A Stroll Through Gao Hang’s Uncanny Valley

by Jeff Miles June 21, 2021

Installation view of Gao Hang’s solo exhibition INSTANT GRATIFICATION, 2021, at Anya Tish Gallery, Houston

One of Gao Hang’s painterly contemporaries, Oli Epp, coined the term Post Digital Pop for work that “acknowledges the context of working within a culture that has been fundamentally changed by screens and social media.”* A veritable primer on Post Digital Pop, Gao Hang’s solo show INSTANT GRATIFICATION, on view at Anya Tish Gallery in Houston, explores the headspace of a generation born into a time when internet, social media and the society of screens is a given. The artists of this generation need not discourse with or confront the digital so much as come to terms with this core part of our modern condition.  

Indeed, INSTANT GRATIFICATION lovingly engages the digital vernacular with a knowing familiarity, like Cezanne’s paintings of Montagne Sainte-Victoire. Hang’s honest approach grapples with the absurdity and danger of our Post-Digital condition without attaching judgment — a 21st-century version of Hemingway’s assessment of post-World War I Paris or Kirchner’s Street Dresden. With INSTANT GRATIFICATION, and Hang’s recent slew of shows from New York to Amsterdam, the artist has ascended to join other important young painters of the Post-Digital Pop vanguard like Austin Lee, Oli Epp, MADSAKI, and Eliza Douglas. Deitch Gallery’s former director Kathy Grayson included Hang’s work in the April 2021 group show Nature Mort, christening Hang’s position among his generation’s best painters.

Gao Hang, In your face, 2020. Acrylic on canvas. 40 x 30 in.

As you step into Anya Tish to experience INSTANT GRATIFICATION, it feels like Hang has strapped a 3D gaming device to your head, and pushed you in to navigate a parallel future-verse, a neon escape room. Once inside the show, you’re really in it— the scale of Hang’s paintings dwarf you into a smaller character amongst this strange milieu. Take for instance In your Face, a painting large enough to feel immersive (most of the major works in this show range from four to six feet tall), where you experience the punching arm shooting out as your own. In this painting, Hang freezes a decisive moment of the ’90s digital aesthetic. The polygonal arm has glitched and fused with the opposing boxer’s head. Hang captures the glitch with painstakingly perfect linework that evokes the laborious lines of Agnes Martin, with a delicacy of shading, composition, and color more akin to a David Hockney painting. You could train a magnifying glass on Hang’s work and not find one speck of paint out of place. 

In your Face encapsulates a few core theories of the show. First, you must adopt the punching arm, as it is the only perspective afforded for the viewer. Ambivalence is not an option. Second, like the punch depicted, your gaze does not just hit the canvas and bounce off. You experience a sort of cognitive glitch, a melding between the viewer and the object. The work encapsulates two truths that define the Post Digital condition of our lives today: you must engage the digital to survive, and your engagement will fundamentally alter your state of being.  

This “power” of the digital over our lives is not a “hard” ruling structure that is “vertically centralized,” but rather reinforced through a “soft” seduction “by a seemingly horizontal, centerless place.”** Incorporating these concerns, Instant Gratification creates its own viewing modality mimetic of the soft seductions of technological creep. 

Gao Hang, For home defense 2, 2020. Acrylic and hardware on canvas. 16 x 40 x 3 in.

Further cultivating the experience of navigating a virtual reality game, Hang’s show includes For home defense 2, a tromp l’oeil gun in a “briefcase” with real hinges (termed “hardware” by Hang), that can be folded up neatly like a real valise, or stretched open and hung as a full-sized canvas. If you had any doubt about Hang’s consummate technical ability, marvel at how his paintwork tricks the eye into believing the pokeyness of the “foam” lining. But this masterpiece is just two flat, painted canvases. The work recreates the moment in Nintendo’s Goldeneye, when your James Bond stumbles on the weapon he needs to pick up to survive. This work, too, demonstrates our Post Digital condition (i.e: Do you really want to check your phone for the 40th time since lunch? Regardless of your decision, you’re already thinking about it). A big polygonal version of a weapon sits over there. You can pick it up or leave it, but ambivalence in engaging with Hang’s art is impossible by design.  

Like the work of lurking Houston titan Mark Flood, even when it appears at its most benign, Hang’s work is far from safe stuff. Hang’s shark painting series and Mark Flood’s lace paintings have made themselves at home in many tasteful River Oaks mansions. But both artists’ works challenge collectors and curators to have the courage to face some darker truths if they want to fully engage with the oeuvre. The gun in this show alerts the viewer that Hang is unafraid of tackling tougher truths in our contemporary history, like gun violence. 

Gao Hang, James Bond, 2020. Acrylic on canvas. 40 x 30 in.

INSTANT GRATIFICATION also contains works of almost Proustian nostalgia for a simpler world of polygons in the era before they became too much like us, too much of us. Take for instance James Bond, floating on a sort of techno green-screen laid bare, a stand in for existential choice in the face of the digital void. In the gallery, Bond gazes off toward a ’90s-version of a disembodied Bond Girl — The Bigger Legs —inviting the viewer to follow Bond’s gaze and stare at the leggy painting.  

Gao Hang, The bigger legs, 2020. Acrylic on canvas. 72 x 36 in.

Bond as a character has always been an escapist avatar to step into and inhabit, a male daydream of espionage, booze and fast cars. Highlighting this absurdity, Hang renders Bond up against dozens of perfectly painted shiny silver squares, like in a digital editing software program, evocative of some sort of Donald Judd diagram. (A number of Takashi Murakami paintings include his own central character, D.O.B., floating against a similar abyss of squares.) INSTANT GRATIFICATION visualizes the range of possibilities for augmentation and escapism in our digital world: the tallest legs, a super-long punching arm, your own Bond avatar.

In the 1970s, roboticist Masahiro Mori published a now-influential study on the psychological effect known as the uncanny valley, describing a phenomenon in which facing a digital or robotic avatar becomes too disturbing for comfort, if it looks too real. Hang’s perfectly painted imperfect avatars stand in as near mirrors, a digital representation of self with sufficient glitch just shy of that uncanny valley, before simulacra becomes too disturbingly familiar to comfortably process. In deliberately brandishing polygonish digital images, Hang’s work captures snapshots of ourselves in the quaint moment just before digital was everything in our lives. As such, Hang’s work invites a meditation on what has been lost of our humanity when the digital became an all encompassing part of us. 

Gao Hang, Billie Gao, 2020. Acrylic on canvas. 30 x 40 in.

These paintings contain the pixels of our lost innocence, reliquaries of the polygonal glitch, memoirs of the old days when digital was still imperfect enough to seem human. Like a proud dad booting up his old Nintendo for his son to experience a classic game for the first time (even though his kid already has PS5), Hang’s rendition of Post-Digital Pop engenders a soft nostalgia at its deepest place of truth. Ultimately, Hang’s work offers the tools for a visceral understanding of our human condition in the eerie digital reality we all inhabit now.  

On view through June 26 at Anya Tish Gallery, Houston.

* Friends and Friends of Friends: Artistic Communities in the Age of Social Media, Exhibition Catalague, p. 64, Distan Verlag, 2021.

**Akira Asada, “Infantile Capitalism and Japan’s Postmodernism: A Fairy Tale” (1987), reprinted in South Atlantic Quarterly 87, no. 3 (summer 1988): 631. 


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Janet Lecuona June 21, 2021 - 15:04

Jeff Miles’ review of Gao Hang’s Gallery show is astute, and is clearly from the viewpoint of an artfully educated eye. It helped me to view Hang’s work in a more pragmatic manner.

Ray Hylenski June 21, 2021 - 17:15

I sat down with Gao Saturday at Anya Tish Gallery and
was full of questions about his process. How did he magically get the great separation in his images from
the backgrounds. He explained to me how his airbrush
had given him the ideal tool to create his vision. I left the gallery with a better understanding of his true genius, and was looking forward to adding a second work by Gao to my collection.


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