Before Richard Tsao considers a painting ready to leave his studio, he takes it through a process that is not unlike nature’s millennial buildup of sediment to form solid rock mass. However, Tsao’s color-saturated, highly textured pieces on wood or canvas—accretions concocted of acrylic paint, water, marble dust, acrylic matte medium and small amounts of fabric dye pigment—require decisive intervention with an eye for fortuitious accident, and a mere two-to-three-year gestation period. Much has been made of their genesis, of the buckets of water and whisked soup that get poured, thrown, splashed, flung, sprayed and flicked onto or ricocheted off works in progress stacked on the floor or leaning against the wall. These actions are repeated over time, and the pieces are left to marinate in pools of color and then set aside to dry. It all happens in the “Flood Room,” a special enclosure in the artist’s studio that has been written about and filmed. But preoccupation with the backstory tends to hijack focus away from the artworks themselves, and each of the dozen compelling paintings (all but one completed in 2010) featured in Tsao’s recent exhibition at Art Projects International has its own story to tell.
Avalanche (14 by 38 inches) emits a cool felicity that disguises the mayhem of its making. A matte white paint spill envelops most of the piece’s surface. It seems to flow out from the center, thinning to a splatter at the edges and there revealing buried layers of cerulean blue, gray, yellow and bits of red. The granulated, milky substance covers raised bits of flotsam that, when seen up close, evoke small heads frozen in time, their expressive quality recalling Mary Frank’s clay figures of the 1970s. It seems that they utter silent cries, as if overwhelmed by the masses of falling matter suggested by the title.
Tsao’s pieces rarely conform to their original rectangular supports. Areas of paint that have spilled over the edges form rocky perimeters, which sometimes hang off in jagged chunks. The diptych Sun and Surf (19 by 28 inches) displays evocative negative shapes and shadows between its canvases as a result of their irregular contours. Viewed from the side, some works disclose the layers of their making. For instance, Avalanche offers an entirely different experience of the painting in the riot of juicy colors that underlie its surface.
Next Rain, about the same size as Avalanche, stands out from the others. Here Tsao allows an intense red to dominate the ground, while violently interwoven yellow and white skeins pelt the picture plane like a driving rain against a windshield. In trying to capture “a moment in time that is forever,” which the artist told me is one of his goals, we hear an elegiac lament for the transience of all things.
Above: Richard Tsao, Avalanche, 2010, water-based mixed media on wood, 14 by 38 inches; at Art Projects International, New York.