Remember the tuning knob? Not the electronic radio button that automatically seeks and lands when it finds solid form, but the manual knob you have to turn ever so slightly to exit static and enter language, music. Tishan Hsu’s work at Miguel Abreu Gallery functions like that kind of emergence through attunement. Form is embedded somewhere in the opacity of abstraction.
Hsu’s first museum survey exhibition at SculptureCenter last year solidified a narrative of the artist as one whose vision was out of step in 1980s New York. Undeterred by market and societal pressures, Hsu has pursued a consistent, unconventional body of work. Many reviews mention his uncanny prescience or how much his works from 40 years ago resemble iPhone screens and the Instagram logo. Like science fiction, what was strange has normalized.
But in this exhibition, works Hsu has made since 2019 speak to how strange that normal is. The works on view are mixed media and their flatness conflicts with their illusionism and silicone protrusions that invade the space. All are sickly screen-glow green, bright white, electric blue, blood red that drips and pink-white flesh tone. In Watching 2 (2021), Hsu directly references the iPhone face—its format is narrow and vertical with beveled edges, and the speaker sits in its familiar position at the top. But the screen is uncannily like a torso, with a macro photograph of a nipple and five other nodes in mammalian formation speaking to some massive future litter. Where the “home” button should be, a circular camera stands in for the navel, the lifelong imprint of original physical connection.
Each work references scanning in some way: x-rays, surveillance footage, thermometers, systems that identify individuals’ identity, mood and race, and even a QR code that leads to a video piece. In Boating Scene 1.2.3 and QMH 6.2.1 (both 2019), old family photographs stretch as if someone had eagerly opened a scanner too early.
Hsu is a self-described news junkie, and poignantly, [SPA] – to be titled (2021) contains an image credit for a photograph that appeared in The New York Times on March 25, 2021. The article it accompanied was an investigation into class divisions among Asian Americans and the precarity of spa workers Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng, who were murdered by a white gunman this year.
By this last room of the gallery, I realized that Hsu had included all the major horrors of recent years. Recently, I exchanged my radio alarm clock for my iPhone’s ringtone. The racism, Trumpism, police brutality and pandemic made the search through static almost unbearable—form itself had become chaos. The world has caught up with Hsu and the dystopian present requires no prescience. —Sarah Cowan
Tishan Hsu, Gray Zone-5, 2020. Graphite, acrylic on Duralar, 24 x 19 inches.