The NSU Art Museum’s sweeping and satisfying survey of the work of the late multinational artist Walasse Ting is more than an exhibition of his paintings (and a few sculptures). It’s an opportunity to rummage through his consciousness, if not his attic. Working with Ting’s carefully catalogued estate, the Fort Lauderdale museum is exhibiting dozens of pieces of ephemera from his long and varied life and career—from his Rolodex to a crystal frog paperweight and fountain pens he collected to his postcards, doodles and travel itineraries to his brushes and shoes.
They’re all part of “Walasse Ting: Parrot Jungle,” running through March 10, and collectively they come close to conjuring the enigmatic man himself, who died in 2010. I say enigmatic, because he was an artist of a slippery style. Just when you think you grasp “Parrot Jungle,” he changes direction, buoyed by the tides of the various art movements he absorbed, until he latches onto a vision that feels entirely his own.
While not an obscure figure in the art world, Chinese-born Ting (1926-2010) wasn’t a household name among the average museumgoer. “Parrot Jungle” restores him into the upper echelon of contemporary artists where he belongs, while positioning him as a missing link between Abstract Expressionism and Pop art.
If you walk through “Parrot Jungle” chronologically, which is to say from right to left in the second-floor gallery space, his creative arc is clearest—an evolution, quite literally, from darkness to light.
I unintentionally walked the exhibitions backwards, terminating in works like his early abstraction “Fire,” from the 1950s, with its shadowy, mutating forms, a mood piece very much in tune with the minimalists of the American avant-garde, but in retrospect the work of an artist who has not yet found his voice.
Ting would develop his unique sensibilities in the intervening decades, inspired by his many travels and residencies, from Hong Kong to Paris to New York to Amsterdam, astraddle both abstraction and, more increasingly, figuratism. In vogue with the sexual liberation of the ‘60s and mainstreaming of porn in the ‘70s, he painted nubile women with out-of-proportion erogenous zones that seem to anticipate the erotic Japanese anime and manga but are the most dated, and gauche, of the works in “Parrot Jungle.” His style on paintings like “No Fuck S.V.P.” and “My Sweetheart Thinks Too Much” is wild and subversive, inspiring nervous giggles from the museumgoers around me, but they feel like a hollow appropriation of the zeitgeist.
Far better are the reclining nudes Ting would conceive later, like Old Master paintings injected with bold, drippy color, or the libidinous subtext of a work like “The Birth of Venus,” reinterpreted as a brazen, multicolored umbrella—playful allusions to art history that would become a Ting’s motif. As Ting found his stride, spontaneity reigned as color rained, from the confetti-like glory of “Whistling All Night” to “Looking For a Bee,” a thick impasto maelstrom as rich and impactful as any of the Expressionists’ large-scale torrents of paint.
Nature becomes another motif, as suggested in works both titled (“Fresh Green Leaves,” with its explosions of spattered paint) and untitled; in one memorable work, a pair of dark blue arcs rise over a turbulent seascape, tsunami-like. Ting continued to paint the human form but with less of a desire to provoke, and with less attention to realism—like slender geisha in kimonos, their faces flush with impossible pink and yellow hues.
All of which culminates in, of all places, South Florida. Ting’s in-laws lived here, and during his yearly visits in the 1980s, Ting made a pilgrimage to Parrot Jungle, the bygone Miami attraction that lends this exhibition its name. His renderings of the park’s flora and fauna—awash in psychedelic ribbons of color, unconcerned with capturing the parrots and butterflies and peacocks and flamingos as they were, but rather, like Van Gogh’s fevered visions, as they exist in his head—are the fullest realization of Ting’s singular style. These paintings, inspired by photographs he snapped at Parrot Jungle, were often untitled. One imagines him painting them quickly, as if in a trance, capturing the effervescent sensations of a child seeing such wild creatures for the first time, every time.
One of the final Ting pieces you’re likely to see in this exhibition, if you walk through it in order, depicts a halved watermelon, its rind curving upward in a big, goofy smile. This is Ting at his best—as a spreader of joy and exuberance. I never experienced Parrot Jungle myself, but that’s OK; having bounced around Ting’s head for an hour or so, his flushed and effulgent documents are bigger than life.
“Walasse Ting: Parrot Jungle” runs through March 10 at NSU Art Museum, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $16 adults, $10 seniors. Call 954/525-5500 or visit nsuartmuseum.org.