"Help", 2005, watercolor on paper, 31.5 by 44.5 inches.
Hankang Huang's paintings are about humor, which is not to say that they're particularly funny, or meant to be. Instead of aiming for laughs themselves, Huang's delicately drawn and deliberately textured watercolors explore the logic of diverse kinds of jokes.
The first and most obvious kind is the pun. In speech or text, a pun is "the humorous use of a word or phrase so as to emphasize or suggest its different meanings or applications, or the use of words that are alike or nearly alike in sound but different in meaning; a play on words."1 Translated into the visual realm, then, puns can be found in images used in humorously inappropriate contexts or the replacement of one image with another that shares a similar shape.
Huang's "Help" (pictured above) is a virtual illustration of that definition.
Nowadays, puns are associated with an antiquarian comedic aesthetic. They bring to mind the Borsht Belt and early television variety shows. Two other, more contemporary, Humor Strategies also find their way into Huang's work: the anarchic surrealism of characteristic of 60s comedy typified by Monty Python and the dry, detached, raised-eyebrow irony of the recent concluded Seinfeldian era.
"Run into" is a great example of Huang's take on 60s anarchy:
"Run into", 2005, watercolor on paper, 31.5 by 44.5 inches.
The painting's imagery combines with its title to imply an action: a lion running running between the legs of a woman and up into her body. This little surrealist haiku of a picture incorporates many of the most used parts of the Python vocabulary: violation of the body, hyper-sexualization, gender ambiguity, etc.
By contrast, "The final utilization of Tank," is very 90s:
"The final utilization of Tank", 2005, 31.5 by 44.5 inches, watercolor on paper.
At first glance, this picture looks like a simple visual pun: the tank's turret standing in for a clothesline. But there's something in the particulars of tone here that makes the situation more complex. Handled differently, a picture of (children's?) laundry hung out to dry at the end of a tank's gun could be overtly political. It could be played as agitprop. Huang's take, however, is totally detached. The Tank looks like a crumpled paper toy. The colors are all equally faded and the brushy, liquid texture of the watercoloring is even across all the objects. The completely flat white background denies us any clues that could even suggest a political context.
These strategies echo the mundane, deflating comedy of Seinfeld and its 90s brethren. Potentially 'heavy' issues like race and discrimination aren't distinguished from trivia like looking for your car in a parking lot or waiting in line at a chinese restaurant. No part of the world seems to touch the characters much and the biggest response a situation can gleam is a knowing chuckle (with an eye towards the studio audience).
Just as critical academic writing about comedy tends towards the jargonic and highly conceptual, Huang's pictures have an abstract self-referential quality to them. Whereas successful humor pulls us immediately past the artistry of its means and into the physically uncontrollable act of laughing, Huang's paintings keep us stuck doing the serious and difficult work of examining its mechanism.
With his masterful handling of the medium of watercolor and his unconventional view of the world, Hankang Huang has created a body of work typified by the use of unexpected and compelling subject matter inspired by his experience of daily life in Paris. He gathers and transforms visual information from advertisements, the internet, television, magazines, newspapers and street life itself. Huang combines these elements in surprising juxtapositions that employ the use of metaphor and personal narrative. They include both social and political commentary, poignantly and often ironically rendered. For example, Final Utilization of the Tank suggests a peaceful alternative to warfare by using the tank’s elongated gun barrel to hang drying laundry. Run Into portrays a roaring male lion and a recumbent woman with legs spread in a carnal and unambiguously erotic moment. In an entirely different vein, On Evolution is a powerful image of a post-Darwinian, vaguely prehistoric skeleton, combining a human head and the body of a beast. While a Chinese influence is not immediately apparent in Huang’s choice of imagery, there is a pervasive, poetic stillness and a delicacy of touch in his use of watercolor that is reminiscent of the spiritual and philosophical qualities often associated with Asian art.
Hankang Huang was born in 1977 in Suzhou in the Jiangsu province of China, and emigrated to Paris in 2001 where he currently lives and works. He attended the Art College of Suzhou University in China and the École National Supérieure d’ARTS, Paris-Cergy.