Oscar CHAN Yik Long: Don't Leave The Dark Alone 陳翊朗《不要讓黑暗獨自留下》
Oscar CHAN Yik Long 陳翊朗
Don't Leave The Dark Alone《不要讓黑暗獨自留下》
14 August – 18 September, 2021
Gallery EXIT is pleased to present its first solo exhibition by Oscar Chan Yik Long, titled "Don’t leave the dark alone". The works in Chan’s exhibition share some characteristics. They are black-and-white, figurative and reference both Oriental myths and Occidental art, but mainly twentieth-century cinema from all over the world. Yet none of this should deter viewers from approaching each work by Chan as an individual entity: a window into a parallel reality, a mirror reflecting its environment or just a surface revealing itself.
“Don’t leave the dark alone” is a phrase taken out of its original context (something to do with managing laundry) and redeployed for managing darkness itself, or at least the fear of darkness and the anxiety or damage it may cause. Used as an exhibition title, the phrase gives us license to equate artistic strategies employing a metaphorical darkness (ink, graphite) with the real thing (how we respond to the dark outside and inside).
The exhibition is set up both to encourage and discourage such ‘unreflective’ understanding by offering a variety of surfaces for reflection. It opens with four paintings in ink on stretched canvas, continues with ambiguous use-objects – ink drawings turned into a manufactured rug or executed on cigarettes emptied of their intoxicating content, painted curtains meant to be back-lit by the sun – and ends with a longer series of glazed and framed drawings in graphite on not-quite-white paper.
The four paintings that open the exhibition are all from 2021 and based on film frames representing different traditions or schools of 1960s and ’70s cinema: psychological entertainment, social critique and mythological parables by American, British, German and Japanese authors. The finished works reflect individual and societal tensions experienced and understood by cinema goers in the past, but Chan’s translation of cinema into painting also introduces alterations and additions that speak to the fears and worries of the present age and our attempts at overcoming them.
How do we know if the dead would not regret their efforts to survive? is a circular woollen rug. Woven after a densely dramatic ink drawing by Chan, it features some of the monstrous and ‘pessimistic’ visual elements viewers have come to expect from him. The title is a quote from The Adjustment of Controversies by Zhuangzi, the fourth-century BC philosopher who favoured dialogue as a format for ventilating controversial and irresolvable issues – arguably an ‘optimistic’ stance. Although the phrase expresses disenchantment with life as it is lived, Zhuangzi uses it to discuss the difficulties of ‘harmonising of conflicting opinions’ when no authoritative truth can be relied upon to accept or reject them.
The Most Misplaced Worry (2018/20) is a transparent plastic box filled with the empty shells of 20 Marlboro cigarettes. Chan appropriated them from someone who, he thought, wasn’t supposed to smoke them. With a fine-tipped pen he applied floating, disembodied elements from his drawing repertoire – toothy grins, staring eyes, hair standing on end – onto the thin white cigarette papers before removing all their tobacco content.
The eight painted cotton curtains titled 120 Judge John Aiso Street were made for a group exhibition in France in 2020, where they covered as many windows. The work stages a sensation of watching a ragtag patrol of undead creatures surrounding the exhibition space. The title is the address of the church assaulted by a similarly menacing crowd in John Carpenter’s 1987 horror film Prince of Darkness, and some of the imagery was lifted from the same source, but there are also filtered influences from classical painters like Francisco Goya or James Ensor. The aesthetic and psychological effects are similar to those Chan achieved elsewhere, notably in his murals, with visual quotes from East Asian mythology and ghost stories.
The concluding segment of “Don’t leave the dark alone” is a series of 16 drawings, individually titled and installed in smaller groups. Chan’s visual meditations are based on imagery borrowed or paraphrased from a variety of sources – notably horror movies, old postcards and late-nineteenth-century European graphic art – and form a library of his references and interests in 2020 and early 2021. This was the time of the Parisian confinement and of second-wave Covid-19 restrictions in Helsinki, where he spent time as an artist-in-residence last winter to prepare his participation (with a site-specific mural and another circular woollen rug) in the group exhibition “First International Festival of Manuports” at Kunsthalle Kohta.
In these drawings, Chan occasionally washes an area of intensely applied graphite over with turpentine, or uses white highlights to remind us that his paper is toned. We never know for sure when an artist’s black should be read as the symbolic counterpart to his white. Sometimes they have no poetic charge but are mere surfaces revealing nothing but themselves. The artist is not obliged to resolve such ambiguities in his drawings or paintings, nor to ‘harmonise’ any conflicts of interpretation that his work may get embroiled in, but he also cannot prevent it from being understood metaphorically, as symbol and allegory.
The alternative is, as so often, worse. Imagine that what you see on these gallery walls could only be understood literally, and that the only appropriate reaction to ‘frightening’ imagery would be to actually become afraid, to renounce everything dark and dangerous for fear of hurting yourself or others. When Oscar Chan Yik Long urges us not to leave the dark alone, he also urges us not to part ways with the pleasure we may wish to take from darkness in its refined forms.