In her first New York solo show, "Journey from the West", Charlene Liu has created utopias in the form of landscapes. Influenced by Kung-Fu movies, travel in Asia, Western comic books, and Chinese landscape painting she collages disparate parts into comprehensive wholes. Her indiscriminatingly delicate rendering of every form from flowers to motorcycles lends a democracy to her work while violent, but often nearly transparent, watercolor explosions act as formal fault lines and physical roadblocks. It is as if she has appropriated the signifiers of landscape painting and reassigned them, mapping out a personal narrative in which each flower, girl, and motorcycle has its chosen place.
All of the works are rigorous, romantic, and strange. They represent, and also act as, maps of no particular place, but of a journey. The viewer is led front to back, into and out of flower jungles across dirt paths to fading villages. She evokes Chinese landscape painting and employs a technique of Renaissance atmospheric perspective, making objects in the distance hazy and undefined. This conflation of references within the works also blurs lines – those of practice and time. A pond rests in a pile of flowers with nothing to contain it but the watermarks themselves. A tree unfolds with bright green leaves decorated by veins screen-printed in gold. One work, "Dawn breaks silent, she takes her leave" carries us past a reclining girl who faces a smaller version of herself, in a reverie of galactic mandala patterns, explosions, meteorites, and crowded flowers. Liu leaves much of the space empty and white, allowing access to this sparsely populated but intricate universe. In the one vertical piece, which is the wildest of all the works, three cyclists flip over a massive explosion as if they are about to come crashing through the paper and into the third dimension. She often introduces danger and risk into the work in the forms of stunt-riding or blasts. But the danger is tamed and rendered beautiful resulting in complex webs of translucent greens, oranges, blues, and pinks.
If the larger works in the show can be read as maps then the smaller works provide legends. They explore the recurring elements, making some images seem like icons with defined roles, imbued with meaning by the nature of repetition. A village, locks of thick black hair, girls in multiple, flowers, and explosions become part of the vocabulary with which the works can be understood.
The processes of printing, paper-cutting, watercolor, and drawing are also essential to the language inscribed in Liu's work. They reveal themselves subtly and intimately but intently– where flowers appear to be painted or drawn directly onto the paper they are glued on top of one another. In this way, depth is both implied and realized. Incessant layering achieves the effect of apparent flatness. She does, however, depart from this seeming seamlessness at some points in favor of exposing the act of collaging. In one instance she has meticulously cut and pasted three sheets together to expose an orange river, perhaps a vein, opening up the work and revealing the earth. Liu elevates her craft to the point of giving meaning to the work, integrating it fully with the themes and subject matter she addresses. In a universal and very personal way, Liu is in the act of forming an identity through juxtapositions: masculine icons and feminine lines, depictions of nature as cultural investigations, and her attention to craft equal to the importance of her concepts.