Paper isn’t skin. Nevertheless, it shares some qualities with epidermis: it’s absorptive, it stretches and sometimes tears, it’s more fibrous than it looks, and if it’s bathed in ink, it’s going to stain permanently. Homemade paper, wrinkled, and pleasantly thick, is particularly skin-like. Interacting with it almost feels like shaking hands.
Xiaoqiang Li didn’t make the paper he uses in “The 3rd Abstract State,” his sorrow-drenched solo exhibition. The tools of his artistic expression come from China, where he was born and raised, and where he worked for decades. The ink and wash techniques he’s used to make the nineteen pieces that hang at Novado Gallery (110 Morgan Street) this weekend — and this weekend only! — are also part of a long tradition. Nevertheless, this American viewer is not sure he’s ever seen anything quite like the curious color effects he’s able to achieve through saturation, or the fur-like bunching texture that occurs in his abstractions, or the peculiar balance of shape and shadow. Whether he’s intended it or not, he’s created something that feels quite personal: a record of a haunting, works that seem to speak of despair in a cool, even, controlled voice, an inscription of a blue mood in heavy, smoky, gorgeous grays.
Li’s gray does not feel industrial. Rather, it’s the hushed and humble shade of pencil marks and very old stone. The artist enlivens his pieces with occasional flashes of yellow, turquoise, and in the standout “Sin No. 4,” a pale pink that, upon close inspection, glitters like the cosmetics on the cheek of a stage performer. More evidence of close and emotional interaction is discernible on other ink-soaked surfaces: a shoe print, the kiss of bubble wrap, and rune-like crosses and scratches that are smothered or occluded by broad, mute fields of color. Many of the works in the show are cut into quarters by rough crosses, while others are marked by white furrows, or ruler-straight lines like a pupil’s dutiful markings on a chalkboard. Even if many of the pieces weren’t titled “Confined” (five of the nineteen are), this show would still speak powerfully of imposed restraint.
And restraint is necessary when confronted with these pieces, because the urge to touch them can be overwhelming. The folds and creases in Li’s paper are so heavily laden with ink that they’ve taken on the fuzzy feel of a fairground stuffed animal. The world’s saddest fairground stuffed animal, mind you, a regular gray Eeyore, calling out for a reassuring stroke (don’t do it.) Curator Haoqingsong has hung this show so that the illumination at Novado Gallery tickles the textured surfaces of the paper. Some abstract works register an immediate impression but don’t hold attention; the pieces in Li’s exhibition don’t demand scrutiny, but they certainly reward it. The longer they’re observed, the more they seem to breathe.
There isn’t a dud in this extremely single-minded, extremely coherent, somber and sunless art show, but a few works do sing in a purer and more mournful pitch than others do. “Boundary No. 3” is a bumblebee’s dream of streaks of black and yellow ink in wide parallel lines; “Confusion No. 4” is a wash of pewter-colored ink with subtle copper highlights that suggests a metal plate liberated from a long-abandoned factory. “Confined No. 5” might not be the best realized work in the show, but it could be the most characteristic. In it, a thin arrow struggles up from the gloom and streaks diagonally across the paper, crossed by four white lines as it travels. It’s unswerving, but it’s headed straight for a corner choked with thick, immobilizing black ink.
“The 3rd Abstract State” is just passing through. The show opened on Wednesday, and it’ll close on the 19th, clearing out to make room for Steve Singer’s watercolors. Xiaoquiang Li will be at the Novado Gallery tonight at 5 p.m. for the main event attached to the show. While he’s there, on Morgan Street, you might ask him pointedly why he calls this his New York City ink and wash exhibition. On second thought, he’s from the other side of the planet. We’ll let this one slide.