See more of the story

We all need a little break sometimes. Call it a breather, a long vacation, early retirement or a brief hiatus. Ten years ago, internationally renowned artist Paul Chan, who became known in the early 2000s for his politically charged animations, decided to call it quits.

"I stopped taking invitations for new exhibitions," he said. "When people would say, 'Do you have any new work?' I would say 'No', which was true."

Chan — who has shown his works around the world at countless prestigious institutions such as the Guggenheim, the Renaissance Society and in the Whitney Biennial and Venice Biennale — is coming back, at least for now.

His solo exhibition "Breathers" feels like a mini-retrospective of what he's been up to since he quietly quit the art world. The show opened at the Walker Art Center on Nov. 17 and its centerpieces are strange, billowing, body-shaped nylon creatures, usually headless, who come alive through a fan blowing beneath them.

"I came back because I found a way to make animations without screens," he said. "No, actually, I was dumb enough to think that I could take this method of using fans and fabric and be able to make animations as precisely as I did on a computer. It took five years. All the movements, I can't control that precisely, but I know the range of movements and the speed of things."

Curator Pavel Pyś visited with Chan in his studio in February 2020, shortly before the pandemic, when the world took a breather. In his catalog essay for the show, Pyś compares Chan's departure from the art world to Michael Jordan's "breather" from basketball.

"I was very conscious that there was a significant amount of work that hadn't been shown before, and at the time that I was thinking about Paul he was so characterized as a moving-image artist, very much through the lens, LOL, of his animation," Pyś said. "I was thinking about how he has been making these very surprising shifts and I felt that needed celebrating in an exhibition."

Don't call it a comeback

Chan might be back in action, but don't call it a comeback.

Inside the first gallery, there's an installation that looks part 99-cent store and part art book fair. The shelves are filled with subversively titled products: a lotion called Racist Lotion, a dishwashing soap called Hegelian Clean and Poopeyes Detergent.

Protest signs from the 2017 series "New Proverbs" appropriate and subvert the design of racist, homophobic, antisemitic signage put out by Westboro Baptist Church. These signs offer messages like, "Fags Hate Trump," "Anti-Asian = Anti-Murican," "Darker Gayer Different" and "Trump Dooms Nation." Various catalogs from Chan's shows during the pre-quitting period, like "The 7 Lights" (2005–07), also line the shelves.

On the other side there's a sampling of books, including the purple-colored covers of the "New Lovers Series" put out by Badlands Unlimited, an experimental publishing house that Chan started with artist Ian Cheng and other creatives, which ran from 2010-18. At the end, it bankrupted Chan.

"I look at my catalog [of Badlands Unlimited writers], and it's like, a bunch of quitters or people who are not afraid of being in pain," he said. "People who put a stake in a sort of a direction with no direction."

Still breathing

In his "Breathers" works, nylon figures on top of house fans, feel strangely haunting. "Le Baigneur 1," a black figure without hands, feet or a head, sits bent over on top of a fan. "Pillowsophia (after Ghostface)" is a hooded black figure floating high above the ground. "Katabasis," a series of four connected characters, looks like they are playfully fighting. "2chained or Genesia and Nemesia," two red-and-orange figures, twist and turn with each other, forever holding hands.

"I think about the Greek notion of the three fates, the sisters," he said. "And these car dealerships, but instead of the [car dealers] being on meth and trying to sell you stuff, they're going to be slightly happy or just plain mourning. I just wanted them to move a different way. I think this was my solution to make animated work without having to look at a screen."

In the back room, one finds his series "Arguments and Nonprojections," 2012, electrical cords that plug into mostly nonfunctional outlets or cement-filled shoes that usually go nowhere, and projectors in various states of despair.

The exhibition travels next to the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and then to the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis.

After that, who knows.

"I have no plans," he said calmly. "That's the best thing about being a questionable artist, right? You've got plenty of time to deal with you."

**
Paul Chan: 'Breathers'

When: Ends July 16, 2023.

Where: Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Place, Mpls.

Info: walkerart.org or 612-375-7600.

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed., Fri.-Sun.; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu.

Cost: $2-$15.