The Brooklyn Rail: Ace of Spades


There is a standard hierarchy in a deck of cards. The king is always more powerful than the jack or the queen; the nine is always higher than the five. The only card with the capacity to swing is the ace, and it swings in the extreme, alternately ranking as the highest or the lowest card in the deck. Amongst the four aces, the ace of spades also carries a folkloric connotation as the “death card,” in which death translates not as the conclusion of mortality but as a symbol of transition. As such, the ace of spades is an apt theme for a group show straddling the passage between years.

The ace of spades is also, simply, black—a color with its own abundance of cultural, political, and social associations. Blackness predominates in the work of the three artists whom Gwendolyn Skaggs, founder and director of SUGAR,selected for Ace of Spades. In a space small enough to feel intimate—though hardly cramped—Hilda Shen’s five neatly framed monotypes face one of Vincent Como’s buckling works in ballpoint pen on paper. An installation of Alex Binder’s atmospheric black-and-white photographs sprawls asymmetrically on a third wall, acting as a visual bridge between the work of Shen and Como.

Binder’s photographs have a gritty, grainy quality to them, which enhances the overt eeriness of his subject matter. There are hooded figures in a forest, many masked faces, an old pistol on an old wall, a tarantula, and a horned human atop a bluff, to name but a few of Binder’s occult images—there are over 30 in all. The photographs (all 8 by 10 inches) are taped to the wall and curl slightly, adding a shadowy dimension to their installation. Yet despite the spooky, spectral character of Binder’s photographs, they evoke a kind of tranquility. Nothing is actually menacing. Even the more ominous figures appear pensive, as if Binder caught them in the depths of contemplation.

Hilda Shen’s monotypes loosely picture the night sky as it might look in a time-lapse photograph. Unlike Binder’s images, however, there is a more pronounced element of violence in Shen’s work. As is customary in monotypes, Shen begins with the paper’s surface completely inked and creates an image through a process of erasure. Rather than use the standard tools, Shen rubs, scratches, and digs into the paper with her fingernails, elbows, and palms. Interestingly, three of the five pieces are titled “Illumined,” suggesting illumination as a consequence of eradication. Yet in the process of removing the ink—of cancelling out the darkness—she imbues each monotype with a trace of her physical presence. In doing so, Shen establishes a certain duality between what she adds and extracts, which compliments the relationship between darkness and illumination, as well as the physical violence employed to evoke what is typically considered peaceful: stars swirling through a night sky.

Vincent Como’s work is also ink on paper, though Como’s process is strictly additive. “Untitled (Reinhardt)” is a square—five feet in width—covered completely with ink from a ballpoint pen. Like Reinhardt’s famous black paintings, Como works from a grid that almost disappears under the inky gleam. Where Reinhardt intended his surfaces to be immaculate and smooth, Como favors distortion. His paper bulges and bows beneath the weight of so much ink. The fragility of Reinhardt is exchanged for a sense of heaviness and distress. “Untitled (Reinhardt)” is a work that embodies equally the concentration necessary to complete such an arduous inking process, and the turbulence which that process produces.

Taken as a whole, the works in the exhibition compliment one another nicely, and share a common characteristic that corresponds with the ace’s transitional history. One of the primary elements of each work is relatively unsophisticated—ballpoint pens (Como), fingernail scratches (Shen), masking tape (Binder)—yet the final pieces are all unquestionably refined. In this regard, each work might be considered high-art, which nonetheless contains a strand of the lowly. Likewise, the ace was traditionally the lowest card in the deck until angry French proletariats overthrew their monarchy and instituted a new rule: ace high. This transition symbolized the heart of the French revolution; the commoners’ card outranked the king. The ace of spades, which had previously been the least valuable card, became the highest card in the deck.

T F m
February 5, 2011

Wagmag: Ace of Spades


“Is it snowing there yet?” I ask artist Hilda Shen, who has graciously agreed to open the art gallery Sugar (449 Troutman St. #3-5, bell 21) for me during holiday-off hours. “Not much” she replies, “just a dusting … like confectioners sugar”, an incidental wordplay that I savor as I crunch my way through the snow.

“Ace of Spades” on view at Sugar through January 15th, is a small but toothsome offering of 3 artists whose work indicates a mutual affinity for the color black. Gallerist Gwendolyn Skaggs’ show statement suggests additional areas of overlap, such as a shared concern with life and death or distance and proximity.

The gallery’s center wall is consumed by a lithe installation of over 30 photographs, co-selected by gallerist Skaggs and German photographer Alexander Binder. Simulating an electrocardiogram, the staccato arrangement of these dark photographs has a definite pulse, even if their subject matter bleeds black. Fixated on the macabre, the occult and the phantasmagorical, Binder’s black and white images (horned figures and hooded beasts) are engaging and mischievous, as the artist (born on Halloween, actually) seems to employ this grim vocabulary almost playfully, akin to the sporting of a scary mask.

The tenebrous tone is continued in the captivating mono-prints of artist Hilda Shen. Composed on a black ground, these prints consist of white and smoky dream-like forms, encircled by electric marks. Shen shares that she creates these enigmatic images intuitively, through a process of removing ink in layers, solely with her body (nails, elbows, thumbs and palms). The employment of memory, touch, process and obfuscation in these prints accounts for the fact that they seem to inhabit a ghost-like space between the witnessed and the recalled, with strokes at once insistent and removed.

Installed directly opposite is “Untitled (Reinhardt)”, a significant 60”x60” homage on paper to the titled artist by Vincent Como. The work, like Reinhardts, reads as a singular black object, only this density was achieved through the methodical application of ball point pen ink (layer upon layer in two inch bands) with subtle, cruciform-shaped hue differences revealing themselves only over time. This ascetic work is impressive less in size than in the psychic mass and gravitational pull it exhibits.

Chief curator of the Guggenheim, Nancy Spector, asserts that Reinhardt’s works “recall ‘Negation Theology’, a method of thought evident in Platonism and early Christianity – employed to comprehend the Divine by indicating everything it was not.” I believe all the works in “Ace of Spades” share this inclination, if not overtly toward the spiritual, then certainly toward the dichotomies of good/evil, presence/absence and the revealed/obscured.

Leaving Sugar in a flurry of powder (in what would later be recorded as the 6th largest snowfall in NYC history), it is only in retrospect that I realize the opportuneness of this backdrop for this particular show, contrasting sweetly the delicious dark therein.

T F m
January 6, 2011

Village Voice: Reconstructing Paper


After you’ve risen seven floors above the ramshackle fast-food joints of Hell’s Kitchen, the tidy, gentle pieces here, from two artists who work with paper, seem almost like gifts. Laura McCallum brings a minimalist sensibility to organic forms, filling small polygonal and almond-shaped reliefs with networks of folded or furled paper strips, patterns that suggest the motion of cells. Employing symmetry, sequence, and familiar geometry, she makes metaphors of life—finely crafted frameworks of logic that contain moments of apparent disorder.

For her part, Hilda Shen has layered wedges of cotton-fiber sheets, painted on the reverse for a washy bleed-through effect, to form what appear to be, at first glance, accomplished abstractions. In each, jagged patches of brown surround a central swath of blue. But they’re actually the tunneled glimpses of sky you get when peering up the city’s canyon walls. More playful are Shen’s two intimate drawings of wobbly dark paths, both made using a broken mechanical pencil containing ink, and both intended as subtle jokes on the journeys of Chinese landscape.

Cheryl McGinnis Gallery, 555 Eighth Ave, 212-594-4066. Through June 4

T F m
April 27, 2010

The New York Times: Bringing the Outdoors Inside and Hanging It on the Wall


THE latest exhibition in Glyndor House, a historic home and gallery on the 28-acre grounds of Wave Hill in the Bronx, is a group show by nine artists whose works here exploit, reference or have inadvertently absorbed the surrounding natural environment. ”It is about bringing the landscape inside,” the staff curator Jennifer McGregor told me. But since it is winter, or winter’s end, most of the artworks are pretty spare.

Late last year, over six weeks, each of the artists was invited to visit the house and grounds to prepare for the project. Somewhat surprisingly, all but one—Ulrike Heydenreich—have left the gallery spaces empty, preferring instead to paint, draw or graft their installations directly onto the walls or other architectural supports. The result is an exhibition that points up the home’s Georgian revival-style interior as much as it plays off external garden vistas.

On the oval-shaped wall of the entrance foyer, for instance, Amy Chan has installed a soft-toned, imagination-fuelled mural painting of the sky filled with images of free-floating residential homes and dainty landforms referencing, according to the exhibition room brochure, ”the built, natural and historic landscape” of Riverdale and surrounding Hudson River area. It is like a realtor’s fantasy, you might say, mapping the region’s most desirable private dwellings.

Ideas of maps and mapping recur throughout the works here, from Geraldine Lau’s joyous distillation of New York State topographical maps, cribbed and reconfigured as a wall installation in a stairwell using bite-sized bits of colored vinyl, to Vargas-Suarez Universal’s devilishly intricate, velvety surfaced, panoramic wall drawing that blends oddball references to architecture, biology, astronomy and nature. It is like a mix of Star Trek, the Amazon and Sol LeWitt.

Jeffrey Gibson, an experienced wall illustrator, has used mostly non-traditional materials like painted plastic forms, quartz crystals and pigmented silicone to cook up a luxuriant, free-flowing ensemble that, in my experience, has no precedent in contemporary art or any kind of art, anytime, anywhere, for that matter. The application of iridescent paint and prevalence of swirling, organic forms gives his painting liveliness, even a kind of effusiveness.

Intense visual pleasure also flows from an encounter with Amy Yoes’s twirling decorative motifs, painted loosely in red ink on the walls and architectural features of the sunroom, and picking up nicely on a nearby, outdoor arbor, now covered with snow.

Then there is Yvonne Estrada’s coolly improvisatory, serenely meditative installation-like wall drawing in the south gallery. Encompassing a sequence of linked wall panels around the room, and largely white, Ms. Estrada’s piece offers a subtle evocation of the Wave Hill landscape in winter.

Ms. Estrada’s installation looks a tad like wallpaper, although with a minimal, random kind of patterning. This is partly because the artist preferred to work on temporary sheetrock panels, which could be removed and reconfigured after the exhibition. It was a smart move, I think, for otherwise the physical drawing, which relies heavily on spontaneity and chance for its intensity and charm, would be lost forever.

Lucas Monaco had similar concerns, I guess, for he also worked on a temporary support, in this case canvas, to do mixed-media drawings chronicling changes in streets, buildings, and the natural topography of the Bronx. These are probably the most traditional artworks on view here, sampling conventional painting and drawing techniques like fixed-point perspective, scale and realistic representation.

Hilda Shen works directly onto the wall, although without making marks. Instead she layers wax-coated pieces of randomly torn, inky paper to make low-relief sculptural versions of traditional Chinese landscape paintings.

Her multi-paneled piece here is superlative, the textured, black and white imagery flowing from panel to panel across the room like some wintry, windswept landscape seen from the window of a car. It also matches the landscape outside.

Ms. Shen is considerably older than most of the other artists in the exhibition, and, in part, it shows. The form, space and content of the work are perfectly attuned; the artist pre-assembled the work in her studio to conform roughly to the wall spaces, and then transported it in sections to the gallery, where she touched up the surface. There is something to be said for this kind of expertise, and it is to the curator’s credit that she included an artist of Ms. Shen’s caliber.

”Out of Bounds,” Glyndor Gallery, Wave Hill, 675 West 252nd Street, Bronx, through May 30. Information (718)549 3200 or

T F m
March 20, 2005

Art Asia Pacific: Between the Lines

China 2000
May 2004


…Constructed out of the same materials – white paper, black ink and wax, the new work might be considered painting and sculpture, collage and relief. Of these, the two most imposing are the wall paintings, Keep In/Keep Out and Lost Ones, inspired by the Great Wall of China. Made of heavy cotton rag paper, the support is pocked with bold, black markings to create a staccato abstract pattern that seeps through to form another image on the reverse side. Lost Ones is assembled out of torn, jagged sections of paper pieced together like flattened stones and affixed directly onto the wall, with areas left open that look like chinks in the construction, which are sometimes blackened in. Photocopied, laser-printed, or stamped onto the surface of the wall, whorled fingerprints in varying dimensions, from life-sized to greatly enlarged, make up much of the imagery of Keep In/Keep Out. They function, perhaps, as signs of specific identities or refer to the sense of touch as identifier, fingers that distinguish and determine textures and shapes, that make and prop up. Shen’s ingenious, three-dimensional pieces resemble other objects, such as scholar stones or a flowering globe, and are formed from paper reinforced with burnished wax, held together and stiffened with polymer glue.

T F m
May 1, 2004

ARTnews: China 2000 Fine Art

February 2004


Successfully incorporating both highly personal and traditional art-historical references, Chinese American artist Hilda Shen creates sculptures and paintings that are at once meditative and dynamic. Here, Shen presented three-dimensional paper, ink, and wax constructions that immediately evoked Chinese scholars’ rocks – the dramatically shaped stones first collected in China during the Song dynasty as esthetic objects of contemplation. They also recalled Shen’s own landscape paintings, with their suggestions of cliffs and mountains and various other organic formations.

Created from paper covered with enlarged black-and-white fingerprint patterns and brushstrokes, and stiffened with wax in crumples and folds, the sculptures reflected on human intervention both in manipulating the shapes of scholars’ rocks and in developing the natural landscape. RockWhirl (2003), a highly theatrical composition in which one front edge of the sculpture rests on a real stone, elegantly addresses the artist’s quest to find balance between the natural and the man-made.

Orb II (2003) strayed from Shen’s usually idiosyncratic forms. Here she emphasizes the fingerprint pattern on the surface, and the paper is meticulously crumpled into a nearly perfect sphere, suggesting the human desire to shape the world according to ideals, while nodding to the beauty inherent in the simplest of things, such as a sheet of paper crushed into a neat ball before being discarded.

In two engaging site-specific pieces (Keep In/Keep Out and The Lost Ones, both 2003) Shen attached fingerprint images onto the gallery’s walls (some were transferred directly onto the surfaces, others were photocopied images pinned to the walls). These reference the Great Wall and the anonymous hands that erected it, while the fingerprints imply the uniqueness of those hands and, by extension of all our imprints.

T F m
February 1, 2004