Angela China was an artist before she knew what that meant, had a studio before she knew what one was supposed to look like, and fashioned a bit of trademark iconography before she even established a following. The painter—whose debut solo show, “Girl on the Grass,” opens today at New York’s Malin Gallery—was the odd one out in her sporty Baltimore-based family. While her siblings shipped out for games and tournaments, China settled in with her oil paints, something she picked up from her grandmother. “I was always doing weird stuff, going to Home Depot and building things or painting my walls,” she recalls.
High school shifted China’s attention to other pursuits; it wasn’t until age 23, when China’s mother was moving out of their old home, that she rediscovered her oil paints and started her practice in earnest. While living in a SoHo apartment, China became friendly with the street artists lounging on the corner. Intrigued by the artwork that they plastered along the city streets, she pulled one of the downtown boys aside and said, “Show me how to get these posters up on the wall.”
“You’ve got to have a ‘thing,’” he explained, like a Campbell’s soup can or an “OBEY” tagline. “I was in my own world,” she says. “My living room was an art studio, but I didn't know my living room was an art studio.” China had recently completed a painting of Dorothy walking down the yellow brick road, only the heroine was wearing stilettos and one of them had a piece of gum stuck to it. “I went home and I cropped the legs out of the painting. I made posters and I started trickling them all over the streets.”
China’s disembodied, stiletto-and-gum legs cropped up across New York, becoming a local sensation among tourists and celebrities alike (Kelly Osbourne and Perez Hilton stopped in front of her downtown works for photo ops). The painter, then known by her followers as Gumshoe, moved into a bigger apartment with more space for her makeshift studio, and began working on take-home commissions of her larger-than-life street art. But while success came, satisfaction didn’t. China decided to put down the spray paint and headed to art school in search of more rigorous training in figurative painting. “I just wanted to get quiet, and learn, and push myself, and be surrounded by people who had studied art, knew art, talked about it in a more traditional academic setting,” she remembers. She selected the grad program at the New York Academy of Art, stepping away from street art to immerse herself in the canon of art history.
But the urge to make timely work proved difficult for the artist to resist. In the throes of the MeToo Movement, China found a way to blend her old street art practice with her new credentials, remixing Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Donald Trump, and Bill Cosby into Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. “Jerry Saltz DMd me and he was like, ‘You should make posters and glue them all over the streets.’” China did just that, papering the town with the nude group painting, exposing the men to the vulnerability and degradation to which they had subjected so many others, and another moment of virality was born for the young artist.
The artist’s canvases are frequently occupied by languid bodies rendered in forceful brushstrokes and neutral tones. “When you are too much of a perfectionist, you kill the authenticity. It's just like anything else in life,” she explains. “If you try too hard, it's not vulnerable, and vulnerability is where the beauty lies in everything. That's how I see it.”
In her show at Malin Gallery, an offering of 10 new works, China has decided to transcend figuration. The week before it opens, she is still busy in her studio, painting enormous, abstract pieces that may or may not make their way to the final show. For the first time, she’s fully giving in to spontaneity: no sketch, no study, no plan. “I know everybody says that abstract painting is about the process, but really it is. These paintings are kind of where I am in my life. Instead of trying to make them into what I want them to be, I'm working with the canvas and with the paint…instead of trying to force it into something.”
An early glimpse at the exhibition reveals unhurried swaths of color in which the figures and brushstrokes so prominent in her earlier work melt away, leaving a simple harmony between intent and form in their wake. The show's title, "Girl on the Grass," serves to set a sun-soaked, leisurely tone for visitors, despite the show's mid-winter timing. For China, it refers more explicitely to an internal freedom for exploration and meditation on the natural environment. “You know what,” she muses, “I pray before paint. And I swear to God, when I [do], I have a good day. The days that I forget to do that, I usually don't.”
“Girl on the Grass” is on view through May 20, 2023 at Malin Gallery in New York.