When you enter the Waterstone Gallery on 12th in the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon, one of the first sensations you may have is sheer delight. The colorful and orderly space is filled with wonderful treats that beckon the viewer to get closer and see more.
The second sensation is more subtle. As you move through the room it’s as though you have just stepped off of a dock into a small boat that is bobbing on the water. Your mind may be slightly tickled and you may not know why until you realize that you’ve just stepped into hundreds of stories all being told at the same time.
Lisa Kaser and Shu-Ju Wang are masterful storytellers. Their new show at Waterstone Gallery is not just beautiful, but a wealth of information and narrative with each artist rendering those stories in ways that can best be described as polar opposites.
Shu-Ju Wang’s work is profoundly personal; her narrative is derived largely from her experience of the world as an immigrant. Through her diptych paintings, she tells the stories of “before” and “after” her immigration to the US, which took place when she was 15. Many of those stories have to do with food and our relationship to it in the world.
Shu-Ju is a self-taught artist, with a degree in Engineering
and a deep love of geometry. Her disciplined mind is
everywhere apparent in her richly embellished art.
She has described her work style as “still.” Shu-Ju will design a painting in advance, do a mock-up of it and then sit down to paint, sometimes for 7 hours at a time. Her patience is boundless and her attention to detail makes each viewing of her works a fresh experience as new layers reward the persistent viewer.
Shu-Ju’s paintings in the show are a collection of works done in 2012 and center around foods she missed from her home in Taiwan and those that she has come to love in her new home. Each of her diptych paintings represents the story of foods longed for and new foods celebrated with the center, the geometric mandala piece, being both the divider and the unifier. If you were to ask Shu-Ju where she exists in the paintings she would say that she “lives in the crack between the two canvases. I belong to both places, and yet at the same time, to neither place. And thus I exist in that little crack between the two. That is the immigrant experience”.
In addition to her paintings she has three books in the show which are also largely about food but with a greater emphasis on health and the environment. In the books, as in her paintings, Shu-Ju dives into her topic with a roadmap she has created outlining what she wants most to bring to light. “For every piece I begin with written bullet points about what I want to say and then I develop the images, but when I sit down to paint, the process itself brings new information to me…Some things can be changed. Some not so easily but the painting is an interactive process.”
Where Shu-Ju’s art is geometric , highly stylized, intensely colorful and embellished with minute details, Lisa Kaser’s work could be described as organic, fluid or transitional. Everywhere there is evidence of her hand. In this show, Lisa has two wall hangings that are made from handmade wool felt, which she dyes, ages , and then cuts up, hand sews and embroiders. To look at her art is to see her energy unleashed and then reigned in to create subtle and heart-wrenching details.
Her illustrations combine watercolor, pencil and collage from older drawings or bits of cut-out paintings that may, (or may not), come together as a story later on. Lisa has been drawing all her life. She is rarely without a sketchpad and fills her pages mostly with drawings of characters that she says have always been with her. Her father was an artist, her mother a quilter, and she says, “there was always paper around so I drew all the time and I sewed as much as I drew. Those two activities formed my narrative and my skill. I draw today very much the way I drew then. I avoid necks.”
It takes but an instant to realize that humor is a cornerstone of Lisa Kaser’s work. While delightful on its own, often a title such as “Purely By Accident Did The Elephant Caress The Bystanders Ear” or “Sharing Rice Pudding Recipe with Perfect Stranger” will bring an illustration into poignant focus that will produce a grin or a tear. Sometimes the titles come first, sometimes the illustrations. In any case, they were meant for one another and together create a springboard from which we can launch our fantasies about what happens next.
The majority of her work is made up of drawn and painted illustrations and three-dimensional sculptures of her signature characters. Lisa’s world is populated by enchanting creatures of all shapes and sizes. When she sculpts she says she is “up and down-completely distracted!” For these creatures, the creative process is as intuitive as it is ruthless. Heads, feet and arms are tried on different bodies, found perfect or wanting and then yanked off and re-used elsewhere. They are made from various media, mostly recycled or re-purposed natural materials such as avocado skins, twigs, bee’s wax, burlap from old chairs, or, in Lisa’s words, “things people gave me and things that couldn’t be thrown away.”
And what makes it all worthwhile, one might ask. Lisa would tell you, “To me, the world is just madness. The human-made world is just crazyville! And even though I love it, I just don’t understand how we function and go at these paces. So this work delves into that. My characters do what my inner self would like to do. They sit in the tree. They remind me that a breeze feels good. They slow life’s pace down and give me that opportunity to experience that through them. They help me make sense of the world.”
Shu-Ju Wang and Lisa Kaser’s work will be on display at the Waterstone Gallery through April 28th. If you find you are needing an extra dose of magic, a story or a smile, I strongly urge you to step into the boat and catch the show.