Flirting with Chaos

Energy, dynamism and rhythm radiate from the work of Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann.

“Double Bed” by Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann.

I think of my work as landscape oriented or having to do with landscape painting,” says Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann of her complex, visually arresting paintings. The work is abstract, but Mann’s use of botanical imagery, glimpses of what looks like sky, orientation and the general ebb and flow of mass across the picture plane both reference and evoke the natural world. Being in nature and capturing it are vital to Mann’s practice, and she often paints en plein air near her home in Basye, in Shenandoah County.

“I’m not as interested in thinking about landscape in terms of perspectival space. I like thinking of landscape in terms of teeming masses of life and the systems that make them work together. In the Shenandoah Valley for example, I’m not just looking at the mountains in the distance, I am actually looking at what is immediately below my feet. Weeds and bugs and how those are combining and melding together.”

Mann, 35, who is half Taiwanese, spent her early childhood and the summers of her teenage years in Taiwan. During those latter visits, she studied the traditional Chinese shan shui (“mountain-water”) school of painting, which uses a brush and sumi ink to depict mountains, rivers and waterfalls. Although Mann is very much a product of both Eastern and Western traditions—she majored in studio art at Brown University and pursued an MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art Hoffberger School of Painting, where she is currently an adjunct professor—this rigorous early training and approach formed the foundation of her practice and is evident in most of her work today.

Mann starts every work with what she refers to as a “pour.” After laying her paper—this can either be a plain sheet or collaged or woven paper—on the floor of her studio, she haphazardly pours buckets of watered-down acrylic or ink onto it. She likes the lack of control of the pour; not planning or knowing what she’ll end up with is both freeing and challenging. It takes several days, or sometimes even weeks for the water to evaporate leaving a bloom of pigment staining the paper. The stain, a product of what Mann refers to as a “chance operation” becomes the starting point for the work. It’s an interesting turn of phrase, almost oxymoronic, containing both accident and determination. It could refer to Mann’s approach as well as to the fusion of Western and Eastern painting traditions.

The stain, a product of what Mann refers to as a “chance operation” becomes the starting point for the work.

Mann’s works are large. Her intention is to create an immersive experience for the viewer where they don’t just see something, they also experience it, or at least get a whiff of its essence. In looking at Mann’s work, one is struck by how it is charged with energy. It radiates outward in explosive splinters or undulates across the surface in sensuous mounds, or swirls around like bits of confetti.

In “Fable” (2014), Mann combines painting, silkscreen, collage and etching to create a ravishing work of extraordinary complexity and visual power. An abstract tour de force of composition, juxtaposed texture and color, spatial dynamism and rhythm, the painting exudes confidence and nerve. From a formal standpoint, it’s visually dazzling. It’s also curious looking, and we can’t help wondering if what is there is an actual thing, and so our interest is piqued twice. It’s as if Mann is provoking us to think in two different directions at the same time.

“Double Bed” (2017) also thrums with energy, but of a quieter kind. The painting takes its compositional elements from murals in the ancient Roman villa of Livia. The diptych composition is suggestive of traditional space with a repeated shape that conveys arched portals, or perhaps these are the beds of the title. Earth and sky can be read into the left side, but Mann pulls us back into abstraction on the right with overlapping vertical bands of color and pattern. The pine tree at the center evokes nature as do the greenish, blue and yellow hues. These are punctuated by patches of gaudy multicolored pointillist daubs. The swirling ribbons and funny little squiggles add a lightness to the piece—the visual equivalents of a soft, spring breeze.

Mann’s work is a virtuosic balancing act between formal elements, technique, images and movement. There is a lot going on, but Mann never loses control. She flirts with chaos, allowing it into the work like a dash of piquant seasoning to add spice to the more placid areas, but it never takes over. “I like combining something that is inherently and easily, naturally beautiful, like a pour of paint with something that feels a little more ham-handed or clumsy.” This visual yin and yang enlivens and enriches the work and keeps the viewer on their toes.

This article originally appeared in our October 2018 issue.

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