“Fable” by Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann (2014)
“Fable” by Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann (2014)

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No two moments in any Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann painting look alike. Take “Scaffold,” which, at more than 20 feet long, has a lot of moments to it. Rendered in acrylic, sumi ink, woodcut, and etching, the painting takes up and discards one strategy for abstraction after another. In one field of the painting is a dense undercarriage where she explores fine mark-making, depicting what might be mineral growths or clusters of barnacles. Yet those sections are matched by areas where she uses her materials more like watercolors, relishing the bleed of colors.

Nature is the only constant in “Feverland,” Mann’s solo show at Project 4, her second with the gallery. In a dozen paintings ranging from wall-sized panels to 9-inch-diameter roundels, Mann draws on biomorphic imagery to make paintings that read like natural landscapes of a kind. Just as nature, in its infinite variety, has always favored a few broad categories of forms without deciding on any one, Mann is content with a loose organic theme that lets her express her catholic tastes in painting styles.

A lot of her paintings break down the way “Scaffold” does, with fields governed by a nearly representational mode of drawing and fields where a free brushstroke reign. Look closely, though, and even these sections that seem to be dominated by one mode reveal their recombinant nature. Any single square inch of Mann’s busy work is packed with sequences of life: blots, dabbles, line, and bleed.

Ultimately, Mann may be most indebted to late painter Elizabeth Murray, although the connection isn’t obvious at first. Mann’s painting “Crumble” is done on cut-out paper that resembles one of Murray’s canvases, which the artist shaped to precisely fit the jazzy, organic forms she was painting, eliminating negative space and the notion of an illusionistic plane of depiction. Mann’s cut-outs aren’t so sculptural: They look a bit more like collage in free space. And there’s nothing pop about them. But the compositional urgency is the same.

Where Mann unfortunately relies too much on nature is in her palette. Somber ochres, lichen greens, and swampy grays dominate in this show. There is little relief for the viewer from the musty atmosphere of these paintings. It’s as if Mann is trying to depict humidity. She’ll avoid comparisons to abstract landscape artists like Jiha Moon precisely for this quality: While Mann’s paintings are aggressively detailed and worked over (like Moon’s), on the whole, they convey something slower. Something like decay.

With the show’s two smallest works (“Seed” and “Seed II”, platter-sized works that can’t help but convey Petri dishes) and works without color (namely two untitled drawings in silkscreen and sumi ink), Mann shows that she’s an adaptive painter. These paintings stray from the landscape milieu into something else—something more tonally abstract than her large quasi-representational paintings. If Mann’s work keeps evolving in that direction, her many tools may coalesce into something as large as the natural forces she depicts.

1353 U Street NW, Suite #302. Free. (202) 232-4340. project4gallery.com