Review: “Guided By Water” at Martha’s, Austin

by Meher Qazilbash June 9, 2024
Photo of a painting of a white crane against a green backdrop

Daniel Wang, “Great Blue,” 2024, acrylic on linen, 48 x 36 inches Photo: Andrea Calo

Austin is seldom accused of being the most stylish city, but opening night at Martha’s seems to challenge this reputation. Situated on Guadalupe Street with a distinct pink neon sign, the small gallery hosts a crowd of glamorous young people in long silk skirts and pristine white trousers chatting about art inside and smoking cigarettes outside. Chic yet casual and open-minded, the space is particularly welcoming to newcomers. 

It’s fitting that their newest exhibition features two young artists, fresh in their lives and careers. In the show, the artists’ perspectives contemplate change and people’s modern interactions with an ancient natural element. Despite the gravity of that description, Daniel Wang’s and Loc Huynh’s exhibition Guided By Water is a fairly lighthearted meditation on the role of water in our lives.

Installation view of paintings at Martha's Contemporary

“Guided by Water,” installation view at Martha’s. Photo: Andrea Calo

Huynh and Wang’s works are influenced by the Texas outdoors of their youth. While bodies of water in Texas do not tend to be pristine and paradisiacal — the Gulf Coast beaches, for example, are brown and littered with seaweed — these spaces left precious marks in the minds of the two creatives. Texas freshwaters, as Huynh and Wang show us, are easy to love. Depicted in all their green and oil-spilled glory, there’s an honesty in how they approach spotlighting the beauty, nourishment, and refuge these spaces gift us.

Painting of a fish eating a crab

Daniel Wang, “Joyride,” 2024, acrylic on linen, 30 x 40 inches. Photo: Andrea Calo

In Wang’s piece Great Blue (2024), a great blue heron stands before a glimmering body of water, encircled by sprawling branches. There’s a dreamy, mirage-like quality induced by the shading and luminescence. The warmth is palpable, and the sight as a whole feels like a hazy summer memory. Wang’s style is heavily informed by traditional Chinese paper scrolls, as indicated by his frequent portrayal of animals and landscapes that are accompanied by ornate borders. Joy Ride (2024) depicts a fun and non-predatory relationship of a crawfish cruising in the mouth of a largemouth bass. Wang makes use of the border by painting quaint patterns of the deadly amoeba now rampant in Texas waterways. Naegleria fowleri, known as the brain-eating amoeba, live in warm freshwater. As water temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, these organisms pose more of a threat, especially in Texas. Their presence in the piece seems to loom as their existence hinders our ability to explore what lies beneath the water’s surface.

Painting of a two figures standing in water fishing

Loc Huynh, “Crab Catchin’,” 2024, acrylic and enamel on linen, 44 x 50 inches. Photo: Andrea Calo

While Wang focuses more on the enjoyment nature offers, Huynh shows both the consequences and rewards of our exchanges with the wild. Possessing a nostalgic quality, Huynh’s paintings of people depict scenes based on his family’s photographs. Seagulls at the Beach (2024) shows a figure partaking in the pastime of tossing Wonder Bread to the birds. In Crab Catchin’ (2024), a figure based on Huynh’s aunt smiles at the achievement of catching a crab in her net. Behind her is Huynh’s uncle, embarking on his own fishing journey while taking in the views of water, blue skies, and powerlines. Juxtaposing these sweet memories are Huynh’s paintings of fish markets. In Pompanos (2024) and Blue Crabs (2024), we see colorful yet lifeless clumps of fish and crabs stacked on top of one another.

Though not intentional, Huynh and Wang’s paintings work in conversation with one another. We can see a narrative following various stages of our relationship with the environment. First, there’s the mystique of wildlife, which leads to human involvement through hunting or play. But eventually, people’s livelihoods or pastimes turn to exploitation, and our dynamic with nature turns parasitic.

Painting of a pile of green crabs with blue bellies and legs

Loc Huynh, “Blue Crabs,” 2024, acrylic and enamel on linen, 30 x 40 inches. Photo: Andrea Calo

While Huynh and Wang raise concerns in their exploration of water, they manage to avoid a finger-wagging approach to discussing climate change and overconsumption. Instead, the theme that resonates the most is the passage of time.

Guided By Water reminds us of the impermanence of things we don’t question. Water doesn’t feel transient, and neither does aquatic life. The pastimes you enjoy with your family, though natural and ordinary, may one day no longer be available to you. Perhaps you won’t be able to safely, and without fear, stick your head below a natural body of water. As depressing as these thoughts are, the artists manage to approach them with a lightness. Using remarkable technical talent to make gentle implications, the pair nudges us to take a moment and appreciate what we currently have. Have a look at fish, go for a swim in the lake, and pay attention. There’s a lot to be fascinated by — for the time being.


Guided by Water is on view at Martha’s in Austin through June 15, 2024.

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