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Eugène Leroy and Hao Liang: Catching a Catfish with a Gourd

by Matthew Biedermann | 6 March 2023

Figure 1: Josetsu, Catching a Catfish with a Gourd, ink and colour on paper (Kyoto: Taizo-in Temple, Muromachi Period). Image courtesy of Kyoto National Museum.


To the left of a bamboo grove, abreast a meandering stream, a man enveloped in the loose folds of a farmer’s garments, rapt in singular concentration, leans forward towards the water, projecting out with both hands the smooth, curvilinear form of a gourd. Attracting the farmer’s attention is a writhing catfish, propelling itself just out of the farmer’s reach. The space above the farmer dissolves into an indistinct fog, through which distant mountains hesitantly protrude. In this ink and wash painting (fig. 1), the Chinese Zen artist Josetsu, active in the Muromachi period (1405-1496) responds to the riddle set by his patron, shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimochi (1394-1423): “How do you catch a catfish with a gourd?” Josetsu exploits the expansive possibilities of the landscape format, carefully embedding human figures into natural forms at the foreground of a deeply recessive natural space, achieving a careful visualisation of Ashikaga’s impossible kōan, a question meant to establish spiritual doubt in the viewer’s mind and advance their path towards attaining kensho—the ability to see one’s true nature. ​Josetsu, a pioneer of Japanese landscape painting, is just an early exemplar of the success with which artists turning towards the landscape genre could depict and dissect seemingly impossible concepts. Josetsu’s success is illustrated by the thirty-one meditative responses written by different high-level priests on the top of the same scroll. Two current gallery exhibitions, Eugène Leroy, The Materiality of Light, paintings 1950-1999 at Michael Werner and Hao Liang: The Sad Zither at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill (fig. 2), display different approaches which attain the same end—depicting the impossible. The French artist Eugène Leroy’s (1910-2000) laborious engagement with capturing the ephemeral quality of light on landscapes is traced from his early oeuvre to his last works in Michael Werner’s thirty-two picture retrospective. Like Ashikaga’s catfish, Leroy’s light evades capture, but his efforts are rewarded in the enticing depth and complexity of his work. Leroy’s early works Ciel and Marine (figs. 3 and 4), both from 1950, earnestly confront the complex reflections and dissipating refractions of light in seascapes off the coast of Normandy. In Marine, the deeply textured earthy pigments of the coast transcend into a turquoise horizon, flattened against the picture pane amid swaths of azure and violet. Dissuaded from the colourful play of light depicted by the impressionists or the scientific rigour of the Divisionists, Leroy instead takes inspiration from the old masters for his articulation of light effects. In Paysage (fig. 5, 1990-99), the bright reflective light around the foreground and upper sky fade into a gloomy, Giorgionesque blend of greens and other earthly hues. Taking his que from Picasso and the Cubists, Leroy operates somewhere between late Monet and Gerhard Richter’s abstract work, flattening his tableau and heightening forms over subjects, yet retaining a certain mimetic quality dismissed by the Abstract Expressionists. While his canvases embody the flatbed picture plane exemplified by Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock, Leroy embeds his canvases with a sense of real depth and perspective by treating his oils almost as a sculptor treats plaster. His brushstrokes become three-dimensional, functioning rather like the inverse of Josetsu’s distant peaks—rather than protrude subtly from atmospheric mist, Leroy juts his landscape towards the viewer, allowing unadulterated pigment to coalesce with shadow to further elaborate the presences and absences of light in his works. Leroy’s treatment of figural forms likewise makes reference to both old masters and the abstract innovations of the twentieth century. His two female nudes from 1978, Nu Vert and Femme (Nu gris) (fig. 6), evoke Titian’s voluptuous nudes in Concert Champetre (fig. 7) in their domination of their respective tableau. However, while Titian’s nudes stand apart from and juxtaposed to the landscape in which they reside, Leroy integrates his figures into the landscape, establishing the subtle suggestion of a body within the broader landscape. In this treatment, Leroy is reminiscent of Shiraga Kazao’s Challenging Mud (fig. 8, 1955), in which the Guntai artist uses body as both subject and medium, creating figural forms by leaping into a mound of mud and plaster. Leroy also educes the existential energy expounded in Ana Mendieta’s Siluetas Series (fig. 9, 1976-78), where the silhouette of a human form created into and out of earth embodies the way humanity exists in relation to space. By deprioritizing the human form, enveloping it within the landscape, Leroy demonstrates the fundamental connection between humanity and earth, a connection which is typically obfuscated by the unnatural lighting effects in most mimetic painting where the human subject is prioritized over a landscape background. Hao Liang (b. 1983) is less concerned with capturing the essence of light, and in his fourteen-work exhibition at Gagosian explores the passage of time through the landscape form (fig. 10). Working in the traditional guohua technique also employed by Josetsu, Hao investigates the narrative potential of the landscape genre in conversation with great texts from both Eastern and Western traditions, notably Dante Alighieri’s (1265-1321) Divine Comedy and Li Shangyan’s (813-858 CE) The Sad Zether. Similarly to light, time is impossible to see and difficult to conceptualize, much like Josestu’s slippery catfish. Hao recognizes the inherent impossibility of fully capturing the passage of time onto a staid tableau, which, as aptly demonstrated by René Magritte’s La durée poignardée [Time Transfixed] (fig. 11, 1938), merely captures a moment in time rather than its elusive passage. In order to circumvent this intrinsic hinderance in medium, he brings his work into dialogue with works of literature, manipulating the ekphrastic potential of art into a mechanism to get close to revealing a conceptual sense of time. In Divine Comedy II (fig. 12, 2022), Hao renders tendril-like trees emerging from a murky marsh which create several strong vertical lines in the centre of the composition. To the left, a solitary male figure, head bent forward, peers solemnly out through a hole in the chain-link fence which veils the entire composition. The fence operates as a divider between the realm of the viewer and the space of the figure. On the viewer’s side of the fence, at the bottom edge of the foreground, a periscoping python rears its head towards the figure through the fence. Here, Hao is depicting a scene inspired from Dante’s Inferno, where Dante the pilgrim wanders the circles of Hell. Hao is inspired by Osim Mandelshtam’s 1933 interpretation of Dante, Подсказано Данте [Conversation about Dante], which envisions poetry as a rhythmic measure of time, and views Inferno as an abyss of stilted and confused temporality, contrasted with the celestial melody in Paradiso. Hao depicts Inferno’s sluggish cadence through the evocative visual of the figure, taken to be Dante, calf-deep in the muggy morass, shoulders slumped in exhaustion. The fence acts as a screen separating Dante’s temporality from the viewer’s, while the snake is indicative first of the hellish scene and secondarily of the electric impulse Mandelshtam sees conducting the flow of time in poetic works, which he imagines as a phallic baton, but can also be symbolized by the melodic swing of a snake poised to strike. Through Hao’s close engagement with literary sources and philosophical exegesis, his work approaches an understanding of time and its manyfold complexities typically unreachable in still media. Hao’s use of a horizontal rather than a vertical composition, typical of classical Chinese landscape painting exemplified in Yuan dynasty painter Ni Zan’s (1301-74) Six Gentlemen (fig. 13, 1345), enables this fruitful elaboration of temporalities. Meanwhile, the separation of viewer from figure contrasts with the predominant style of early Western landscapes and establishes more complicated notions of split chronologies. The influential Venetian draughtsman Domenico Campagnola (1500-64), an early drawer of the landscape genre, also used landscape to articulate textual themes. In his, Two Kneeling Boys (fig. 14 c. 1517) he is responding to the homoerotic pastoral motifs described in Virgil’s (70-19 BCE) Eclogues and Baldassare Castiglione’s (1478-1529) Alcon by placing his figures proximate to the viewer in the immediate foreground, establishing an intimacy and shared temporality between subject and viewer which remains separated in Hao’s Divine Comedy. This separation is integral to the disjunctive quality of time seen in Hao’s oeuvre.

Eugène Leroy and Hao Liang both reach out to grasp their elusive subjects—light and time—much like Josetsu’s farmer seeking to catch his slippery catfish. Both artists achieve their aims through a myriad of innovative techniques, conversing with old masters and classical texts to generate new forms of expression.

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