Recognized. Soon to have a retrospective in New Orleans.
DD: Which artists do you see as being complementary to you in terms of work? Who would you love to do a joint exhibit with, if a well-funded project space or gallery stepped up and gave you carte blanche?
AH: My glass blowing buddy, John Brekke. We actually do kind of similar things. Curatorially, it may not make sense, but, I want to pair with artists I respect. That’s how I see things. I would also like to work with my architect genius, Tony Caputo.
DD: One thing that doesn’t get discussed, at least in the art media, is that there is this thing in America called the Sun Belt, where, most, and, it would seem, an increasing number each year, of the whole country, lives, actually. Do you have an interest in taking your show on the road, to places like Charlotte, Atlanta, Birmingham, Orlando, New Orleans, Tucson, et cetera? If you are, is it a mild interest, or do you sometimes look down and think, ‘awful lot of people down there who don’t read The New York Observer?
AH: There’s a lot of collectors in Florida. Big time collectors. I’ve framed a lot of Lewitts and shipped them down to Florida. There’s a pretty large glass blowing studio in Tampa. Rauschenberg, his big studio was in Tampa, was it not? There’s a lot of art. Maybe what we’re talking about is an art scene. Except for the art fair. Maybe there’s no art scene, like there is in New York, maybe that’s what we’re talking about. I think it’s a great place for art.
DD: You’ve just been selected for a CALL, or Creating A Living Legacy Award, by the Joan Mitchell Foundation. Congratulations, and what does it entail?
AH: They come here with a legacy specialist and an intern, and they are going to document all my work, and put it in a database. And the database is modeled after the Joan Mitchell database.
It goes for a year. We’ve made great progress. We’ve put 100 paintings in the database already. We’ve cataloged the first 100 Smooth Stones. I told my specialist ‘It’s a project for 10,000 smooth stones!’
DD: Do you think that putting in serious hours toward archiving and cataloging your work thus far will effect the way you think about your painting and sculpting styles? You are going to be facing yourself for some extended period, it seems.
AH: So far it’s been very exciting, exhilarating, but very humbling. Things have been coming up which are . . . humbling is the word.
In the process of organizing the priorities for documentation, I’ve had the opportunity to decide what and why works are important and what works are dear to my heart. It turns out “dear to my heart” are the ones I want to document first.
But it also re-energizes me. Explaining what ‘10,000 stones’ means is like renewing my vows. The 10,000 in Smooth Stones is derived from a Chinese term for ‘many.’ I use it to mean my commitment to art for a long time.
To answer your question, yes, it does affect the way I see my present work. In looking back at vintage work I discovered the threads of themes, shapes, strokes I use now. It has given me a sense of continuity and a sense of confidence that my work is distilling nicely.
DD: Does the idea of legacy as you travel through artistic maturity weigh on your selections of things like, the size of a work, or a palette? Does it move you from being inspired to being inspired but also feeling like a custodian of everything you’ve done before, like some engineer who needs to make it all arc prettily from one end to the next?
AH: It may have that effect. There is a component of that in me, but not much. Essentially, I trust my intuition, my gut feelings, on things to paint. I welcome the challenges that come before me.
There’s no problem with saying ‘I’m done, I’m done with red, and I don’t want to do it anymore.’ On the other hand there’s no problem in saying ‘lets push it further.’ I have no compulsion to paint safe.
The legacy thing is not what I’m going to do, it’s what I’ve done. I think your legacy question is two-part. My part is to record everything I’ve done. The CALL program will help me create a map of the complexities of making my art. The program is so much more than I expected. It’s extraordinary.
The second part of legacy is really estate, perhaps arc. The CALL database and map will provide my custodian a way into my estate. Hopefully it will make the burden of estate a more inspiring and meaningful journey.
Arlan Huang is on the web at www.tenbuckcut.com/Arlan
N.1. This text courtesy of DIADEM Art Papers by Cavendish Projects
N.3. All text copyright 2013 DIADEM Art Papers and the artist.