I find myself irritated by the title of Paul Chan’s new exhibition at the New Museum, 7 Lights, because strike-throughs are completely out of vogue on the internet. In the artist’s defense, however, he titled the show in 2005 — a veritable heyday for the cross out — though I still wish for a title update, if only because it would also solve its trite expression of the simultaneous presence and absence of light. Almost predictably, given the name, the exhibition mostly takes the form of silhouettes, be they torn black paper placed on musical scores, largely abstract black-and-white collages on Styrofoam, or a variety of beautiful projections, all but one featuring a number of slowly falling (or ascending, depending on where you stand) objects, animals and people.
While the simplicity and even didacticism of the exhibition’s narrative ultimately take away from the work, the show at least fails with grace. Admittedly, this judgment stems from my own interest in the work’s aesthetic and conceptual connections to Paul Emile Borduas and Les Automatists, an important but relatively obscure art movement outside Canadian art-making circles of the 1940s. (It was so obsure, in fact, that I’m unsure if Chan himself had any knowledge of the group.) While best known for their investment in the Surrealist practice of spontaneous writing and drawing processes, and “Refus Global,” a manifesto challenging virtually everything, including the Catholic church, Les Automatists’ preference for gouaches and opaque materials, often in the form of torn-paper collage, suggest a parallel to Chan, even if the palettes differ significantly. Undoubtedly the strongest connection comes from Borduas, the unofficial leader of the movement, who executed Etoile Noire and similar paintings sometime after the group had dispersed in 1957. Borduas’ black-and-white abstract series about motion, about the simultaneous presence and absence of light, and about space couldn’t provide a clearer link to Chan’s collages, not to mention Chan’s more illustrative video work.
Mind you, the artist doesn’t live up to Borduas, whose great mastery of material allowed him to communicate his own belief and dismay that culture had no ability to grow or change — without having to spell it out with falling bodies, or lean on the crutch of art history to lend meaning to otherwise inert works. And all of this is too bad, because within Chan’s clumsy visual conceptual framework lies a really great show.