“Lingering Presence” is an art exhibition showcasing Kathy Liao’s relationship with her family and her growth as an artist. The PROGRAPHICA/KDR show features Liao, her grandmother and phone conversations. From large-scale works on canvas to small collages, Liao invites the audience into her world.
“Breathe In” is a large oil and collage on canvas painting of Liao’s face. Her tan skin is highlighted with orange, blue and green colors. The piece is filled with layers and textures. She created the piece in 2013 while still living in Seattle. Three years later her progression is evident in the oil on canvas, “Self Portrait KCMO,” which was completed in Missouri. In the nearly full-body self-portrait, Liao is wearing an apron; a gloved hand is resting on a table, and a high-rise is in the background. Greens and blues dominate the work. It’s less abstract and more fine-tuned compared with “Breathe In.”
“In some ways it’s a document of my transition since I left,” Liao said. “For me, in retrospect, it’s so interesting to see the change from there to there. My first few years I was still finding my footing, trying to settle in.”
PROGRAPHICA/KDR Co-director Norman Lundin describes Liao as having splendid traditional eye-to-hand artistic skills. He said her work succeeds because it goes beyond technique.
“The expressive quality of her paintings is what is most compelling,” Lundin said. “The narrative does not dominate — the painting comes first, and that’s why we look at her art.”
Liao returned to Seattle earlier this month to meet visitors at her gallery showing in Pioneer Square. The artist chatted about her work and described the visit as a kind of homecoming. When Liao enrolled in classes at the University of Washington, she began as a pre-med student. The turning point came after she took her first painting class. She graduated with a degree in psychology and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting and drawing. Ultimately she chose to further pursue art because she loved the challenge and thinking through a problem. Liao went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in painting from Boston University. Today she’s an assistant professor of art and director of painting and printmaking at Missouri Western State University.
Liao loves painters Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn. She recently visited a show at San Francisco Museum of Art titled “Profound Inspiration: Matisse/Diebenkorn.” The exhibit explored the inspiration Diebenkorn found in Matisse’s artwork. She also talked of being inspired by French painter Pierre Bonnard’s use of color.
Liao was born in Taiwan, moved to southern California in middle school and lived in Seattle off and on for about a decade. Her siblings live in California, her grandma is back in Taiwan and her mother splits her time between Taiwan and California. When Liao relocated to the Midwest she began thinking more about the distance between her and her loved ones as the miles separating them grew even higher.
“When I moved to Missouri I felt so cut off from them. Most of my interactions with them are FaceTime,” Liao said. “I love FaceTime, you feel like you’re existing in the same space as my grandma or someone you know. You’re talking to them and you feel really close but when you really think about it, you’re so far away from them.”
In “So Close and So Far,” Liao depicts a FaceTime conversation with her grandma, who she calls “waipuo,” which is grandma in Chinese. Liao speaks fondly of their relationship. She described the family matriarch, who is Japanese, as sweet, stubborn and feisty.
“I remember growing up I never really wanted to learn Japanese, so she’d give me quarters to sit down and learn Japanese,” Liao said. “She’s really starting to forget who I am, so some of these images are kind of a document of that. When I go back to Taiwan I’ll hang out with her, sometimes I’ll sneak in a snapshot of her.”
In “2am Apparition,” Liao elevates a private ho-hum moment of watching her 90-plus-year-old grandma as she does chores around the house in the middle of the night. “Memories of Watermelons” harkens back to her grandma serving Liao a platter of her favorite fruit in “perfect triangular shapes.” In the oil on canvas painting, her grandma appears with a hologram effect. It’s a reflection of the barrier between them now.
While Liao’s work is a personal narrative, she sees her work as art to which we can all relate. Especially if you’ve lived with a grandparent.
“I’m telling you all these stories, but in some ways I’m hoping people come up to these paintings and drawings and get something out of it, bring their own stories to it,” Liao said. “I love when I see people come up to my grandma’s painting and they’re like, ‘Oh this reminds me of my grandma.’”
PROGRAPHICA/KDR Co-director Eleana Del Rio said visitors have asked for further details about Liao’s biographical narrative, the connection with her family and her point of view.
“Kathy’s imagery is recognizable to a broad audience — whether a portrait of an elder family member, a loft studio still-life or a commuter subway scene,” Del Rio said. “Memory is powerful, it can plague us, but it also ignites the spirit and gives us reason to live. ‘Lingering Presence’ exemplifies this in more ways than one.”
WHAT: “Kathy Liao: Lingering Presence"
WHEN: Runs until July 1.
WHERE: PROGRAPHICA/KDR, 313 Occidental Avenue S., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
Read the full May 31 issue.
Artist Xavier Lopez Jr. shares his personal experience with homelessness in city gallery
Carved Art: NAAM showcases the illustrations of Daniel Minter
Featured Feathers: Chris Maynard’s ‘Featherfolio’ exhibition gives plumage a second life
Flora and Fauna: 'Revering Nature' art exhibition opens at Bainbridge Island Museum of Art