Arts & Culture / Mosaic / February 21, 2008

Kao paints with mixed meanings

James Kao showed a presentation of his artwork as well as the art of those who had inspired him. He showed a general trend in his art and how he was working on it in a roughly chronological series.

He talked about first getting started in his Chicago studio.

“Wow, I have this beautiful space, but the question was ‘What am I going to paint?’,” said Kao.

He began by painting a series with corn cobs skewered on chopsticks and experimenting with light and shadow.

“I knew this was a really weird thing to be painting,” said Kao.

The corn cobs were a way of looking at his technique and also had personal significance to him.

He began “thinking about being Chinese and living in America.” The corncobs were “signifiers” for being Chinese and American.

He talked about putting meaning into his art work.

“I wanted the painting to be more important than the subject matter,” said Kao.

After painting the corn cobs he experimented with paper cutting, inspired by the Frank Lloyd Wright houses that he passed every day. He thought they were reminiscent of Chinese scroll painting.

He also did a series featuring a bowl on an interesting table and how that worked with different shadowing and perspectives.

“So you can see the bowl and the wonky two legged table,” said Kao.

When he went to graduate school he began work on other projects.

“I wanted to get away from the corn,” said Kao. “The last corn painting cracked by itself so I though that it was a fitting end. Sort of like an artifact.”

His work in graduate school switched gears slightly. Many of his paintings included a bowl that his friend’s terminally ill mother had given him. He would paint the bowl with oranges on a table looking at it from different perspectives.

“Still trying to figure things out,” said Kao.

While he was painting the bowl he began to experiment with a more sketchy technique.

“I didn’t want them to be realistic. So I would paint really quickly,” said Kao. “I would try to paint like Matisse.”

After his friend’s mother passed on his work became much darker and he called his dark series PW for Pattie Walker.

“The darkness was full of a deep longing,” said Kao. “As I progressed in the darkness I didn’t think of it as sad anymore.”

He began to think of the dark paintings as a kind of offering. He pointed out that as he was doing these paintings of fruit on a table shrouded in darkness the fruit became misshapen and desiccated which was significant.

He was later inspired by a passage about a nun in a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He began experimenting with scratching as a way of working with different kinds of surfaces.

He noted how important the act of painting is to understanding the piece.

“You can’t think about the work without thinking of the practice,” said Kao.

Kao also talked about how different philosophers and artists had inspired him.

He mentioned Mondrian and Cezanne as well as Robert Ryan and Agnes Martin among other artists.

He also discussed being very moved by the shadows in the cave in Plato’s The Republic and how Plato discusses the idea of justice.

“When I think of shadows I think of the metaphor of the cave,” said Kao.

He also talked about how he works with shadows in his own works.

“Shadows are funny because there’s so much color in shadows,” said Kao. “Early on I looked for shadows to hide things in.”

He mentioned how shadows can distort making a tree look like a bush of vice versa.

“[Shadows] don’t give us a real picture of the tree but we also get something out of it,” said Kao.

Throughout the talk he made funny and sarcastic quips that inspired chuckles throughout the audience as he talked about the progression of his work.

He showed what he called his most perverted painting which had a desiccated gourd on a table saying that the tail looks like a phallus and his reaction to it.

“Wow, I made a sex painting without wanting to,” said Kao.

He talked about how he had work with abstraction of art and how he did that in his own work, but he also pointed out that his work is representational.

“I think I will always be a representational painter because I like looking,” said Kao. “It’s in looking that time slows down and sound goes away.”

He spoke about the importance of art.

“When language fails I think art starts to take over,” said Kao. “I think I prefer the work to talk sometimes.”

He also talked about how working in series can be important.

“I’ve had those oranges for a while but I still notice new things in them,” said Kao.

Kao had started painting a little later in life. He started taking classes in his 20s and one of his drawing teachers suggested that he go to art school. He left his corporate job in L.A. and got his BFA and MFA at the University of Chicago.

“Your job always gets in the way of your work,” said Kao.

Kao’s work is currently on display in CFA.

Anjali Pattanayak

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