Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Plein air paintings: San Francisco/Hong Kong - Interview with Claire Lau

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Claire Lau is an artist known for her plein air paintings who was born in Paris and who has done work in Hong Kong and San Francisco. According to her statement, she “…explores the unique spatial relationship between nature and metropolis…cityscapes on a macro level; banyan trees and succulents on a micro level.”

The cities seem nestled within but autonomous of the surrounding landscapes – carved out of nature and not meaningfully integrated into it. Both Hong Kong and San Francisco are situated near mountains and these are spectacularly rendered by Lau even though the mountains near both cities may have become, in the popular imagination, more picturesque than sublime. Both types of flora (banyan trees and agave plants) once held deep mystical significance for the earlier inhabitants of these respective regions so a conclusion to be drawn might be that the modern city dweller wants the paradoxical situation of proximity to the sacred without the meaningful engagement of the scared. The once-sacred in nature merely catches and pleases the eye of the hurried city-dweller but no longer stimulates the imagination to the extent it once did.

The ability to introspect and examine aspects of our inner reality derived from the mediation of symbols and our earliest symbols came from the natural world. So, to me, Lau’s paintings seem to point to the fact that one thing which has been lost through urbanization is a desire to engage nature on a deeper interpretive level, a level which only comes from a type of integration that allows really seeing and trying to grasp the natural - having a direct and meaningful experience with nature which then throws light on our own humane development.

Why are you so committed to plein air painting?

Plein air painting is a process that forces me to study the world around me with intent, and to build a connection with it. It is a way for me to reflect on questions like ‘Why does this form interest me so much?’, ‘What are the movements that I see and feel here?’, ’How does this all fit together? What are the forces at play?’, and ‘How do I also fit in this space?’. After I’ve painted a scene or a tree, I have built a special connection with it that gets triggered every time I pass by. It’s like how Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s fox taught the little prince about “aprivoiser”. It’s “créer des liens” - to create connections - and that to me is through plein air painting. I find this particularly important today against all trends towards the digital world. I moved from Hong Kong (a place where everyone’s eyes are constantly fixated on a screen, whether it be a hand held device or TV screens on trains and buses), to the world’s tech capital, San Francisco. While I believe that technology has made our lives a lot more convenient and is attempting to solve some important problems, I firmly believe that we must not lose sight of and lose our connection to the world around us. This is everything from the trees, the plants, and the water around us, to the struggling families and homeless people on the streets. It’s about being observant, caring and understanding.

How did you develop an interest in your cityscapes?

When I grew up in Hong Kong, I lived on top of a forested hill. Over the years, I witnessed the forests next to my bus stop being completely removed for highways, the adjacent hill chopped off for skyscrapers, as well as the deteriorating air quality due to the industrialization of Shenzhen. This made me very aware of the relationship between human development and nature. By junior year of high school I made a painting of the chopped off trees next to my bus stop and a very grey painting of the valley called "A Sunny Day in Hong Kong”.

The banyan tree has aerial roots which can point upward while other roots drop to the ground forming new trunks. The banyan tree can therefore be considered ‘upside down’ – roots going upward and trunks/branches downward - as if it were being reflected in a river. So the tree once was a reminder to Buddhists that all is reflection and that even the real or permanent is merely a concept deduced from reflection (a reflection of a reflection). What does it mean to you?

The banyan tree’s forms remind me of life and its cycles, connecting earth and sky with their air roots. They’re a visual embodiment of sustainable systems. They flow, roots like rivers and air roots like arteries; they stretch, they lean, and they dance; they show strength, show support, and are grounded.

A lot of the plants you highlight in your SF paintings are agave plants. Did you do research into this plant and its use before the urbanization of that area of the US? 

I did not do in-depth research into the agave’s use before the urbanization of the US, but I did know that it was used for medicinal purposes, consumption, and daily use. I grew up with my mom cooking me aloe vera soup when I was sick, and using its skin to treat burns. I chose it because I found it fascinating that such a majestic and purposeful plant would be growing around the city like a weed. Formally, they demand attention through their layers unfurling from their core (like a rose), yet with their rigid strength and spikes they recall resilience, especially during California’s historic drought. As with other succulents, they remind me of the beauty and adaptiveness of nature, of how wondrous life forms will continue to exist even after human beings make this planet uninhabitable for their own species.

What have been some of your influences?

I'm influenced a lot by my physical environment, the spaces, the plants, the light and colors. In terms of artists, compositionally I've been very interested at how David Hockney and Rackstraw Downes explore space - the compilations of multiple fields of vision as your eyes move, creating an experience of a space much more fluid than the Renaissance theories of perspective. Nowadays people call it "fish-eye", because they are all conditioned by cameras. But how do we describe the full experience of being in a space?

Artists you admire?

Other artists that I admire include Wayne Thiebaud and Sébastien Mahon (color, exaggerated space, giving personality / energy to landscapes), Sangram Majumdar and Suzanna Coffey (for color, touch, composition, visual abstraction). I also can't deny that having spent my childhood in the Musée d'Orsay and Pompidou, I had always admired Cézanne. Even though I only really came to the conclusion that plein air painting was for me in my final year of college, after experimenting with many different ways of painting, I think my childhood in France affected me tremendously.

Chow Chun Fei, from HK, recently had an opening at Klein Sun Gallery in NY City (one of the best galleries to see contemporary Chinese work in the US).  There are actually a few galleries devoted to mainland Chinese art in NY and this seems to be meeting a growing market in the US. Are HK artists a part of this trend or do you folks see yourselves separate from this new wave of mainlanders?

When I was in high school and was asked what I wanted to study in university, my classmate (herself going into art) was extremely surprised by my answer and exclaimed “But your grades are so good, shouldn’t you be studying something other than art?”

In Hong Kong, I think there is still very little respect for fine art as a career, and thus less resources put into nurturing local artists. The situation is slowly improving, but even projects like the new West Kowloon Cultural Centre so far mostly benefit real estate developers, tycoons, politicians and those in the top of the art market rather than any local emerging artists. With the insurmountable cost of living in HK, it’s often difficult to survive as an artist. Consequently there are fewer artists that can rise to attention internationally. I think as there is a greater ‘thirst’ for Asian art in the US, Hong Kong will start to benefit from this trend, but I don’t think it will produce the same number of artists per capita.

When you are not painting, what do you like to do? Books you like? Movies? Music?

I am a singer, used to be a composer and have done a lot of a cappella arrangements for groups that I've led. For the past year I've been extremely busy being a political organizer and volunteer for the Bernie Sanders primary campaign, and I'm currently the co-founder and co-Chair of a progressive political group in San Francisco. I'm also part of a political club for Hong Kongers in the Bay Area. I'm currently writing a graphic memoir on my participation in the Umbrella Movement and my grandma's escape from China to Hong Kong in the late 50s.

I think everyone should read ‘Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed’ by Jarred Diamond, and watch Miyazaki's films, especially ‘Mononoke Hime’ and ‘Nausicaa'.

Claire Lau can be contacted through her website:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Tom Duffy: Man in Nature at ARC Gallery, Chicago

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In Tom Duffy’s current show at ARC Gallery, he examines two extremes involving “man in nature” in America’s heartland, or, more precisely, he looks at extremes involved in the ability of humanity to extract sustenance and wealth from the land through labor. One extreme presents a rare remnant of the working class in the USA, still existing due to the physical inability to outsource their type of job, while the other extreme is a direct result of outsourcing and a creative attempt to adjust to the new circumstances established through the near-destruction of the working class in America.

One of the more iconic images of the American industrial worker is Lewis Hine’s ‘Steam Fitter’ (1920). Hine has his worker bent over, conforming to the shape and demands of a machine from which he derives his livelihood; yet, the subject also shows an immense amount of masculine will, strength and mastery. The worker thus forms a perfect symbiosis or mutualism with the machine. Whereas Hine had become famous for leading a crusade against child labor through his photos of children working in factories, his photos of adult workers became more ambiguous in their judgment of human labor and exploitation in the industrial process.

{{{Steam Fitter - Lewis Hine}}}

Indeed, Hine’s various photos of working men seemed to impute dignity to the process of industrial toil, as opposed, for instance, to Marx’s belief that the industrial worker was alienated from his very ‘species-being’ through this type of work and thus became a sad object of financial exploitation.   In Hine’s work the men are clearly not objects of pity since the jobs seem suitable to their strength and backgrounds and, consequently, these photos ignite little more than a quiet sympathy for those doing exhausting and tedious work instead of moral outrage. Since industrialization had been legitimated as a necessity, the use of workers in this manner could be tolerated as long as they were perceived as grown men giving outlet to their masculinity and thus securing dignity (and most probably supporting their families).

Hine’s photos reflected the American attitude toward industrial labor at that time and it is useful to begin with this iconic work as a type of normative model or ideal type from which to view Tom Duffy’s photos of the men who work in Indiana’s limestone quarries. Has our conception of the worker changed since Hine? Has it changed since the outsourcing phenomenon of recent years? Which emotions might be elicited now in viewing men at hard work: work requiring, perhaps, little more than physical skill and endurance?

In one of Duffy’s photos we see a man with bulging and rippling muscles, gripping a system of drills, knees bent, body twisted, cigarette stiffly protruding from his mouth. In fact, cigarettes are ubiquitous in these photos of the quarry workers, betraying extra attempts by the quarry workers, perhaps, to handle the physical and emotional stresses of the job. The cigarettes could also serve as sardonic phallic reminders of the fact that this is a place of purely masculine labor, where men can still prove themselves to be men like Hine’s male workers, the cigarettes looking like the penises from stick figures in prehistoric cave paintings.  

Like the worker in Hine’s iconic photo these men are clearly demonstrating and affirming their masculinity through their jobs, as the drilling into the rock contains its own priapic symbolism, but the symbiosis that Hine modeled, and which possibly eased our consciences a bit toward the working class, now seems lost and perhaps no longer necessary with the passage of time and acceptance of so much more than was accepted back in the day. 

To me, for instance, there is no clear masculine and muscular domination of machinery or tools – some tools are so loud they require protective headsets and many of the tools depicted obviously entail physical wear and tear on the body. It is not symbiotic mastery we now see, but benign struggle with the machine. We can be made to realize, perhaps, that these men are not demonstrating the free and creative productivity which Marx believed to be our essence, but toil in the destructive process of cracking and removing tons of limestone blocks from the earth to provide beautiful veneers for various buildings – these are high-end luxury items used for decorative purposes. The Empire State Building and the Pentagon, for instance, are covered with Indiana limestone from this quarry.

In another photo we see a giant limestone slab that has been separated and is falling while nearby workers pensively stare at the result of their work, shoulders slumped in sudden, short-lived relief (kind of the way a boxer will let his shoulders slump immediately after a knock out). Duffy seems to be asking how visible or invisible this labor is to us. It is as if he is saying that the working class still exists, even if we do not read the stories of workers jumping from factory roofs in developing countries. Indeed, we have not completely ended the problem of one segment of a society laboring for the pleasure and luxury of another segment – try as we might there are some working class situations still among us and we have never adequately responded to this situation.  

Duffy might also be asking: What psychological mechanisms are at play in each of us when we assess who these guys are and what the work might be doing to them?  We assume they are well-paid and happy, and, indeed, I even felt compelled to ask Duffy at the opening, “Are these guys happy?” with Duffy indicating that they were not only happy but proud to be involved in working at the quarry. Duffy spent 5 months with them and told me that one big source of pride comes from the fact that this quarry work has been ‘generational’ with some men following in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers.

Along with these images of limestone quarries and their workers, Duffy provides images of various ghost towns he has visited, as well as some American towns in decline, along with scenes from a 3-person family organic farm. The photos of the dying or dead towns serve the function, within the context of this show, of expressing the social pressures which are pushing individuals to reflect on the possibilities for employment now that the industrial sector is shrinking in the USA. 

{{{Photo of a little kid who has, apparently, just slit the throats of several chickens - they are upside down to allow the blood to drain from them...this is a way to ensure the meat is 'kosher'.}}}

This pressure, ironically, has pushed this one family away from the apparent trajectory of history, back to the countryside, exploiting the trend among affluent and educated city-dwellers to prefer the meat of animals which are raised in a more humane and ethical fashion. Duffy’s photos attempt to capture the integrity and joy he found in this family, which goes to extremes to ensure that their livestock are treated as well as possible, even though they are barely eking out a living in the process.

ARC is one of Chicago’s more amazing galleries and has been contributing meaningful art exhibits since its inception in 1973. It is one of the oldest co-op galleries of its kind in the USA and functions as a non-profit, woman artist-run cooperative which provides exhibition opportunities to exceptional artists without discrimination in regard to “…race, age, class, physical/mental ability, sexual, spiritual or political orientation.” Tom Duffy’s show runs there until November 19th.

ARC Gallery:

Tom Duffy: