I once lived in a neighborhood where there was a sign that read DEAF CHILD. I turned that corner for several years and I always saw toys strewn across the lawn, but I never once saw the kid. Presumably the parents had the city place that sign there because people weren't heeding the SLOW CHILDREN signs that also picketed our development. I once attended an abstract painting show at P.S.1 in Queens that was shamelessly titled "Slow Painting." I thought of all this when I saw Richard Tsao's recent work at Gina Fiore's salon in March. Tsao makes some of the slowest paintings I have ever seen, and I approach them with the same patience I might also approach my unseen deaf child.
Tsao's abstract paintings are slow in the most enjoyable way. Their color very slowly warms and works over the eye. Their full image is revealed only to relaxed vision. Most brightly colored abstract paintings are typically described as saturated or supersaturated, but I would describe Tsao's rich color as unsaturated. If you were to taste it, it would taste the same as when you place a radio sized 9-volt battery on the end of your tongue. They share that same mildly metallic tang. The color itself appears to cling to the canvas in the same manner rust accrues to iron. Sometimes the surfaces are pitted and the color is sunken, and yet the paintings often still glow, and they mostly retain some kind of silken sheen. These paintings' lunar surfaces are determined by leaching. The pigment is powdery and loosely bound as a result of the painter's process of repeatedly dousing the colored panels with gallons and gallons of thinner. This unhealthy and wasteful process over time lends the painting's their individuality. They are harshly nurtured until fully developed and dry.
Tsao's paintings really only seem slow in the context of conventional New York PRODUCTion-line style painting as established by Stella and Warhol. They appear slow because they are not quick. These are three-year paintings, that otherwise seem well up to speed when considering the larger and older scope of worldwide painting culture. Tsao's work is like an unmade bed, you really can't appreciate one until you've lived with it for a little while.
Tsao's monoprints are usually restricted to three colors, which are sometimes placed in an uneven rectangular overlay, or alternately, they are sometimes placed in concentric bands producing an overheated corona that reminds one of the yellow shadows of Fragonard that flare from the nape of his models' necks. These works on paper, although more direct, have the same nectary cast as the paintings. There is something in the hue of Tsao's work that covers the full range of natural color -- as with exposed fruit; from freshness, to ripeness, to rotting. I think it is this sort of fullness that gives Tsao's work its feeling of Sybaritic spirituality.
I have used several unpleasant adjectives to describe Richard Tsao's painting (slow, leaching, wasteful, rotting...) Language is an injustice. It makes pleasure obscene. Richard Tsao makes pleasure something to be seen.
Richard Tsao at Gina Fiore Salon of Fine Arts, Feb. 1-Mar. 9, 1997, 9 MacDougal Alley, New York, NY 10011.
MICHAEL BRENNAN is a New York painter who writes on art.