Cindy Lu‘s piece, entitled “Collective Landscapes”, cascades down a wall in Beacon Gallery, surrounded by other artists’ works of a shared overarching theme. In the current group exhibition, ‘Coded‘, art explores the ways in which we instill, decipher, and pass on the messages contained within that same art, both as artists and viewers. Guests of the gallery mingle around Cindy Lu’s two pieces, installed just next to one another, contemplating the potential messages crafted into her 3-dimensional creations. Thankfully, we had a chance to hear from the artist, herself, about her inspiration, process, intent, and more.
“Collective landscapes. This piece brings together a lot of things that have been floating around in my mind the past year. Combining the imagined places of traditional Chinese jinbi shanshui (gold-green-blue landscape) paintings and the rebuses (visual puns) sometimes found in traditional Chinese animal/bird paintings, this scroll slides off the wall into present space, with mountains and fog appearing to have undergone an orthogonal shift to topography and materializing as hand embroidery. The clusters of quail have an exaggerated scale and are made from roasted watermelon seeds, a popular Chinese snack that for me recalls many childhood hours just sitting at the kitchen table chatting with family and friends — a sense of communality.
Quail can stand for anger/courage based on their fighting behavior, but because the Mandarin word for “quail” sounds like the word “peace”, they can also symbolize peace and safety. Similarly, numbers in Chinese take on meaning based on their sound, with “four”sounding like “dead”, “five” sounding like “no/without”, and “nine” sounding like “lasting/enduring”. Thus depending on whether the quail are viewed as smaller clusters of four and five facing one another (in rapprochement or aggression?) or as the overall complement of nine, there is a constant shifting between possibilities.”
Lu is now an established contemporary artist, showcasing her work for the last several years around the northeastern U.S. However, her background in molecular and cell biology, studying at the University of California Berkeley and then obtaining her PhD at Harvard University, tells of a previous life, and period of transition and transformation, which she shares with us – along with the embedded meanings and messages that come through in her artwork.
What was your path to becoming an artist?
I’m trained as a scientist but shifted gears to art about 4 years ago. It was a pretty abrupt change — I was just about to take a science writing job that was more or less created for me, and so seemed like the perfect thing. But after the second interview, I suddenly felt very flat about the whole thing. I couldn’t even bring myself to send follow-up thank you emails. After mulling it over for a couple of days, I realized that I wanted to do something really different, where I could learn to see in a different way, but at the time I didn’t know what exactly that meant. Nonetheless, this impression was so strong that I immediately announced that I was quitting my job as a scientific editor, and turned down the new job. It felt a bit crazy, like I was walking off the end of a pier! It wasn’t until about 10 months later, after some exploration, that I realized that I wanted to be an artist. In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense — one friend commented that it wasn’t exactly a new thing, but more like “finally admitting that I have an art problem”!
What specific aspect of your work do you most emphasize or focus on when creating artwork? What inspires your work? How do you decide on a subject matter? Do you have any particular routines to motivate your creativity?
Materiality is very important for my work. Often, some material will catch my attention or get called up in my memory, and some association or quality will come to the fore. As it incubates in my mind, it begins to become intertwined with some idea, image, or situation that is preoccupying me in some way, often having to do with some societal issue or tension. As I follow that thread, the material begins to functions as a magnet that attracts other ideas or images or materials, often kicking off a research phase, and the piece slowly begins to take form in my mind.
What message do you attempt to convey in your artwork, in general?
All of my work explores intermediate states or inflection points of processes that are in flux. My work dwells in these in-between spaces, where both tension and possibility reside, to render visible what is unseen or underscrutinized, and to imagine alternative trajectories.
Special thanks to Cindy for taking the time to share more on her work and experience with us! Make sure to keep up with the artist via her website, https://www.cindylu.art/ and on instagram @cindyluart
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