Since moving to Kansas City in 2014 for a post as assistant professor of art at Missouri Western State University, Seattle transplant Kathy Liao has found her niche in the city’s art community. From 2016 to 2017 Liao was a Charlotte Street Foundation Studio Resident. She was recently awarded a three-year residency at Studios Inc, where her haunting figurative works fired by memories and family connections will be part of the three-person “Autonomous Bodies” exhibit, with Susan White and Ben Rosenthal, opening May 11.
Born in Taiwan, Liao was 12 years old when she moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1997. The move entailed painful separations: Liao’s father stayed in Taiwan, visiting the family in Los Angeles every three months until his death in 2013; her beloved grandmother also remained in Taiwan. Liao communicates with her grandmother daily through FaceTime, hoping the connection will help sustain a relationship threatened by dementia. “I’m trying to hold on; she’s forgetting,” Liao says.
Liao’s cyber relationships with distant family members are a prominent theme of her artworks. She often portrays them as she sees them through the internet: her sister half asleep at a late-night hour; her grandmother’s face looming too close to the screen, with the image breaking up into pixels from a bad connection. For Liao the degraded image offers an analogy to her grandmother’s failing memory. As in FaceTime, the artist often includes her own face in a small rectangle inset in her family portraits.
Technology has transformed the immigrant experience. For Liao, in the middle of a huge continent, miles away from her mother and sister on the coast and her grandmother in Taiwan, it provides a vital link to family life. And yes, the commitment to family reflects Asian values, Liao says, but it also speaks to a universal need for connection.
In late March, her studio walls displayed four large works that will be featured in “Autonomous Bodies,” including a 68-by-58-inch multi-layered self-portrait titled “Breathe (In).” Liao worked on the piece on and off for several years. It’s an imposing canvas, “documenting where I’ve been,” she says.
Her expression is somber, weary, self-assessing. “I respond to what I see in the mirror,” she explained. Yet, with its lively, layered surface activated by colorful scraps of paper, tape and stenciled areas, the mixed media work emanates vitality. “I think of collage as my palette,” she says, indicating piles of old billboard paper on the studio floor.
The use of collage is even more pronounced in a companion self-portrait, “Breathe (Out),” where the handling of materials is looser in keeping with the title. Liao says her artworks “preserve a moment, a memory,” which includes a large painting of her late father, seen from the back in swimming trunks beside the pool at the family’s Los Angeles home.
“Autonomous Bodies” opens with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. May 11, with a gallery talk at noon May 12 at Studios Inc, 1708 Campbell, where the exibit continues through June 15. Hours are 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information, 816.994.7134 or www.thestudiosinc.org
Above: Detail of “Breathe (In),” a mixed media on canvas work by Kathy Liao, is part of “Autonomous Bodies,” opening May 11 at Studios Inc. Image from the artist.