Alan Lau’s studio wall in the International District. • Photo by Ben Arai
Alan Lau’s studio wall in the International District. • Photo by Ben Arai

The Studio is An Artist’s Bedroom for Ideas

Introduction by IE Arts Editor Alan Chong Lau: Re-reading Lucia’s Enriquez’s essay on working in my studio in the International District, I started feeling nostalgic for a space that gave me so much room. By room, I don’t mean physical space as it was a squat space the size of a glorified closet with one tiny window that served as the loading dock receiver’s office in the back of the old Uwajimaya long ago reduced to rubble by the wrecking ball. It’s now springing up as a new shopping block with retail on the ground floor and apartments on top. A not unfamiliar scenario in cities around the country as artists, the poor and even the middle class are squeezed out to make room for development. But it made me realize how important it is for an artist to have their own space, even as humble, spartan, and spare as mine was. Not to make it sound mundane, but really in essence, a studio is an office for an artist’s thoughts. Even if we walk in and just sit there and do nothing, it serves a purpose. Once you close that door, you know why you are there. It enhances an environment where ideas can roam and you can focus on making your art and nothing else. Each splatter of ink on a yellowed wall that may look like a mess to the uninitiated means something to the artist.

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Alan Lau’s studio is in a partition in Uwajimaya supermarket’s old building in Seattle’s International District. Nondescript from the outside, it is unmistakably a painter’s den on the inside, where splatters of ink have accumulated on the walls. Remainders from years of painting, they outline the edges of paper that have since become finished pieces.

Some splatters look like dandelions with furry heads and slender stems underneath, repeated in many places as if they were alive and reproduced. Other splatters flow downward like shoulders or the crests of waterfalls. With tonal ranges from light transparent gray to dense black, they repeat in a way that seems meditative and rhythmic, hinting at a process that flows towards something greater in the actual paintings.

I asked Alan if he plans out his paintings beforehand, and he replied, no, he does not: “I just start. After I begin I follow through with what seems to take from.”

The beginnings of his paintings are often a light sumi wash, transparent but undeniably they’re like fog on a valley, or a fugitive scent that gives a premonition of something. Laid over this is a darker wash, agitated and moved around to create forms that dance, seethe, puddle, and provide movement across the surface. They may look as dramatic as the layers of a mushroom cloud, as serious as live embers.

The influence of the Japanese literati, brush painters who began using landscape painting as a means of self-expression, is evident in Alan’s work but he has refined their stance for the 21st century. Paradoxically there is something at once vast and microscopic in paintings such as “Air Among the Vines” and “The Land of Oranges and Lemons.” There is no pictorial reality but there is realization of the dance between light, activity and mystery.

It’s fitting that in a series for this show, Alan evokes the literati painter Kinkoku. An eccentric monk, Kinkoku challenged the mores of his time. Kinkoku’s landscapes have dots floating everywhere as if shaken from the ether. In Alan’s “Air Above Kinkoku” series, the “air” is claustrophobic and agitated. It has sadness in it, as if of death. In place of atmosphere, black blotches obscure the view.

Among many other artists who have influenced Alan are Mark Tobey, Arthur Dove, and Jackson Pollock, artists who painted atmosphere. Alan embraces the way these artists are the same and the way they are different in that there is something both subversive and uplifting in what he tries to do.

In living his artist life, in situating his studio in the old location of a supermarket that he still works for, Alan is doing something radical. A modern day literati, the city is his landscape and in painting after painting, he shows us what is still organic. In this way he opens possibilities for feeling, as in the painting, “Water Chestnut Run Over” where a momentary incident at the store with a mound of water chestnuts falling on the floor becomes a vision of fiery transcendence.

This essay originally appeared in a gallery pamphlet (Francine Seders Gallery) for the show, “rolling in the dirt” and is reprinted with the permission of the author. The artist is now represented by ArtXchange Gallery in Pioneer Square.

Opening First Thursday, March 3, ArtXchange Gallery welcomes esteemed artist Alan Lau to the gallery roster with his latest solo exhibition, Beauty in the Decay. For more information, click here.

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