In 7 Seas in a Puddle, Jonathan Ching explores different notions of perception, informed by personal experiences, narratives, and histories, asking after the idea that things are not always what they appear to be. Through a series of paintings — sprawling pseudo-landscapes he calls “tarp mountains” or “urban landscapes” — Ching touches on the relationship of our familiarity with certain things in the formation of our encounters with other things.
Through a series of paintings called “Where Lost Things Gather,” Ching seems to be ascribing a sentientity to the collection of objects, implying their initiative at self-formation and re-construction as these landforms. Perhaps that is not quite the case, but it could be so in our minds, where the piles of things covered in many, many colors in a cascading sheet become mountains. 7 Seas is a study in perception and familiarity. It is a way of making sense of a world that simultaneously feels strange and intimate, a tension that is apprehended in these paintings through Ching’s lush brushstrokes and deft hand.
Over the course of five years, Ching amassed a collection of photographs of these formations, a representation of what he calls “special events,” as these sightings often happen in the early hours of the morning or during the holidays. Although they appear close to Ching in spatial proximity, these sightings occur sporadically and irregularly, becoming something special to look out for, made even more precious through the uncertainty of encounter.
Through these paintings, Ching puts forth the idea that our own ideas of landscape and environment shapes the way we perceive these technically nondescript formations and, in our minds, reconstruct them into less mundane mountains. We put together composites of what we know to be true and real, automatically attaching this understanding to what we cannot quite figure out just yet, in an attempt to try and make sense of whatever that may be.
The tarp mountains populating the cityscapes look like otherworldly terrain, at once foreign and familiar. Typically nondescript objects covered or obscured from public view, these structures are less like simulations of magnificent mountainous landscapes and more like a recall of what we may have already known about. None of these formations were created for the purpose of imitation, or of “siting,” that is, situating a land mass in an urban area, as an attempt to recreate the traditional notion of what a landscape (as in what surrounds us, immediately and entirely) is. What Ching, and perhaps we, perceive are manifestations of the familiar forms that we somehow call to mind.
In Notebooks, Georges Braque stated that painting does not strive to “reconstitute an anecdote” but rather “to constitute a pictorial event.” Marcel Merleau-Ponty interprets this to mean that rather than imitating the world, paintings are a world of their own, in themselves. Rendered at a fraction of the structures’ original sizes, Ching’s paintings continue to create an urban city landscape, translated through him, becoming an environment and a space, rather than remaining a selection of disparate objects held together by rope and fabric.
The tarpaulin sheets that cascade over a collection of nondescript objects become intimations of what we formulate in our minds what our environment — perhaps a landscape, instead of a congested city — ought, in our minds, to be. We build a world in our heads, and we tell ourselves a story to tide us over.
— Carina Santos