Gabe Tong’s Paintings Reinvigorate the Formal Vocabulary of Cubism

Harley Davidson Softail I, Paintings48 x 36

Since Cubism originally had all to do with exploiting the flatness of objects and forms on the two-dimensional surface of the picture plane, the phrase “3D” cubism could seem a contradiction in terms  –– that is, until one encounters the paintings of an intrepid and innovative Chinese-American artist named Gabe Tong.

    Tong, who was born with multiple eye defects that should have stopped him from seeing, much less inventing his own one-man movement, creates vibrantly colorful oils on canvas that immediately reveal the accuracy of his term. Perhaps Tong’s closest artistic ancestor would be Fernand Leger for the shaded sense of solid volumes that he brings to his forms, which while abstract often allude to the figure, as seen in his “Duet Pianist” series, inspired by watching concert performances by his two musician daughters over a period of twenty years.

    These glowing canvases with their complex, rhythmic interlocking forms suggest not only the musicians but the transcendent shape of the music itself. Here, as in all of Tong’s paintings, the composition takes on an almost sculptural dimension that does evoke a sense of three dimensional depth. (Indeed, someone I showed them to remarked that they could resemble pictures of sculpture.) While the first painting in the “Duet Pianist” series is executed in the subdued earth tones, ranging from deep sienna to pale ocher that one normally associates with Cubism, and the forms of both figure and piano, although stylized, are readily discernible at a glance, later works in the series, such as “Duet Pianist VIIl,” dynamically deconstruct the forms of the figure, the piano, and even the individual keys, more abstractly and heighten the colors to a brilliant chromatic pitch.

    There is an innate good humor to Gabe Tong’s paintings that also makes him a kindred spirit of hip young artists like Dana Schutz and George Condo who wreak delightful havoc with aspects of art history and Pop culture. In “Twilight, The Movie,” for example, the characters of that popular film franchise come alive as organically merged shapes locked in mortal combat by the eerie light of a big fat full moon. 

    Someone once said, “ In order to be a real abstract artist rather than just a ‘nonobjective’ one, you have to abstract from something,” and the sources of Tong’s inspiration, while often distorted, are almost always evident in his compositions. This is especially true of his “Harley Davidson Softail” series, where the rider and the machine merge in a manner that not only shows his formal kinship with the aforementioned Leger but also with the Nutty Putty fluidity of the much revered veteran Chicago painter Peter Saul. Wheels and flamelike waves of brilliant color conspire in these compositions to create a sense of exhilarating velocity and multileveled simultaneity also reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”

    Then there is “Uranus 27 Moons,” where Tong seems to invent yet another school that one might call 3D Orphism (an offshoot of Cubism and Synchronism notable for its radiant pure color harmonies, often evoking what its chief practitioner Delaunay once described as “music pulsating through the universe.” Tong goes even further in his artist statement, saying, “Here thick layers of paint simulate the gravitational pull between the Uranus and the moons, which could  be composed of different gases, ice crystals and rocks of multiple colors and texture.”

    Yet you couldn’t get more classic in pure Cubist terms than Tong’s “Nine to Five,” which approaches “The Three Musicians” by Picasso or the darker earthiness of certain works by his contemporary Juan Gris for the solid stasis of its securely “locked in” forms and subdued yet strong color harmonies.

–– Byron Coleman

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