Kathy Liao, whose work is currently on view at Prographica/KDR Galllery in Seattle, is interested in the poetry that fills the gap between experience and memory. Her paintings and collages are suffused with affection, introspection and a sense of time passing.
John Seed Interviews Kathy Liao
Kathy, tell me about your early life and how it shaped you.
My family traveled a lot during my childhood. I was born in Taiwan. I spent most of my elementary school years in Taiwan, and middle/high school in Southern California. As a kid, I felt like I lived two lives and I existed in two worlds. The holidays were different. The colors and decorations were different, the food was different. The way I looked and spoke and acted were different. From the sleepless nights in Taipei with its endless columns and rows of neon signs, to the quiet, dark suburbs of Southern California, I found myself adapting, absorbing, and molding into the various places I called home.
As a first generation immigrant, I am constantly reflecting on my relationship with my family. My paintings and drawings are anecdotes of moments and instances where I felt both so close and so far to my family, physically, emotionally, or mentally, in value and beliefs. Those moments sing out to me, feel high pitched, they are at once strange and familiar, light hearted and overbearing, happy and poignantly sad.
Throughout my childhood and adult life, my dad lived in Taiwan, while my mom and my siblings lived in the United States. I remember my dad used to visit my family in the US every three months. I remember him constantly packing and unpacking. I’ve alway though of that ritual as being heavy and burdensome and of the dream that he lugged back and forth between two countries. But his devotion to his family and his children never wavered.
One thing I think a lot about is the idea of the American Dream. In the news, you hear a lot about immigrants coming here in pursue of the “American Dream”, but I disagree. My parents did not immigrate here for the “American” dream. My parents brought me here in pursuit of the “Taiwan Dream,” in which, well-to-do Taiwanese family bring their kids to America for better education and better life. The Taiwan dream is parents sacrificing their own existing life for their kids, for the betterment of the family, the community. I’ve always felt I’ve abandoned my parents’ Taiwan Dream. I chose the American way, leaving my family community, pursuing my own dream, making decisions for myself and myself only.
Were you always artistic?
I grew up in a family of doctors. I was not exposed to much art as a child. Both of my parents were dentists and the most artistic objects my parents presented to me were dentures, wax, and molds of strangers’ teeth. I was a studious kid and my parents had high hopes of me going into medicine. However, I’ve always love to draw since I was a little kid.
I remember one of my favorite holidays in Taiwan is the Moon Festival where, in our elementary school, the students get to construct paper lanterns out of bamboo and paper. I used to copy illustrations from children’s books and continued on to draw and publish comic books in middle and high school. My parents always thought with my artistic hands, I’d make amazing prosthetics and beautiful dentures for patients. I asked my mother once, “Why didn’t you take us to the museums more often when I was a kid?” She replied, “Why would I do that? I was trying to steer you away from art, but you keep stubbornly continued to pursue it!” I think that was meant to be a joke. Maybe...
Where did you get your art education and who were your mentors?
I went to University of Washington in Seattle for my undergraduate studies. My first few years there, I majored in the sciences, intending to go on to medicine. After taking my first oil painting class in my Junior year, I found myself at a crossroads. Finishing my first degree in Psychology, and realizing I had no desire to go on to be a doctor, I went back to pursue a B.F.A in Painting and Drawing at the University of Washington. At UW, I studied with Helen O’Toole and Ann Gale, and many other wonderful faculty, who shaped my foundation.
I went to Boston University for my M.F.A. degree in Painting, and that was the best decision of my life. My graduate professor, John Walker, was an incredible painter and mentor. His work was bold, painterly, and poetic, heavy with collaged materials and the hand of the artist. From him, I learned to be genuine and honest with the work I make. From him, I learned I have the freedom to do anything I want to.
What are some of the themes of your art?
The absence and presence of “memory” is something I think a lot about in my recent work. I think a lot about how memories fade with time, and how memories get altered and distilled through iterative attempts to record it. My work has really slowed down, now that I paint less from life and more from memory. In the last few years, my grandmother’s memories have been fading away. I call her Waipuo (which means grandma in Chinese). The absence and loss of her memory only prompted me to hold on to it more, wanting to preserve it somehow.
In Memories with Watermelons, I think back to how Waipuo always cut up these large triangular slices of watermelon for me when I came home to visit. Waipuo no longer remembers I like watermelons.
My painting “Sunbathing” was done from life, on a day when my dad sat in the backyard by the pool. That day, it was just a record of a specific moment in time, but I often revisit the same moment. Years later, in Sunbathing (Yellow), the memory of the bright blinding California light that afternoon stuck out to me. This memory is revisited most recently in Absent Presence. What’s not there intrigues me more rather than forcing things to be there.
I’m also interested in the physical distance, psychological distance, and this new cyber distance we experience around us. During my travels, I see everyone glued to the phone, they all feel closely connected to something in cyberspace, but a million miles away from the person next to them. This compression and expansion of distance is most apparent to me when Waipuo’s faced pops up on Facetime. It is always a mixed bag of emotions for me. She recognizes me sometime, and other times, she’s confused with the technology and who I am. She is so far and so close at the same time (sometimes a little too close to the screen).
What kind of moods do you try and evoke?
My work has often been described nostalgic. I read an article by Michael Chabon recently in the New Yorker. He talked about nostalgia in a way that I really stuck a cord with me:
Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.
For 15 years, my dad called me everyday long distance from Taiwan. This was before iPhone, before Facetime; it was all about those long distance collect calls, and the expensive phone bill. Living apart, my dad was always the voice from the other end of the line. I no longer get his phone calls anymore. I think the question of “How do you know when the painting is done” often come up. Making a painting is like listening into a broken telephone…. you keep dialing and dialing… nothing, dial tone, nothing, noises, static…. until one day, you hear a faint, “Hello?” Then I know the painting is done.
Can you describe your working methods?
In the last three years, I’ve bounced from studio to studio. I usually work large and messily, so I had to adjust my working habits depending on the studio space. My recent series of painting started in 2015 when I was working out of a small laundry room (with windows) in my then apartment. I barely had any space and I had to downsize my footprint to working with gouache on paper. At that time, I would start my day with a stack of 8.5”x11” sheets of paper and start experimenting with layered mark-making, color transparency and opacity, line quality, pattern making. This resulted in piles and piles of collage materials, which then became my palette.
In early 2016, I did a residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I made almost 40 small collaged gouache drawings of snapshots, revisited memories. The result was an outpouring of ideas into being. With the use of collage and washi-tape, I could slow down and deconstruct these images layer by layer, piece by piece, color by color, mark by mark. I can be very specific about the color palette and I can play with scale and direction of the mark-making.
These collage drawings then became the jumping off points for some of my recent paintings.
Printmaking has allowed me to think about layers, color, but also significance of drawing (lines as space, lines as value, positive lines, incised sgraffito, or the history of erased lines) I stare at Goya’s etchings an awful lot.
I love experimenting and learning new techniques. I went to Tamarind last summer to learn lithography, and at my university, I was able to try my hand at working with ceramic and glazes. I love the freshness of working with a new technique. I would often bring sketches and images to work with and the technique itself would force me to reinvent a way of translating the image, turning a familiar sketch into something labor intensive and foreign, and allow me to look at the image in a completely different way. I don’t get that often in painting, that giddy anticipation when you’re about to pull a print, or open the kiln. I even love it when things crash and burns, when the litho gets under or over etched, when the glazes blisters and burns - the failures are window of opportunities to work back into the piece, to respond to, and to play with piece with no reservation.
In my current studio practice, I’ve been looking at Katherine Bradford, Francis Bacon, Manet, Goya’s black paintings and prints, and I can see their influences in my work.
I’ve always been a fast, gestural, expressive painter. The way I build up a painting really slowed down in my recent practice, working with with glazes and transparent layers, allowing light to come from within the painting rather than built up to the surface. In my older work, I admired Rembrandt’s portraits and the way the layered light glowed on his face. In response, my older work were thickly layered and the light sits on he surface of the painting. Because of my printmaking practice and gouache studies, I want to allow to light come from WITHIN the painting. Rembrandt does that with his paintings too, but I wasn’t able to recognize it until I started looking at his etching.
How has teaching affected your development as an artist?
I absolutely love teaching and I love sharing my excitement about painting and art-making. The more I teach, the more I am convinced the importance of drawing. As an artist, I believe teaching allowed me to practice to be more articulate about my own work, about looking and critiquing other’s work, and understanding my relationship with works I admire.
Teaching at a university, I also have access to other resources and departments (see above) and I am grateful to be able to take advantage of that. I am a life-long learner and academia is my niche. Time management: teaching is truly a tough lesson on time management, discipline, and learning to say no. I had to fight hard to carve out time for my studio practice. I’ve become very protective, uncompromising, and selfish about my studio time.
What are your interests outside of painting?
Road-tripping, traveling, hiking, cooking and baking pies.
Kathy Liao: Lingering Presence
May 4-July 1, 2017
313 Occidental Ave. South Seattle, WA 98104