Yam Lau

“Colour is a special state of intensity,” a painter friend said to me years ago. I thought of her insight when I saw Yam Lau’s new work, though its sense of energy was less intense than flowing, like tai chi, which Lau practises and which has appeared in his work— balanced, lucid and flowing.

Lau’s new work seems a neighbour to the 1970s artists of California Light and Space, though his work is not site-specific and does not use actual light. Yet it is so finely tuned to Claire Christie’s small, almost perfect gallery, with its mixture of artificial and natural illumination, that it merged with the light and space there. I left feeling elated. The work seemed free of every agenda, as though it existed simply to refresh perception. Ken Lum once wrote, “The strength of art lies in a complexity that is often not apparent, but its strength also lies in its insistence on itself as art.” Lau’s work shares this insistence, that art differs from everything else. But the way in which it exists as art is very different, being far more quietistic than Lum’s work, quiet and softly affirmative.

The complexity was there, of course, underlying the apparent simplicity. What Lau placed in the gallery were two large monochrome paintings, Oblique (Orange) and Oblique (Purple), one a saturated orange, the other a rich purple. The orange colour appeared to have lifted off and joined with the air, like breath; the purple hovered closer to its support, a filter suspended in the air.

Each monochrome was mounted on a thin sheet of DIBOND, a surface of sandwiched aluminum, roughly five and a half feet tall and a bit less than four feet wide. But to say they were “paintings” calls for scare quotes, since each was in fact a digital print on white paper of a “watercolour” done in a computer painting program. Both were a bit splotchy in appearance, as though the paint had sunk more deeply into the paper in certain areas, though, of course, the “paint” and “paper” existed only digitally. It was only over time that each print’s digital nature became apparent. To all intents and purposes, it could have been a watercolour. It held that possibility open even while it closed it off.

Each image was doubled by copying it onto another layer in Photoshop, then shifted slightly. It looked as though the print had been misregistered. This caused different effects in each work. The orange seemed to diffuse into the air and merge with it, like a fog. The purple one, darker, stood out more against the white support. Its edges appeared tighter and crisper. It did not diffuse into the air. It seemed to stutter visually.

Just as each colour acted differently, each pair of printed edges was different. In both works, the two vertical edges of the “painting” blurred in a type of incertitude. But the top and bottom edges were crisply delineated, as though the “painting” had been carefully taped off. The two sets of edges were at odds with each other, one clear, graspable and certain; the other foggy, doubled, uncertain.

Something similar happened with the aluminum support. Its machined edges placed the object precisely in the gallery’s space. The clearly cropped top and bottom edges of the print were allied with the delineated support. By comparison, it was difficult to grasp exactly where the doubled vertical edges, that stutter or that fog, were, in space. This set up an internal tension within the work. Perhaps it would be better to say that it set up a tension in vision. Things that have clear edges are understood as being very close; blurred edges mean that what we are seeing is farther away. Is the “painting” near or far? How can there be a sharp edge to a fog? And in both works, the top and bottom edges of the print were angled. It was as though each “watercolour” was receding from us.

There was a further complication. Each aluminum panel was mounted on an engineered hinge. This held the panel about six inches off the wall and also allowed the panels to be angled slightly to the wall. The result of all this was that while the “paintings” appeared to be at an angle to us, the panel on which they were mounted actually was at an angle but a different one from the “paintings” in their apparent recession. Here again, the actual space the work inhabited was at odds with the virtual space created by the monochromes.

The work was also intricately at odds with itself. The “paintings” weren’t paintings, and they were doubled, as though they refused to be identical to themselves. The supports and the “paintings” receded or appeared to recede but at different rates. The edges of the prints offered clarity … and incertitude. A striking sense of beauty issued from this complex of tensions, as though it had blossomed there. It seemed to arise without effort, without being tied to the work’s material complexity. Poetry emerged from the prose of the various elements.

Lau, echoing Italo Calvino, has often said that he wanted to subtract weight from the world. “Everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight,” Calvino had written in Six Memos for the Next Millennium. “Perhaps only the liveliness and mobility of the intelligence escape this sentence.” Lau’s work here, in its beauty and fusion with the existing light and space, acted as an ideal of sorts, a moment in which the world felt freed of weight and weighty matters, freed from history, from that tangle of barbed wire in which we are ensnared. ❚

“if there is / if not” was exhibited at Christie Contemporary, Toronto, from November 18, 2023, to December 22, 2023.

Andy Patton is a painter who lives in Toronto with his wife, the artist Janice Gurney. His paintings were the subject of an article by Stephen Horne in the March 2019 issue of Border Crossings.

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