Opening Up the Thingness of Painting

Opening Up the Thingness of Painting

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Painted in different hues of mauve, and measuring 13 by 15 inches, the painting “Two Plums” (2021) depicts an open hand and wrist extending at a slight diagonal from the canvas’s top-left edge. Two small plums rest in the palm. Beneath the hand, we see what could be its doppelganger. The mauve tones and the odd, indirect light bring to mind Joseph Cornell’s collage film Rose Hobart (1936). Originally projected through a blue glass, Cornell chose a “rose” tint when it was first printed in 1969. I mention the Cornell because, like the film, “Two Plums, ” with its doubling, defines a liminal space. 

It is this threshold moment that Dana Lok keeps finding ways to conjure in her impressive debut exhibition, Dana Lok: Part and Parse, at Miguel Abreu Gallery. In 13 paintings that range from 13 by 15 to 96 by 78 by 1 1/2 inches, Lok explores a range of perceptual conundrums, which evoke a deeper inquiry — part physics and part philosophy — into elemental questions: How do I know what I know? What measures do I use to quantify my experience? At this convulsive moment, when physicists are trying to visualize models for dark matter, which has never been observed, and others reject science as an objective method, Lok’s interest in gaining genuine knowledge focuses on this discrepancy. 

Dana Lok, “Parsing, Parsimony” (2021), oil on canvas, 62 x 70 inches

What should be stated is the singularity of Lok’s inquiry in relationship to her peers. I know of no other artist pursuing this trajectory in painting. By asking these questions, she opens up the thingness of painting in an unexpected way, particularly regarding its existence as a two-dimensional surface, a three-dimensional object, a multilayered reality, and a means of exploring one’s conjectures about the nature of reality as something that exists beyond our comprehension. 

Informed by the magical world of cartoons, science manuals, cinematic cropping and lighting, and art history — just to name a few of the artist’s inspirations and sources — Lok depicts scenes that convey a search that never arrives at a satisfactory answer. The point is to keep looking, taking the world apart and reassembling it. In “Parsing Parsimony” (2021), she invites viewers to meditate on the relationship between the whole and its parts. On a red and blue checkered cloth situated on grass, its lower right and upper left edges illuminated by flat, bright green circles, we see three interlocking, incomplete rectangles that form towering red and blue letters. The largest and tallest rectangle contains the following text, rendered in alternating red and blue letters: 

YOU HAVE TO KNOW HOW IT’S MADE TO KNOW WHAT IT IS.

YOU HAVE TO KNOW ITS PARTS TO KNOW HOW IT’S MADE.

YOU CAN TAKE OUT ITS PARTS AND PLACE THEM SIDE BY SIDE.

WHEN ITS PARTS LAY SIDE BY SIDE IT DISAPPEARS.

The second, lower rectangle, which appears to be half as tall and contains a portion of the larger rectangle’s text, reads:

OUT ITS 

PARTS AND 

PLACE THEM 

SIDE BY 

SIDE. WHEN 

ITS PARTS 

The third and smallest rectangle, which extends out of the previous one, reads: 

LAY SIDE 

BY SIDE IT 

DISAPPEARS. 

Made of separate columns, each topped by a letter, the three diminishing rectangles seem to be simultaneously commenting on themselves and embarking on a quest for a verifiable truth. Integral to the painting is the fact that Lok gives no indication of what it might be. Is it a thing or an idea? Are they irreconcilable? 

Dana Lok, “Recursive Surgeon” (2021), oil on canvas, 96 x 78 x 1 1/2 inches

Although this is not solely Lok’s focus, I see “Parsing Parsimony” and other works in this exhibition as a rigorous refutation of painting’s identity as a two-dimensional surface or a purely material thing, but one that does not offer an alternative rooted in the spiritual or transcendence. One could say that the artist wants a less stingy definition of painting’s physical existence. 

Faithful to that desire, Lok invites viewers to consider the another possible line of inquiry in “Bone Surgery” (2022), where she juxtaposes the letters with a fragment of Thomas Eakins’s painting “The Gross Clinic” (1875). The letters, presented as three different-sized clusters, read: 

YOU DON’T HAVE TO KNOW HOW IT’S MADE TO KNOW WHAT IT IS. 

YOU DON’T HAVE TO KNOW ITS PARTS TO KNOW HOW IT’S MADE. 

YOU DON’T HAVE TO TAKE OUT ITS PARTS AND PLACE THEM SIDE BY SIDE. 

WHEN ITS PARTS LAY SIDE BY SIDE IT DOES NOT DISAPPEAR. 

Depending on the circumstances in which they are applied, do these statements hold a validity that is equal to those in “Parsing Parsimony”? 

This relentless desire to keep inquiring even when no answer is forthcoming seems to have inspired “Recursive Surgeon” (2021), the exhibition’s largest painting. Using figures found in “The Gross Clinic,” and a palette of different mauves, Lok depicts a cropped view of Dr. Samuel Gross, scalpel in hand, directing his assistants to perform an operation on a patient’s thigh. In the Eakins painting, the head of one assistant, seen at an angle, is located in front of Gross’s stomach, slightly off center. Lok’s reinterpretation of “Gross Clinic” includes a close-up of the operation within the head’s truncated outline. What complicates this view is that we also see the front part of the assistant’s face emerging from the shadow cast by Gross’s scalpel-wielding hand, peering — it would seem — into the larger version of his head, thus both observing and participating in the operation. 

Meanwhile, in the painting’s upper left-hand corner, faces of the student doctors emerge from the paint, as if out of a thick fog, their hands supporting their heads, not exactly rapt with attention. I don’t think it is an accident that Lok left out the woman seated to the left of Gross, who hides her eyes. What does it mean to see? What is the relationship between seeing and the quest for truth? Is it a fixed or changing relationship? What does it mean to be open, even as you venture into a territory where everything is murky? Might not this painting also be a meditation on vulnerability, change, and mortality? By incorporating and re-envisioning Eakins’s painting — which merges detached realist observation with objective scientific study — isn’t Lok commenting on the foundations of her own pursuit? 

Dana Lok, “Catch” (2022), oil on canvas, 26 x 29 inches

Throughout the exhibition Lok returns to, and reexamines, different motifs: a partially open book, a knife on an empty plate, and a hand lying atop an identical hand. The one outlier in this gathering is “Catch” (2022). As often as I circled back to various paintings in this exhibition, something different happened when I first looked at “Catch.” I was transfixed. I made a mental note as to where the painting was located because I wanted it to be the last one I looked at, even though I had not yet seen the entire show. 

We are looking down into an open space among bushes and a scattering of white flowers. The lighting is artificial, like the kind you might remember from a dream. What could be a spiderweb or netting extends inward from the branches, the form’s weave becoming tighter as it descends into a hole in the ground, like a funnel. The painting’s title can be read in a number of ways: as seizing something, taking the opportunity to leave, becoming entangled, or being caught in the act. Where does my mind’s eye go when looking at this painting, which evokes an unknowable domain? What is this impossible union of netting, web, and hole? As unlikely as the combination might strike us, something also seems to be irrevocably right about the joining. The limits of seeing and the conclusion of conjecturing and dreaming do not coincide. Although we live in that liminal space, we do not want to acknowledge how little we know as we proceed into the future. 

Dana Lok: Part and Parse continues at Miguel Abreu Gallery (88 Eldridge Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 7. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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