At Asia Society Texas Center in Houston, Hong Hong’s massive, experimental paper works fuse nature, craft, painting, and the sublime.
Hong Hong: The Mountain That Does Not Describe a Circle
April 17-July 25, 2021
Asia Society Texas Center, Houston
For the artist Hong Hong, paper has the potential to connect us to the sublime. The Mountain That Does Not Describe a Circle, Hong’s solo exhibition at Asia Society Texas Center in Houston, features twenty-five large-scale paper works across five installations. Spanning the center’s walls, floors, and hallways, Hong’s paper pieces are arranged in massive, colorful configurations that resemble vibrant portals to another world.
Her works’ sprawling swaths of earthly colors—sky blues, granite grays, and pitch blacks—evoke ocean waves, desert sands, night skies, and other tranquil landscapes. In the wake of a lengthy period of constricted life indoors, Hong’s works present an immersive and soothing experience that awakens the viewer’s most serene memories of nature and inspires a lasting sense of visual peace.
For the past several years, Hong has made paper in various places across the United States, employing elaborate processes that Southwest Contemporary documented in our spring 2021 print issue. As she moves from location to location—she’s currently based in Houston—the climate and conditions of her surroundings change the works’ hue, texture, and form.
In the triptych Channel—created during the artist’s recent residency at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft—orb-like shapes float across the midsection of three large sheets of paper in shades of sandy beige and sun-soaked blue. By exposing her works to the elements during creation, Hong has allowed the heavy Gulf Coast heat and humidity to imprint deep, topographic grooves and ridges into the porous surfaces of the paper, suggesting the errant pathways of streams.
Water is an essential ingredient in the papermaking process, and the flowing imagery in Hong’s pieces often recalls water in its many forms. In the nearly twenty-foot-long installation Gate, enormous dual cloud and waterfall forms flank two turquoise pools.
Despite their massive, altar-like presence, the edges of this and other works reveal a more vulnerable side. Like damaged or aging human skin, some have deteriorated and flaked off, while others crinkle or fold into themselves. These physical realities point to paper’s fragility, but also to its resilience. In these works, Hong shows us that paper is like a body, with all its cycles and potential for decay.
Hong’s outdoor papermaking process captures nature directly. Close viewing of her pieces is rewarded with glimpses of embedded seed pods, leaves, twigs, flower petals, and even wayward insects that have literally fused into the surfaces as they congeal and dry. The fibrous core of her pieces is composed of repurposed paper scraps, pulped tree bark, and even shredded segments of older works.
In this way, Hong’s paper pieces lyrically document and condense a span of hours, seasons, and places in time. The artist transforms something as ephemeral as paper into something as sturdy as a fossil, imbuing it with layers of fixed and compressed matter. For this reason, her works’ richly-textured surfaces seem to hum with quiet energy.
Born in Hefei, China in 1989, Hong immigrated to North Dakota with her family at age ten. Her art practice shifted from painting to papermaking during graduate school, though her works’ large surfaces, gestural designs, and gently radiating colors contain a strong painterly touch. Still, Hong’s genre-crossing work is hard to categorize.
The bold, monumental shapes in The Kiss, for example, recall the elegant economy of Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings, but with the poetic earthiness of Robert Smithson’s land art. What’s more, Hong’s expansive scale elevates paper to architectural, and even geographic heights: seen head-on, half of The Kiss looks like the steps of an ancient ziggurat, while the other half of the installation could be the mouth of an especially dark cave.
But this liminality and undefinability are fitting: I imagine the manner that the viewer looks and wonders at Hong’s works must mirror the way that the artist looks and wonders at the world.
Deftly amalgamating aspects of painting, craft, and performance, Hong’s experimental paper works are rooted in a view of paper as a natural, malleable, and even spiritual material. In Hong’s hands, paper has the power to wash over us, providing a sort of experiential plane where the simple material gains new, more expansive possibilities.