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Art rewards observers who engage

A show of paintings challenges viewers to pay close attention.
By David A.M. Goldberg / Special to the Star-Advertiser

Yes indeed, we stand in front of paintings and sculptures on special Fridays, a drink in one hand and the night’s possibilities striking inviting poses in our peripheral vision. We admire, we nod, we Instagram and check in and get our hash tags on. Word spreads across our networks, and maybe we pose in front of the work with friends. More people see the art than directly engage it.

Without question, Chinatown’s thirtyninehotel is one of the premier spaces to have such an interdisciplinary experience, where one always has to strike a balance between appreciating tropical urban night life, the velvet thump of a fine sound system and the best efforts of contemporary art setting the stage for you.

Richard Earl Leong Yu Ralya presents a series of five large canvases and four works on paper. All feature an interplay of cloud-rust-photographic emulsion backgrounds dominated by epic tangles of calligraphic brush strokes. “Divine Contortions” on paper hark back to his earlier explorations of repeating undulations, stacked waves and layered coils of incense smoke.

For “Libelous Wit,” Ralya has traded in the graphical sensibility of this earlier style for a stencil-based strategy. His lines remain exquisite, evoking intestinal tracts, the sinewy vines of art nouveau decorative motifs, and ancient Filipino “ali bata” script. But their interiors are now organic surfaces that appear to react to themselves, based perhaps in salt, blood and watercolor. Where the cloud edges curve, the brush gathers density and drips appear, and they cascade down the pure white of the background.

The drips disrupt the flatland that most of his prior work operates in by forcing perception of a foreground, and link to another theme that has always been present in his work: weight and gravity. Whether rendering stoic figures in free fall, or giving the frame a definite bottom with an accumulation of his waves, Ralya is always playing with underlying structures of axis and field effects.

Centered on powerful, wide brush strokes that mingle pink and white in intimate tactile folds, the paintings are far more spontaneous than the paper works and any of Ralya’s previous efforts. Though each fleshy glyph in the “Slow and Long” series is in clear focus against softly glowing backgrounds of accumulated rust and weathered metal, there is evidence of an ongoing battle. Close inspection reveals echoes of Ralya’s earlier gestures, faded like a history of erasures on a chalkboard.

“Orpheus Lament No. 2” and the four paintings in the “Slow and Long” series all pull the same trick of running the drips up the canvas instead of down, and the results are effective. The verticals of the anti-drips remind one of the stems of musical notes that are joined not in neat rows of dots marking out notes, but a great maelstrom of color that represents the orchestra itself.

Ralya states that “Orpheus Lament” marked the birth of the process that produced the other four paintings, and in it one can see less aggressive approaches to mingling the white and pink, the alluvial earth-colored backgrounds rich in random cracks, bubbles and traces of resistance that his different paints encounter in each other. These techniques, together with an almost raku-fired glaze effect, serve as the visual keys to “Slow and Long.”

Ralya loves anagrams — rearrangements of letters that yield new words and phrases — and it is this variation on a theme that unites the show. Though some might say that all of the work looks the same because it iterates on a process, consider the difference between one Monday night of football and another, one NASCAR race and the next, or any two collaborations between Kanye West and anyone else. Ralya is only as guilty of repetition as the viewer is lazy.

Plummeting into this breach, few among us realize how much patience it takes to even attempt to make art, let alone how much it takes to try to truly appreciate it. So take advantage of their environs, during those sunset hours when thirtynine’s interior space serves as a huge gorgeous lobby for the lanai. The minimalist white furniture will be perfectly arranged with flowers, lit candles and drink menus awaiting you.

In this context, Ralya’s paintings are magical, weighty and, above all, serious. Get your drink, admire, nod, check in, but take your time to study these works carefully. Absorb the details; track the interactions of color, light and depth. You will be rewarded for the attention you pay in the form of recognizing that other people have mastered unity, surfaces, flows and gestures — all on your behalf.

Solo exhibition of new works on canvas and paper by Richard Earl Leong Yu Ralya

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» On exhibit: Through Nov. 21, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays
» Where: thirtyninehotel, 39 N. Hotel St.


A Libelous Rogue Wit
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