Text by Clare Gemima
Photo by Arturo Sanchez, courtesy of the Artist and The Hole (2021)
The Hole, 86 Walker St.
A winding and disorientating green-screen grid tapes the ground of The Hole on Walker Street, trapping you in a lo-res, digi nightmare that is GAO HANG! a self-titled exhibition of 12 terrifying life-size paintings.
In Gao Hang’s first solo show at the gallery, the artist paints his sovereign by relying on a paradoxical 1990s time frame — one that was alive and well not so long ago yet feels already fossilized. Through sharp graphic lines and softer, more airbrushed finishes, Gao Hang has seemingly filled a substitute position for God…his creations just as bizarre as the next millennial’s.
As I scanned the show, my brain subconsciously shifted gears to screenland. A sphere that I was once very underqualified in but had complete autonomy over in my prepubescent heyday nonetheless. I was addicted to Crash Bandicoot (1996), Spyro (1998) and The Sims (2000) growing up and rejoiced in Hang’s insinuated homage to the suffocating graphics each game had produced.
While in their infancy, gaming and digital ecosystems introduced an extremely avant-garde idea to society — a totally abstract and otherworldly identity could be constructed and exist online. Although 8- and 16-bit compositions tried (very hard) initially, the idea lacked anything close to a civilized visual vocabulary. Fast forward to today’s technical triumphs and you’ll find little justification for existing offline at all. Why would you if you could look more stylish and even sexier within the confines of your screen?
Gao Hang’s minimized features, diminished perspectives and fluorescent back-lit net hues deliberately trap the viewer inside several massive stylistic and historical gaps. His deconstructed and naively painted characters not only fill in the cracks of console gaming’s graphic timeline but also in paintings such as Inarguably Beautiful and I Am So Pathetic Copying Donald Judd Like That, they also unveil evolutionary leaps found within a fine arts context.
Hang’s subtle commitment to research re-situates two famous, real-life sculptures — Venus de Milo, created in 130-100 BCE (Hellenistic period), which now sits in the Louvre in Paris, and the minimalist Untitled from 1967, a work currently collecting dust at MoMA’s storage unit in Queens.
In the artist’s other, less figurine paintings such as A Perfectly Beautiful Hand, Go Hug A Tree and Your Mountains Are So Fucking Full of Meaning, my thoughts instantly traveled to Xavier: Renegade Angel (2007), a perverse and problematic animated series that I fell in love with once upon a time. In this cartoon, protagonist Xavier has ocular heterochromia, a beak for a nose, a snake for an arm and backward bending knees. He’s covered in fur but is convinced that he is 100% human.
As if this wasn’t enough, many of his supporting characters are reduced to decorated polygons, looking completely flat from most, if not all angles and are grossly lego-like in design. This flagrant mind-fuck of a TV series is an awkward one to commit to watching, but it is hard to turn away from because of its chaotic artistry. A similar aesthetic to the one employed by production companies such as Adult Swim carries across all three rooms in GAO HANG! The artist’s warped landscapes and nature paintings unapologetically question ideals of beauty, while his characters stare at you almost as quizzically as you do them.
Amalgamating abject approaches to character manipulation, with a sense of humor around how limited his styling options once were, Hang also touches on a much darker side of the net. Beautiful and charismatic avatars masterfully disguise the identity of IRL losers, revealed in Cyber Bully and Losing the Freedom of Shaming People.
Visitors to the gallery are reminded of the creeps that dominate the internet and game space, a community that has become much harder to expose due to technology’s advanced creations of simulated identities.
As I stood in front of my favorite paintings in the show, Angel of The Day and My Photoshop My Choice, I realized that anyone around my age could have created these characters, or perhaps they already had 15 years ago.
In place of yesteryear’s gaming capabilities, Gao Hang has ditched screen-based graphics and chosen the medium of paint to customize the color of his characters’ lips, the cup sizes of their breasts, and the elongation in their purposefully tortured faces instead.
GAO HANG! is at The Hole’s Walker Street gallery until Jan. 29. Gallery hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Clare Gemima is a visual artist and arts writer from New Zealand, now based in the East Village of New York. You can find her work here: claregemima.com