Any set of photographs from a trip abroad can be easily dismissed as a glorified version of “What I Did On My Summer Vacation,” displayed for the edification of the artist and his friends. But “Layers, Life and Landscape: A Journey in Three Parts,” the striking visual record Robin Kwong ’03 has put together of his three-week trip to China last spring defies this interpretation. His use of the familiar, but never stale, conceit of creating “a new layer of meaning out of ordinary objects and mundane occurrences” — as he said in his artist’s statement — has enabled him to depict an extraordinarily intimate relationship between the subject and its observer.
It important to note, however, that it is not the commonplace nature of Kwong’s subjects that makes them compelling — it is his sensitivity to their beauty and the feeling one gets that he does not find them commonplace at all.
The majority of the photographs, vivid color prints of various sizes, focus primarily on the textures of the subjects. One example is “Tracks,” an unmanipulated photograph of tracks left in the Sand Dunes of Singing Sand Mountain in Dunhuang, Gansu Province. At first puzzling, this photograph’s beauty is in its eloquent demonstration of the abstraction visible in the concrete world if one chooses to look at it properly. He draws attention to nothing but the patterns left in the grit of the sand, but imbues it with the grace he seems to have a knack for capturing. On the panel next to “Tracks” is a group of three photographs of stone, one of a stele carved with Chinese characters from The Forest of Steles in the Shanxi Province, another called “Fault Lines” from the Ancient City of Jiaohe in the Xinjiang Province and the other called “Graffiti on Brick Wall,” from the Gansu Province. The glory of these is that their individual effect is strengthened by the curatorial choice to hang them together. All three subjects have been cut into, a relationship Kwong skillfully presents for our consideration.
The texturing of his subjects, whether it be incidental patterning he notices as beautiful, or the harsher manipulation of stone and earth, is repeated throughout the show. For a show entitled “Layers,” the visual depth of the photographs is not very great, but the shallowness exists only in composition. His approaching-abstract photographic style crops environments he has experienced with his camera into nearly unrecognizable arrangements of texture and color. His “Two Brooms” depicts — surprisingly — two brooms propped up against the side of a monastery wall in the Hubei Province. The brilliant yellows and reds make the rather stark arrangement of forms quite pleasing. The beauty is not as harsh here, but more lighthearted and fun.
Many of Kwong’s best photographs are those in which he adeptly combines his eye for texture with his eye for color. When this occurs, the viewer gets the pleasure of seeing “Red Lanterns,” which, although a photograph of cliched signifiers of Chinese culture, are changed into an almost-abstracted and ever so slightly rotated photograph of rows of banners and lanterns that become more about the rich fabric-ness of those objects than about what they are supposed to be. His “Lattice,” a photograph of a dilapidated door with torn paper and old, brightly repainted wood becomes a song to the color of the paint and to the texture it covers, and there is no longer any need to call it a door. It is autonomously lovely.
“Layers” is the first installment in a three-week exhibition in the same space entitled “Layers, Life and Landscape.”