When my Uber arrived at the address I copied in a few minutes before, I was a little disoriented. I found myself in Center City on a Friday night and looked up to see an impressive apartment complex soar above me as the city did its nightly churn around me. I waited for the suspicious man behind me to open the locked door, and I was on my way to the thirteenth floor.
Apartment #1300 in the Adelphia House building is the current home of E-Moderne Gallerie, a contemporary art gallery that touts its focus on showcasing Asian art and international creatives. Edward Fong founded the gallery in 2014 and has been the executive director since its inception.
I was there attending the opening reception for the gallery’s latest exhibition entitled “The Entanglement,” featuring Chinese artists Gu BenChi, Wang Xiaoshuang, and Zhai Xuanhong. The exhibition is composed of Shanghai-based artists and based on their textured experiences living in the Asian metropolis as it hurtles towards ultra-urbanization.
I joined a small group of people that were pivoting side to side in front of a work on the wall, praising how it subtly transformed with each new angle. They were admiring the works of Gu BenChi, an artist that uses polyester yarn to create delicately layered, geometric designs that precisely interlace to form a buzzing grid of arresting sensory overload.
Each piece of yarn is stretched exceedingly taut across the frame, like a harp where the rainbow colored strings have their own pitches and are begging to be plucked. Your eyes can try to follow a single thread from one end to the other, but it quickly drowns in the other colors and seemingly infinite layers that overlay and overlap and intertwine and intersect, endlessly.
The exact mathematical model BenChi uses is evident in his works. His art reminds me of my time in precalculus, when my teacher gave us a mundane trig function to punch into our calculators and it bloomed into a delicate flower on our digital graphs. They evoke the stoic beauty of architectural drawings and understated subway maps but surge with their own bright color and dimension.
I moved on to face the two large oil paintings behind me. These works, created by Wang Xiaoshuang, have a more inundating sensory push and pull, not at all reserved with their dizzying visual effect. The painting I fixated on is called “Ruin No. 14,” a rippling canvas of congealed pink and lavender brush strokes frothing with pieces of scarlet urban debris.
Oddly enough, the sloshing purple shades reminded me of the instantly iconic pastel waters that Ariana Grande baptized herself in as a part of the music video for “God is a woman.” However, the waters in Xiaoshuang’s painting have been mercilessly boiled, condensed, flushed, and dumped in a relentless cycle, and Xiaoshuang has captured them right before they finally trickle down into the sewers.
The immensity of the work makes it difficult to distinguish between oil and strewn brochure, brushstroke and expired QR code. Xiaoshuang makes his disillusionment tangible and made me want to dip my hands in his industrial runoff, if only because I was anxious to see what would stick to my fingers.
The last paintings I viewed were similar in medium to Xiaoshuang, though radically contrasting in style and execution. These works by Zhai Xuanhong were remarkably restrained, crudely comparable to thin lines of black and white sauce as they were painstakingly piped onto a canvas.
It was here that I found my favorite work of the night: “Untitled, No. 201805 A.” To look at this painting is to relive the kinetic anxiety of urban life as it writhes and bubbles over the boundaries of the canvas. Xuanhong does not inject the idealized standardization of BenChi or the biting criticism of Xiaoshuang; instead, he depicts urban life without any color of judgement, allowing the molecules of his paint to organically multiply and branch with other black veins.
The exhibition represents the three stages of a city’s life cycle: careful planning, controlled chaos, and ruin. Maybe I liked Xuanhong’s paintings the most because they invoked the pulsating, careening metropolis that I had wanted to be a part of for so long without any wide-eyed idealization. His work is more of an objective record, charting the circulation of a city like the intermittent beats of a heart rate monitor.
Shortly after, I left the gallery and walked a few blocks to get to my bus stop. The 21 was very late, so I sat on the sidewalk because some nights, it is the only thing you feel like doing.
I have never felt strongly attached to a city or town that I have lived in. I am often too transient emotionally and physically to develop a true connection to the places around me. This exhibition, however, made me wonder what it would be like to be able to fully sink into the netting of a city – to submit to a center of gravity outside of my self that vibrates, convulses, and destroys its atmosphere while it tries to build a new one.
E-Moderne Gallerie’s The Entanglement is now on display at 1229 Chestnut Street.