In conceiving her recent complex, layered, vibrant multi-media works, DC-based artist Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann might have embarked from the enticingly oxymoronic premise expressed by 20th-century painter Francis Bacon, “I believe in deeply ordered chaos.” Working on paper placed on the floor of her studio, Mann begins each piece by pouring diluted acrylic paint, ink and water on the surface, allowing shapes to form and coalesce in a dynamic organic interplay. The resulting somewhat improvised foundations for composition—swirling with energy captured in the poured pigments, and popping with color—become the background upon which the artist builds.
As points of departure, the backgrounds offer clues to where she might take them. Many of the pieces are based on a sort of circular form evoking a floral motif. Creating order from the chaos, Mann works inward, superimposing intricate detail, such as ribbon-like vines and the delicate veins of leaves. She pulls from a surprisingly diverse range of media and techniques—woodcut, etching, silkscreen and collage—to add overall visual resonance to the work. In one of the most intricate pieces, Woven (2016), the artist cut thick strips of paper on which she had already applied the background paint, manipulating the surface by weaving it, adding another element of pattern and texture.
Evoking close-up abstracted landscape, the series was inspired by Mann’s 2016 visit to the ancient Mogao Caves on the Dunhuang oasis in Northern China’s Gobi Desert. Situated on the Silk Road, the caves are the site of 492 hand-carved Buddhist temples. Dating from the 4th to 14th century, the cave walls are richly painted, often floor-to-ceiling, with images of the Buddha engaged in narrative depictions of his life. (Interestingly, replica cave interiors were featured last summer in the Getty Center exhibit, “Cave Temples of Dunhuang.”) The immersive nature of the Buddhist imagery, with its combined figurative, abstract and decorative patterns, made a profound impression on the artist. By whatever degree she channeled that experience as a leaping-off point for this body of work, the end product might be thought of as a symbolic synthesis of Mann’s worldview. Born in Wisconsin, the artist lived in Israel, China, Taiwan and South Korea while growing up. An amalgam of bold color and energy controlled with dexterity, the artist’s approach suggests a determination to impose a sense of harmony upon a wild multi-faceted vision.