Ocula | Huang Hai-Hsin’s Notes from a Closed Island

Lou Mo, Ocula, January 19, 2022

Taiwanese painter Huang Hai-Hsin likes to wander and wonder. Her keen observations of the world find their way into paintings and illustrations of people getting on with their lives.


New York's museums and international art fairs have long acted as stages for the artist's figurative compositions, rendered in a loose, illustrative comical style that capture the nuances of social spaces and the encounters they engender, no matter how mundane or absurd.


In these studies, the artist playfully reflects on the power of the gaze—both hers and that of her subjects. Take the large scale pencil-on-paper drawing Art Basel (2019), which encapsulates the art world at its peak sporting event, or Upper East Side (2015), which depicts three well-dressed older white female museum-goers contemplating a male marble statue.


Lately, nature has become a new backdrop for Huang, thanks to the artist's extended stay in Taipei during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has yielded hilarious and observant tableaux of modern-day mores in paintings created over the last two years.


These oil on canvas works are currently on view in Springtime Hills, Huang's second exhibition at Double Square Gallery in Taipei (18 December 2021–29 January 2022). The show's title is a quirky nod to a 1990s Taiwanese language folk song of the same name, which would play whenever EVA Air planes touched down in Taiwan.


With pandemic restrictions turning Taiwan into a shuttered island, the Brooklyn-based painter has adapted to life at home again, visiting sights like the Taroko National Park and hiking many impressive mountain ranges throughout the island.


Resulting works include KOL Mountain (Macha Mountain) (2021), which shows green hills and soaring eagles that pale before queues of faceless yoga-attired girls with selfie sticks. The painting refers to the verdant and photogenic Sanjiaolun Mountain located on the edge of Yilan County, a popular check-in site for digital influencers.


Likewise, Mount Xiangshan (2021) depicts a succession of hikers going up Xiangshan, a social media hotspot in southern Taipei with easy hiking routes that locals and tourists take to pose with the landmark Taipei 101, the city's own Eiffel Tower, in the background.


Taking on the role of the hiker-as-painter, Huang reflects on the activities and etiquettes that have become local middle-class pastimes. Mountain climbing is as much about climbing as it is about having expensive gear, after all.


In Mountain Climbers (2021), three fully clad hikers stand in stark contrast to a smiling Indigenous guide wearing flip flops. The woman in the middle is covered by a veil and glasses, as her companions on both sides look on uneasily with stiff smiles.


While the pandemic has triggered a reorientation for many towards nature, the trend retains urban characteristics.


While Learn about Fire (2021) depicts campers armed with headlights, seeking illumination amid bonfire flames, After Learning about Fire(2021), shows a gathering of absent minds. Campers are hunched over and absorbed into their smartphones, perhaps communicating the transcendental experience they had to followers.


A similar smartphone-state-of-mind appears in Reached the Summit(2021), where a group of well-equipped hikers are fixated on their phones. Light emanating from each screen and from additional screens in the hilly summits form a constellation under a navy-blue sky.


Perhaps this is a time when seeing is no longer sufficient; an online post must prove one's presence. Think about visitors looking at paintings through their phones, as they shoot them for their social media accounts.


As the artist collects contemporary moments and zooms in on their implications, the natural, artificial, digital, physical, and personal overlap as if blending into one. But as Huang shows, the distance between modern and natural life is far too wide to fuse completely. 'I'm not very skilled at grand narratives but all of my works are like short sentences,' she notes.


Poised at the liminal space between culture and nature, Commuters(2021) contrasts a group of motorbike commuters, some of them Uber and Foodpanda riders, with goats at leisure. The goats look at the commuters, while the commuters appear oblivious to their existence.


Another set of paintings rendered on a smaller scale feel like an antidote to these social equations, with detailed studies of plants and animals devoid of human presence, as in Sprout (2021) or Da-an Birds 2 (2020), and natural sights like the caves at Lanyu and the Taroko Gorge.


These cosy tokens feel like affectionate notes. They bring Huang's paintings back to the intimate and personal, where social observations overlap with notes on the rediscovery of home. —[O]