Chinese mythology and fruit imagery in new university exhibit
San Francisco artist Cathy Lu’s current exhibit, Foreign Bodies—a collection of ceramic and mixed-media works at the Jacki Headley University Art Gallery—offers a lot of food for thought. Her cast and glazed ceramic fruit and vegetables display her mastery of technique, a fine eye for three-dimensional assemblage, and a subtle sense of humor balanced with commentary on cross-cultural expressions of “art.”
The first of the 12 pieces encountered is the paradoxically named “(Untitled) Fruit Net,” an imposing (12-by-9 feet) composition of ceramic fruit strung on a network of steel cable suspended from the ceiling. Lit from above, the intricately textured, sized and shaped cabbages, apples, bananas, eggplants, Durian fruit, etc. are glazed with nearly metallic sheens of gold, silver, green, pink and yellow. The “net” of fruity objects provides a fragmented, filtered view of the rest of the exhibit.
Next up on the suggested counterclockwise route around the space is “Pile,” which delivers the opposite effect of the carefully composed “Fruit Net.” It consists of a literal pile of “discarded bricks” that looks like it could have been dumped on the floor out of a wheel barrow. On closer examination, however, the piece also reveals an assortment of cast ginger root, bananas and other brick-sized food elements in muted, unnatural matte-finished colors mixed in randomly with the broken bricks.
Enigmatic as “Pile” is, the four numbered pieces titled “Security Fence” were, to this viewer, the most mysterious and least cohesive of the exhibit. The incongruity of these stark white, cast porcelain barriers held up by sandbags separate the other pieces like paragraph returns.
Segregated from the rest of the exhibit, “Peach Garden” is set within a framework of PVC pipe draped with clear plastic sheeting held in place with jumper cable clamps. Inside the enclosure, the “peaches” are super-sized sculptures set on coiled pedestals of unglazed red clay. In Chinese mythology, peaches represent immortality, and Lu’s counterpart to the garden of Eden is filled with beautiful, multicolored and intricately textured abstractions of the fruit accented by smaller rounded unglazed cones emitting wisps of steam. Standing in their midst, I couldn’t help but think of the pods from the Alien movies. As Lu explained in an interview on the Asia Society website: “I love when people see my pieces from far away and are just drawn to the ‘nice’ colors, but then they get closer and are really disturbed by the violent or sexual imagery, and then they begin to question why.” This piece certainly succeeds in that regard.
The other major, or at least biggest, piece in the exhibition is “Tree,” a plastic net of produce bags, bamboo poles and zip-ties. The multicolored produce bags are suspended from the A-frame lattice work of bamboo, which is held together with multiple wraps of black plastic zip-ties. As in all of the pieces, the cast fruit is not of its natural color, in this case being presented in drab matte tones that complement the shiny plastic nets that hold them.
The final piece on the circuit is “Nuwa Hands,” a pair of forearms projecting from the wall with gold-tipped, plant-like fingertips. Nuwa is a mother goddess in Chinese mythology connected to creation myths, and in the context of the exhibit, she is still at work through the artist who created an intriguing world of “foreign bodies.”