Prior to walking into Euphoria Salon, I am a little nervous. Think about it: you are trying to study a bunch of traditional Chinese nature paintings, but they’re sandwiched between mirrors that face salon chairs. What if there are women in the chairs, getting highlights and blowouts, while you try to navigate around busy stylists and blasts of hair spray?
Fortunately, at 10 am on a Tuesday, I can see the works of Xiaoxing Cao, a local Chinese artist who heads the Yale Chinese Painting and Calligraphy Group, without being in the way: the receptionist is the only other person in the salon. “This definitely brought spring early into Euphoria,” she tells me.
The exhibit contains blooms of all sorts — peonies, lotus flowers, wisteria. Cao renders these flowers with vigorous brushstrokes, and I can almost see her pulling paint across paper. The colors are vibrant: sunset pinks and reds meld with cooler blues and purples. A peony hanging behind the receptionist’s desk is distinct against swaths of bruised blacks and blues, all of it flecked with gold dots. It reminds me of Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold,” fitting given that Whistler himself drew inspiration from East Asia.
Cao tends to have an aversion to white space. She decorates backgrounds with amorphous splashes of heavily applied color. A smoky butterfly fits awkwardly into the negative space next to a few blooms. The birds wear worn-out expressions, as if resigned to their fates within vertical frames. The specks of gold scattered across the paintings seem like grains of pollen rubbed into my palm. Green spores, blood orange blobs populate many of the works, as if growing in a petri dish.
Despite each painting’s busy composition, the mirrors still distract me. Every time I try to look at a detail, I catch sight of my messy hair, the acne constellation on my right cheek. If I am so easily caught up in my own appearance right now, would I really contemplate Cao’s exhibit instead of my reflection during a haircut? Would the flowers, framing my face, assuage my worry that the hairdresser will cut off my ear? I consider sitting in one of the chairs, but I’m concerned that the receptionist will ask what I’m doing.
For the price of $400, I can take home a painted peony of my own. Or, for a little more, I can acquire one of the two landscapes on view! (They’re relegated to the back of the salon.) One features two men and some very large birds gently drifting down a body of water, to the tune — I mean caption — of “Fresh breeze and green water, here with me, getting tipsy” ($780). At Euphoria, fifty bucks gets me a haircut. One of these babies is, like, 15 and a half haircuts— what’s the price of beauty, anyway? I’m used to museums and discrete object labels, so I can’t help but zero in on the price tags.
Though I might not be within the confines of a white-walled gallery, at least the exhibit is up-front: Cao needs to make a living too. It’s nice to hear a little jazz while perusing the works, seeing eye to eye with a rooster or examining a leaf.
And neither mirrors nor price tags distract from the overall calm of flowers at slight angles, leaning to the side in unseen wind. I’d hang one in my dorm room. Or my house. I confess, I might be a little bit biased. I recognize the “Xiao” in the artist’s signature as the same “Xiao” in my Chinese name, and I feel a weird kinship to her. My grandfather taught me how to paint shrimp with fat, thick brushes and sharp flicks of the wrist the summer I was in Xi’an. I now lead a tour at the Art Gallery that’s all about flowers.
All in all, Euphoria is still worth a visit on some spring morning, even though you might not experience the same weird combination of nostalgia and fascination that I do. These flowers are less ephemeral than the actual blooms, but only by a little: the paintings do go down on June 26.