Memories Remade With Charcoal and Ash 

Dan Jian, “A Tale of the Peach Blossom Spring” (2021), ashes, charcoal dust, tracing paper on board, 25 x 35 inches (photo mónica teresa ortiz/Hyperallergic)

On a withering hot Friday, I drove through Comanche and Mescalero Apache lands. Grasslands along the highway are smoldering, evidence of a fire. This place where I grew up is familiar yet distant to me. I am headed to an art gallery, hidden just off Avenue K in a city named after a Confederate soldier.

My relationship to “home” is complex, considering how intrinsic violence is to its very fabric. Home is just one theme in artist Dan Jian’s The Waves Not Yet Highan exhibition at the Helen deVitt Jones Studio Gallery, housed in a corner of the Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts (LHUCA), a former Fire Department administration building in downtown Lubbock, Texas.

Dan Jian, “And Dust to Mountains” (2021), ashes, charcoal dust, tracing paper on board, 36 x 288 inches (courtesy the artist)

In the five works of The Waves Not Yet High, Jian carefully juxtaposes non sequitur images with topographies, simultaneously quotidian and also an alchemy of the imagined home. During an artist’s talk at Texas Christian University’s Moudy Gallery, she said, “The landscape of the subject is only true if we acknowledge that there is no such thing as landscape” because “landscape acquires meaning through memory.”

Jian’s primary ingredients are charcoal and ash on tracing paper. Each of her works navigates the tension between the past and the present. The first drawing “And Dust to Mountains” (2021) consists of five panels fitted together and placed along the wall opposite the gallery entrance. The panorama uses what the artist identifies as a traditional Chinese ink landscape scroll format, blended with scatterings of US effigies such as inflatable tube men dancing in a valley, and horses running through the High Plains. Geography and meaning shift in these (re)creations that float between recollection of old memories and construction of new meanings, emphasizing by rural landscape markers like plants and trees, meshed with modern urban elements of brick walls, airplanes, and swimming pools.

Dan Jian, “Night Departure” (2021), ashes, charcoal dust, tracing paper on board, 24 x 60 inches (photo mónica teresa ortiz/Hyperallergic)

Surrounded by Jian’s meticulous process, I see “Night Departure” (2022) as a haunting scene that can be viewed as it’s installed on the gallery wall, but if flipped upside down, the work transforms into a gravitational inversion where dark lines run down the paper, into the mouths of what could be either flowers or flames. That is the endurance of Jian’s work — the (re)making of memory and landscape, and the ambiguous flow of lands from China to Texas.

There is a bench in the open space, and I sit. I forget the dust, searing heat, and unforgiving wind that waits for me outside the gallery as Jian’s images bend between reality and dream. I am lulled by the surreal choreography between Jian and collaborator Diana Abells in their animation “The Waves Not Yet High, A Dream Floods the Shore” (2021). Colorful fish shimmy just beyond the grasp of a fishing rod. A baby bounces next to a woman. The five-minute-long video wanders along with cut-outs and digitized movements meandering across the screen in vibrant sequences that are both ordinary and disastrous, with water as the catalyst and narrator. Jian says that “water brings both joy and fear, it swells with a sense of the unknown before receding down the tub drain.”

Dan Jian, “And Dust to Mountains” (2021) (detail, panel 3), ashes, charcoal dust, tracing paper on board (courtesy the artist)

During my visit with Dan Jian’s work, I sketch notes, hoping to push words together to make an ekphrastic from the collection. A trip told in ashes. Search for the corporeal. Mapmaking memory while the future is written. Plane crashed into the hills. Drip of water disrupts the fourth wall. When an object has been burned, ash is all that’s left. But even after the object is gone, ash makes it possible to create something new.

I study the longest piece, “Flowers in the Mirror” (2021), a series of six drawings connected and aligned on a high wooden table. From the fish hanging off a line to the spread of mountains and trees, there is no sense of linear time, and instead, it reminds me of watching clouds roll across Texas skies. The length of these drawings allows for different angles from which to (re)imagine a narrative of place both familiar and distant.

Dan Jian, “And Dust to Mountains” (2021) (detail, panel 1), ashes charcoal dust, tracing paper on board (photo mónica teresa ortiz/Hyperallergic)

Jian’s work comes from dust. My own fingers are also covered in dust, rubbed off after I moved an object from its original place. What’s left behind is the myth of belonging and the outline of the object imprinted against the wall — a reminder that our stories are in constant motion, flooding forward and backward like water, or dispersed easily into the air like ash.

The Waves Not Yet High Continues at the Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts (LHUCA) (511 Avenue K, Lubbock, Texas) through May 28. The exhibition was curated by the artist in collaboration with LHUCA Curator Christian Conrad.

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