A month of Sundays with Shu-Ju Wang

A few friends drop by to tell tales of fear and loss and beauty during the Waterstone Gallery artist's show "Things That Don't Float."

On the second Sunday of September, at close to 11 a.m. sharp, the artist Shu-Ju Wang stood before a small crowd seated on folding chairs inside Waterstone Gallery in Portland’s Pearl District and began to tell tales. She talked about growing up in a village on Taiwan, and how her father, as a child, had almost drowned while trying to learn how to swim (a boy chasing after an errant ball discovered him flailing, and pulled him to safety), and how she herself had a reluctant relationship with water, as do most Taiwanese people of her age and older (she was born in 1960); how swimming wasn’t something people did for exercise or pleasure, but her father decided when she was a girl that she should learn to swim, anyway.

Wang had a box of props on the floor behind her, and a few strewn over a chair, and she was speaking in a room surrounded with her art in this month’s featured show, Things That Don’t Float. Among those things, as it turns out, is Wang herself, despite her father’s attempt to teach her to swim in the less than pristine river that ran behind their village: Water buffalo made a habit of using the river for nature’s purposes, and water snakes called it home. “Just float!” he told her, holding her head above the water and offering no further instruction. Oddly, the lesson didn’t take.

Artist Shu-Ju Wang. Photo: Doug Richardson

Wang, as it turns out, has an abiding fear of swimming, and has managed over nearly six decades never to learn how. She remembers the corduroy swimming suit her mother made her for that fruitless childhood swimming lesson: “It had Mondrian shapes in dark blue, pink, mauve shades. I remember how it was heavy with water as I tried to get out of the river, how it upset my balance as I tried to walk on the rocky river bank as the water swished around in the bottom of my suit. Later, when I mentioned the corduroy swimming suit to my mother, certain that she would not remember, she said, ‘oh, we didn’t know anything back then! All I could think of was how to keep you warm in cold water.’”

It’s no accident, then, that some of the works in her Waterstone exhibit are titled Swimming Suit Made of Inappropriate Materials, and then numbered. They are images of things that, come hell or high water or fear of sinking, just don’t work.

Her fear of water is particularly surprising because throughout her career, in series such as Cloudwater and The Future Dictionary of Water, water has played a central role in a fair amount of Wang’s art. Her work often ripples with ocean greens and blues, and carries implications of busy biological systems beneath the surfaces. It swims in a place where imaginary images meet large but very real issues, such as the profound danger that the world’s bodies of water and the creatures that rely on them, including humans, face from environmental degradation. “I can turn any conversation into a conversation about climate change,” she says with a laugh that doesn’t mask the fact that she means what she says.

Such conversations encompass, or should encompass, a healthy dose of fear. “(F)ear and creativity coexist in a soup for survival,” she writes in her artist’s statement for Things That Don’t Float. “And while creativity comes from many places, fear is one of its engines. … I have taken the idea of fear as a useful tool quite literally: I am talking about my fear of water, but also thinking about how climate change and sea level rise threaten our modern civilization – our infrastructures, our sculptures, paintings, our books – very little of which were made to be good at floating.”

Fear is also a major driver in the writing and telling of stories, and Wang’s pieces in Things That Don’t Float contain little tales: not overtly told, but sideways; subversively so. “Of all my exhibitions,” she noted, “this is the one that’s most explicitly based on stories.”

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Shu-Ju Wang, Is That Jimmy Choo in the Mariana Trench?

ALL ART IS STORY, EVEN IF THE STORY that the artist chooses to tell is that there is no story. On the first Sunday of September at Waterstone, stories ruled. Wang threw the program open to a quartet of people to tell their own short stories, true or fictional, about fear, or water, or fear of water, “or anything else.” It was part of her plan for her month of Sundays. On the first, third, and fourth Sunday of the month, she’d turn the program over largely to her storytellers. On the second Sunday she’d give her traditional artist’s gallery talk, which turned out to be a story in itself.

And here’s where this story takes a small turn toward the personal, because among the quartet of people Wang asked to tell tales on this inaugural Sunday were ArtsWatch’s executive director, Laura Grimes, and me. Storytelling, after all, is what we do, and Wang asked so far in advance – way back in the beginning of June – that it was easy to say “yes” without stopping to fully take in that at some point we’d actually have to follow through.

The stories rolled out. Remembered fears, repackaged and tamed by time and distance, were in the air. Writer/journalist/consultant Lisa Godwin told about her adventures as a brash young reporter, getting into scrapes in search of stories from Arkansas to Las Vegas. A. Adams, writer and artist, recited a poem about childhood fear and trauma and cracking ice. Laura told a tale she called “Misdeeds, Mayhem, and Moments We Cry Mercy.” I talked about circular power saw blades and tent revival meetings.

Shu-Ju Wang: Broken wine glasses and fairy-figure butterflies.

All of this storytelling worked surprisingly well with the art in the gallery. The stories seemed to echo, or in some way allude to, the mysteries of intention and fruition in Wang’s art – the way it links serious subject matter, deep fears, and aesthetic pleasure, underscoring a message without being didactic. Painted or three-dimensional, the works in Things That Don’t Float exist on multiple levels, beauty masking fault lines of dire import. Wang’s art tends to be meticulous, detailed, patterned, with rich colors and details that take the viewer time to divine, like little puzzles. They’re not big-statement strokes of paint. Their surfaces tend to be calm and lovely, releasing their deeper meanings only after contemplation (and sometimes a look at their titles). Some paintings refer to the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the oceans, which is becoming littered with human detritus: a place of mystery and wonderment becoming also a garbage dump. At first glance it’s the beauty and mystery that prevail in the paintings. But look at the titles: Is That Jimmy Choo in the Mariana Trench? Or, Is That a Book in the Mariana Trench? Or, A Sea Urchin Encounters a Scrapbook Lost at Sea. Then look at the hidden evidence: a high-heeled shoe floating among biomorphic sea-creature shapes. Images of books drowning. Wang, who also makes art books (not books about art, but books that are art) talks of this as “the inundation of our civilization.” We see little dioramas under glass, some of it broken wine glasses repurposed as vitrines. They contain butterflies, of threatened species, with tiny humanoid bodies: enchanting like fairies in an illustrated children’s book and also suggesting, mutely, that the fates of humans and butterflies are intertwined.

The artist Stephen O’Donnell, who’ll be one of the storytellers on the final Sunday morning September 29, wondered aloud how Wang managed to combine such profound intentions with such an aesthetically pleasing result. Talking about it later, we proposed that the answer might lie somewhere in her background as a computer engineer, a field in which she had a full career before becoming a full-time artist. Wang’s work suggests a rich and lively balance of the analytical and creative.

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Tiny person on a big rock.

ON THE THIRD SUNDAY IN SEPTEMBER the stories were varied and compelling. Writer and actor Stephen Rutledge, known for his “Born This Day” daily biographies on the WOW Report, recounted his moving tale of an operating room and a surgeon and the song Beyond the Sea, a story you can read here. Wang told her husband’s story about being on Mt. St. Helens, as part of a television crew, during the long wait in 1980 for the eruption, and on being down the mountain on rotation on the morning that the mountain blew, burying the campground where he’d just been. The artist Jennifer Porter, working against deadline to deliver a story via email in place of another storyteller who’d taken ill, came through at the last moment, and Wang read her story from her smart phone: a tale of going on a cruise to Alaska with her biological mother, and veering close to an iceberg, and discovering that the iceberg has since died.

The artist Stephen Adams, another member of Waterstone, told about growing up in Dallas, Texas, “before they had helicopter parenting,” and running around on his own most days, joining friends at the spillway of the White Rock Lake reservoir, which (as he showed us in projected photos and videos) could run fast and furious after a rain. His story, he declared, was “about fearlessness and stupidity and luck,” and so it was.

Adams is a key part of the Things That Don’t Float story: He collaborated with Wang on four of the pieces in the show. They’re the ones that use wood and glass, and the week before, during Wang’s artist’s talk, they’d talked a bit about the process. They worked independently in their own studios (and on that second Sunday argued lightly about whose was messier), bringing their ideas together and then separating to bring them to fruition. Rain, Adams’ own solo show at Waterstone in August (including his collaborative pieces with Wang, which have carried over to her show) was about water, the environment, and mortality – remarkably similar to the concerns in Things That Don’t Float, but approached from a different angle. Or angles. Wang’s surfaces are carefully considered, often with wandering curves that create recurring patterns, and usually with rich, deep color saturation. Adams’ work tends to be more sharply geometric, with points and chunks and deliberately rough edges, and it has a more physical, sculptural heft. Put the two together and some remarkable things happen.

Listening to Adams talk about collaboration made me think about the process of rethinking and reassessing that are necessary to the creative process, and how a nimbleness of mind and spirit and perspective must have been key to Wang’s development as an artist. She came from Taiwan to the United States at 15 to go to school, and went to college here, and stayed. In her artist’s talk she’d told an immigrant’s tale of disorientation and reexamination of just about anything and everything she’d been accustomed to: Why was it, she wondered, that attitudes toward the Vietnam war were so sharply different in Taiwan and the United States? In Taiwan, she said, people worried that if the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, the mainland Chinese government would turn its military attention toward Taiwan. Wang found herself, as a teenager dropped into a very different culture in the United States, examining all sorts of assumptions she’d taken for granted growing up. So: fear, and adaptation, and creative response.

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An inundation of civilization: fear and beauty as the water rises in Inundation #5, A Sea Urchin Meets a Little Black Book Lost to Sea.

AND THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN SEPTEMBER, COMING UP? The storytellers will be O’Donnell, promising to tell a tale that involves a freeway bridge he hates; writer/editor/designer Gigi Little, reading a chapter from her novel-in-process; the artist Flint; and the artist Josephine Bridges. Remembered fears and surprising tales, no doubt, will flow like wine. As Wang puts it in her artist’s statement: “I fear this inundation of our civilization. I wish more people shared this fear. And because fear is contagious, I hope to transmit this fear to you, because it might be necessary for our survival.”

Drop on by. Things might be a little scary, or even a little wet. They might be beautiful, too.

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