Contributed by Anna Gregor / Tess Wei’s black paintings and graphite works on paper are simultaneously material and apparitional, objective and spectral. Darkly painted wood panels hanging starkly against white walls, they are resolutely present as physical objects while at the same time too slippery to grasp visually as static images or compositions. Owing to subtle variation in sheen and texture, which catch light or cast shadows, their appearance transforms as the viewer moves. At first glance, they recall monochrome paintings by Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt, and Minimalists, like Robert Ryman. But, unlike these, Wei’s work does not presuppose the universality of experience nor settle on an austere commitment to non-objective abstraction. Made at a time when most images are encountered on a screen and in political circumstances where truth seems muddled and facts disputed, Wei’s pieces embody the problem of sharing a sense of the world before us while inviting us to be present by anchoring our ideas to the particular experience of looking.
after the radio is a wood panel in landscape orientation covered in waxy impastos of black and gray oil paint that mass at the edges, deforming the rectangular panel with uneven sides. It is simultaneously easy and difficult to see: obviously it is there, but it takes time for the careful mark-making and nuanced color to appear. From what first seemed to be a monochromatic painting emerge instances of vibrant purples, blues, greens, and ochers. What looked like a shadow turns out to be a matte patch on a glossy surface. But when the viewer moves, everything changes: colors shift, brushstrokes and scratches alter depth and direction. This painting that had at first seemed so stable because so material, so clearly a darkly painted rectangle hanging on the wall, now, with its ever-shifting aspects, throws into question the stability of matter, the dependability of perception, and the ability to establish objective facts.
Many paintings toe the line between perception and knowledge, subject and object, optical effect and material manipulation. If one stares long enough at Rothko’s No. 16, the three horizontal rectangles of color dissolve into darkness, engulfing the viewer’s entire field of vision, submerging them in an image of blackness. Nearly 9 x 12 feet in size and made by material manipulation too subtle to tether the optical effects it produces to objective reality, the large painting functions as a universal force to which the viewer is subjected. It points to a pure reality beyond the material world that is revealed, in line with modernist critic Clive Bell’s metaphysical hypothesis, through a vision of pure form. But while Rothko’s painting points away from its objectness toward an immaterial vision, Wei’s paintings, despite their slippery optical effects, insist on their material existence.
Like Robert Ryman’s late white-on-white paintings, which look nearly identical at first glance but differentiate unexpectedly with prolonged looking, Wei’s paintings are explorations of the material process of painting. They are made by a reciprocal play between material manipulation and close-looking that takes pleasure in muddy materiality, like playing in patches of dirty snow as a rebuff to Bell’s call for purity. But, just as Wei’s works don’t settle in immaterial vision like Rothko’s, neither do they rest in non-objective abstraction, like Ryman’s. The apparitional quality of line and surface suggest a fleeting glimpse of the mast of a ship, a phoenix with wings spread, a Song dynasty landscape. They are like Rorschach inkblots: abstractions that suggest representation and, further, impel the viewer to validate what they recognize by comparing it with someone else’s perception of the same image.
But in Wei’s paintings, validation that others perceive the same thing proves difficult. a far away thought, one of Wei’s graphite works, is even more elusive than the paintings, so that two people looking at the same piece might describe it in strikingly different terms: warm or cool, light or dark, landscape or abstract. The graphite, applied with varying pressures and densities, catches light differently with the most minute movements—a tilt of the head, a shift of weight to the other foot—alternately playing off the warm wooden floor, the cool white walls, or the blue Chase Bank sign across the street. Lines and masses appear and disappear. A landscape extends in atmospheric depth or collapses into an abstract surface. A viewer can point, hoping to show another what they see, but this basic communicative gesture proves futile because two viewers can’t stand in the same position at once. Despite the work’s materiality, one can’t be sure that they’re seeing the same thing. Today, Wei’s work suggests, we are unable to find solace in the purity of immaterial visions and unable to locate ourselves in the solidity of material, because vision isn’t universal and even the most basic facts can be disputed. In amplifying the subjectivity of perception, Wei’s protean paintings acknowledge the worry that we can no longer share a sense of the world. But they also suggest, in their careful mark making and the richness of their unfolding visual experience, that there is hope in looking, in trying to see the same thing in patches of dirty snow.
“Tess Wei: dirty snow,” D. D. D. D., 179 Canal Street, Suite 3B, New York, NY. Through October 15, 2023.
About the author: Anna Gregor is a painter pursuing her MFA at CUNY Hunter College.