Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao immigrated to New York City from Taiwan in 1999 and quickly became a keen observer of his adopted city. The large, composite, panoramic photographs in his series Habitat 7, 2004-2006, document in vivid color the communities along the number 7 subway train as it snakes its way from Flushing, Queens, to 42nd Street in Manhattan. While working on an exhibition of those images at the Museum of the City of New York in 2014, Liao would occasionally wander over to nearby Central Park for a few moments of peace and reflection, sitting near the Untermyer Fountain in the park’s Conservatory Garden: “I would go there to breathe,” he says.
That experience led to Liao’s most recent work, on view at Foley Gallery from September 6 through October 15, Central Park New York – 24 Solar Terms. The series, which has also been published in a book by Nazraeli Press, marks a change for Liao, from working in saturated color to black and white, and from panoramic horizontal images to a tall vertical orientation that references Chinese landscape paintings. The composite photographs are based on the Chinese calendar and the 24 solar periods that traditionally dictate when crops should be planted, watered, and harvested, and when festivals should be held as the seasons change. Liao set himself a schedule of photographing in the park every two weeks, tracking the subtle shifts in seasons and weather, naming each image after the “solar term” for that period: Summer Solstice, for example, shows the watery reflection of the Plaza Hotel in the Pond, or Grain in Ear, a close up of grasses and pockets of algae collecting on the water’s surface, an image that suggests the delicate inky lines and composition of a 14th-century Chinese ink brush painting.
If Habitat 7 was Liao’s homage to his adopted city, this series reads like a love poem to Central Park, rendered in black and white. From the blur of unsteady skaters on the ice rink, to the hush of willow branches bowed over the water, the park is many things to many people – a gathering place, an escape from the city’s crowds and noise, and more than anything a respite, a spot where the rhythms of nature still hold in the middle of a sprawling city.