Luo Min at Time Arts Gallery

Luo Min, the Chinese realist artist from Beijing, is now established in her position as a painter of the natural world. Min is at present in New York, where she has been making paintings that depict her downtown neighborhood. This is the time of quarantine of course, and Luo Min is rendering places in New York notable for their absence of people; the virus has constrained activity both indoors and out. Yet the artist, who is very strong in her modernizations of traditional Chinese art, is trying something new, in which the depiction of New York serves as a window into her understanding of the city, whose architecture and aura are so very different from Beijing, a much bigger, more populous city. Working on canvas or synthetic paper, Luo Min thus captures objects and architecture of a place she is not terribly familiar with.

 

Yet this lack of familiarity takes us to a new understanding of the city--a bit less monumental and more personal. The building can be seen just as much as a projection of Luo Min’s imagination as they are the impartial view of a city to which she is new. In the artist’s more traditional Chinese paintings, there is a sophistication brought about by her ties to the legacy of Chinese painting. In these New York works, there is more of an innocent quality--as if she were meeting the city’s urban landscape for the first time--and she is! The most involved, and ambitious, painting in the show consists of two parts, place at right angles to the corner of a gallery wall: Window Leads to New Jersey (2020), in which a downtown neighborhood on the west side of New York is carefully shown, with a curving approach road leading to the Holland Tunnel, a major entry to New Jersey (the sign above the road tells us so). We look through a divided window onto the scene; on the right is a straight street with buildings on the right edge. The other component, composed of ten separate panels, offers a view of the neighborhood, lacking in passersby. On the far left is a row of buildings fronted by a street, while to the right, facing the viewer, are some smallish buildings in red and tan brick.

 

The paintings could not be more straightforward, offering a view of New York many people from the city take for granted. But its reality contains the truth of New York’s regularly anonymous architecture. In "Pier 26 No. 1" (2020), we find in the lower half of the work, a table with two chairs, formally arranged with a white tablecloth and white dishes. The scene is partially framed with two hedges on the left and below the table. Above is piece of dark-gray pavement/. At the top of the pavement, we can see what looks like the front end of a car. The incongruity of the outdoor dinner table underscores how restaurants in New York are surviving the ban on indoor dining, because of the corona virus, by serving meals outdoors, which is legally allowable. It is an odd bit of Americana, nicely painted. The final image, called "Pier 26 No. 3", shows a young man on the right, wearing a white sweatshirt and dark blue shorts, leading a white dog with a leash. He is walking on a boardwalk with a fence that visually separated him from the Hudson River and a New Jersey city area, done in gray like the sky, directly across it.

 

Luo Min presents this informal scene as a way of introducing herself to the common experience of New York City. It is an engaging work of art, in which something as simple as walking a dog can be seen as adding to the city’s spontaneous atmosphere, where small events add up to something larger. All cities are composed of myriad unrelated circumstances, and it is the painter’s job to put them in linear and thematic perspective. Luo Min singles out a particular, but not very important event, in the hope that the image would occasion an interesting painting and reveal the human presence, now mostly hidden due to the virus, of the city. Even so, this show has very well described how New York is more than the sum of its buildings and activities, having become a mythic site for urban events, large and small. That a mid-career painter from Beijing would understand her foreign situation so well shows us how sharp she is in focusing on the life of a place she has come into contact with only recently. Her accomplishment thus is not only painterly, it is also thematically insightful in its improvised reading of a great city.

 

Jonathan Goodman