John Chang and Carol Gove

at Mill Contemporary

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Installation view at Mill Contemporary, Artworks by John Chang and Carol Gove
Photo: courtesy Mill Contemporary

If memory were an artistic medium, perhaps it would be paint. Imagine recollections as viscous liquids, colored by shifting emotions as they swirl on the palette of your hippocampus. Or maybe the internal hard drive is more of a collage, storing information in jagged layers that stick together and sometimes eclipse each other. John Chang and Carol Gove explore the materiality of memories-both personal and shared-in this exhibition of mixed-media abstractions.

Chang treats newsprint like gesso, wrapping his panels with it before attacking them with decisive black-and-white brushstrokes. The Shanghai-born, California-based artist’s underlying collages are both aesthetic and conceptual. They add a lumpy texture, and also transform his graphic black forms into literal censor bars. His compositions recall the work of Robert Motherwell, particularly the marching silhouettes of the abstract expressionist’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic series. Chang’s shadows have sharper edges, and bristle with energetic drips of paint that ensnare ghostly white grids of “deconstructed” Chinese characters. Even when Chang brings language to the forefront, he preserves this ambiguity. A vast series of 6-by-6-inch panels called No repeats the same character over and over. A gallery attendant informed me that the symbol can mean either something or nothing. “To John, it means nothing,” she observed. There are dark political undertones here that echo Chang’s early work. If you have the power to paint over yesterday’s news, then you can sculpt the collective memory.

Gove’s work maintains a tangential conversation with Chang’s activist thunderclaps. The New Hampshire artist harvests ephemera from her family history and embeds it between layers of colorful pigment. It’s a vivid stew of letters and magazine clippings, certificates and contracts. This work feels deeply personal, but Gove holds the viewer at arm’s length. Like governments, families are institutions with guarded archives, and the information Gove has smuggled into her work is either incomplete or illegible. So often, she surrenders to the beauty of vintage patterns or typography, treating her fragments as simple compositional elements. We’re left to draw clunky conclusions on the subtle contours of a personal history. Gove’s bright colors pair well with Chang’s monochrome palette, but both artists run the risk of abstracting their stories into oblivion. Whether they’re manipulating paint or paper, their works have the strongest impact when we can see outlines of the truth stirring beneath the surface.

-Jordan Eddy