During a recent visit to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Tsai Yun-Ju found herself mesmerized by a work by Henry Darger. Crowded with the outsider artist’s folksy Vivian Girls, the layered panorama reminded Tsai of traditional Chinese ink paintings. “There’s no single view or perspective,” she said. “My mind can wander inside and out freely.”
Tsai was in town this past February for the opening of her first solo exhibition in the United States, “A Mirror for the Romantic,” at Tara Downs gallery, where the London-based artist was surrounded by her own painted abstractions. Her work in pencil and oils invites us to wander between marks that boomerang freely across the canvas, with hard-edged lines and brisk smudges wending through eddies of flamboyant color. Her compositions are dense and seemingly limitless in dimension. They sweep you up in their relentless fervor.
Tsai describes herself as a narrator of motions, with a special concern for “the tension of searching back and forth.” This dynamic registers in her gestures’ trajectories, which morph wildly and resolve into harmony. Although her paintings offer no clear stories, they are as eventful as any drama. Word without End I Saw (2022) is a riotous encounter of pastel daubs that flit around a wispy spiral of purple, with exacting curves and ciphers subtly punctuating the chaos. Looking at the verdant First Day of Four Day Interlude (2023) feels like a fit of spring fever.
Tsai, 24, draws influences from lyrical texts of traditional Chinese literature, in particular the classic epic novel Dream of the Red Chamber, written in the 1750s by Cao Xueqin. Growing up in a large family in Taiwan, she was attracted to the book’s story about the rise and decline of a royal family and its evocation of imagery and metaphors to delineate complex interpersonal relationships. Her ongoing fascination with the 120-chapter tale’s “ever-changing process of beauty and ugliness, temperance and obscenity, refinement and vulgarity,” as she put it, materializes in her approach to mark-making. She often begins by piling up paint on the edges of her canvas and then spreading it across the surface, drawing over certain layers, and obfuscating others with gesso. When she describes this process, she uses words like “distort,” “destroy,” and “re-create.”
This method of working laterally stems from Tsai’s training in gongbi, a realist style of traditional Chinese ink painting that she studied in high school. She adapted her skill in executing fine yet fluid brushstrokes in oil paint at the Taipei National University of the Arts, but turned to abstraction at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where she received her MFA in 2022.
She was, and remains, interested in pushing spatial relationships and seeking layered emotional states: just as the diction and rhythm of a pithy Chinese idiom can impart a figurative meaning, so can the precise choreography of gestures on canvas unfold a nexus of events. “They’re all constructing and bringing to the viewer a broad worldview and inner spiritual space,” she said.