“I think of my work as landscape oriented or having to do with landscape painting,” says Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann of her complex, visually arresting paintings. The work is abstract, but Mann’s use of botanical imagery, glimpses of what looks like sky, orientation and the general ebb and flow of mass across the picture plane both reference and evoke the natural world. Being in nature and capturing it are vital to Mann’s practice and she often paints en plein air near her home in Basye, Virginia.
“I’m not as interested in thinking about landscape in terms of perspectival space. I like thinking of it in terms of teeming masses of life and the systems that make them work together. In the Shenandoah Valley for example, I’m not just looking at the mountains in the distance, I am actually looking at what is immediately below my feet. Weeds and bugs and how those are combining and knapping together.”
Mann, 35, who is half Taiwanese, spent her early childhood and the summers of her teenage years in Taiwan. During those latter visits, she studied traditional Chinese shan shui (“mountain water”) sumi ink painting. Although Mann is very much a product of both Eastern and Western traditions—she majored in Studio Art at Brown University and pursued an MFA from the Maryland College Institute Hoffberger School of Painting, where she is currently an adjunct professor—this rigorous early training and approach formed the foundation of her practice and is evident in the work today.
According to Mann the shan shui tradition is not quite as doctrinaire as it might appear to Western eyes. “You have to perfect a lot of skills and hone your fine muscles before you get to individual expression, which actually isn’t that different from traditional western painting education. Yes, as a teenager, studying traditional painting, meant copying the teacher’s work so at that point there wasn’t much room for individuality. But while the tradition of Chinese landscape is very much steeped in the past and learning from masters, there’s still a lot of personality and emotion that might come into that.”
Mann starts every work with what she refers to as a “pour”. After laying her paper—sometimes a sheet, sometimes it is collaged or woven—on the floor of her studio, she haphazardly pours buckets of watered-down acrylic or ink onto the paper. She likes the lack of control of the pour, not planning or knowing what she’ll end up with is both freeing and challenging. It takes several days, or sometimes even weeks for the water to evaporate leaving a bloom of pigment staining the paper. “The stain feels ephemeral, natural and in a way kind of elegant and it would be very easy to stop there, which is what Morris Louis did. But then I would just be doing what he did, so I like to combine it with other things that feel like they don’t fit with that type of visual language.” The stain, a product of what Mann refers to as a “chance operation” becomes the starting point for the work. It’s an interesting turn of phrase almost oxymoronic, containing both accident and determination. It could also refer to Mann’s approach as well as to the melding of Western and Eastern painting traditions.
Mann’s works are large. Her intention is to create an immersive experience for the viewer where they don’t just see something, they also experience it, or at least get a whiff of its essence. This is very much in keeping with traditional Chinese painting where it’s not about producing a replica of nature, but rather the idea of nature. Mann also produces large site-specific installations which allow her to ramp up this sense of immersion. Most of her installations are paper that’s been cut and woven and then nailed directly into the wall. Sometimes these are interspersed with wall paintings, some of which spill onto the floor, veering into 3-D as they colonize space beyond the picture plane. With “Palimpsest” from 2012, Mann produced an entirely three-dimensional piece composed of hanging paper.
Mann pairs great swaths of paint or ink next to areas busy with finely drawn detail, the veils of the initial pour are tempered by impasto passages. Sumi ink washes and delicate etchings meet and hold their own against bold bursts of lush color. Collaged or woven paper offer interesting textural contrast to the smoothness of the plainer areas. In looking at Mann’s work, one is struck by how it is charged with energy. It radiates outward in explosive splinters or undulates across the surface in sensuous mounds, or swirls around like bits of confetti.
With “Fable” (2014) Mann combines painting, silkscreen, collage and etching to create a ravishing work of extraordinary complexity and visual power. An abstract tour de force of composition, juxtaposed texture and color, spatial dynamism and rhythm, the painting exudes confidence and nerve. From a formal standpoint, it’s visually dazzling. It’s also curious looking and we can’t help wondering if what is there is an actual thing, and so our interest is piqued twice. It’s as if Mann is provoking us to think in two different directions at the same time.
“Double Bed” (2017) takes inspiration for its compositional elements from murals in the ancient Roman Villa of Livia. A lyrical work, it thrums with energy, albeit a quieter kind. The diptych composition is suggestive of traditional space with a repeated shape that conveys arched portals, or perhaps these are the beds of the title. Earth and sky can be read into the left side, but Mann pulls us back into abstraction on the right, with overlapping vertical bands of color and pattern. The pine tree at the center evokes nature as do the greenish, blue and yellow hues. These are punctuated by patches of paint and gaudy little multicolored daubs that add visual interest and help preserve the abstract integrity of the work. The swirling ribbons and funny little squiggles add a lightness to the piece—the visual equivalents of a soft, spring breeze.
Mann’s work is a virtuosic balancing act between formal elements, technique, images and movement. There is a lot going on, but Mann never loses control. She flirts with chaos, allowing it into the work like a dash of piquant seasoning to add spice to the more placid areas, but it never takes over. “I like combining something that is inherently and easily, naturally beautiful, like a pour of paint with something that feels a little more ham-handed or clumsy.” This bravura visual yin and yang enlivens and enriches Mann’s work and keeps the viewer on their toes.