Liu Nian, Oil and acrylic on panels, 180” x 120”, 2021 (from Studios Inc and the artist)
What exists in the space between where you are and where you’d like to be? The dull ache of longing, of missed connection, the fuzz in the video call that won’t let you make out the finer details in your loved one’s features. Kansas City artist Kathy Liao’s “Mind the Gap” is a stunning exploration of the gaps in these in-between spaces. The pandemic, travel and immigrant experiences are the limbos that Liao portrays through painting, sculpture and multimedia in her solo exhibition at Studios Inc. In it, she pulls viewers into these gaps and liminal spaces in the most visceral of ways. There is a force behind her brushstrokes that tells a story buzzing with life, with heartache, with questions of aging and family, with the pandemic that left so many reeling or simply lost.
These topics are heavy, and in some ways, specific to Liao’s experience as a transnational artist. She is Taiwanese American, a title of duality that at times means she feels neither fully Taiwanese nor fully American. One of the central themes in “Mind the Gap” is this experience, especially in navigating long-distance relationships, code-switching and travel. Mass transit spaces like airports and subway stations are ubiquitous liminal spaces, which Liao initially set out to portray in the exhibition.(She is also one of the artists who was chosen to create a piece for the new KCI airport.)
“When you get to an airport,” she explains, “you’re waiting to switch on another way of talking, another way of acting, another way of relating to your family — that limbo space.” It is that place where you shed one skin and squeeze into another. When the pandemic hit, however, the meaning of these spaces shifted. No longer were they filled with bodies bumping into each other with misaligned senses of urgency, but rather they emptied out and became ghostly reminders of how much things had changed.
Liao’s massive 168” by 115” piece, “Liu Nian,” transformed with these changes. It began as a bustling airport scene, yet now, the crowd has been brushed over with glossy pinks and greens. The only figure remaining is her grandmother as she shuffles through the neon walkway alone. In a space that was so clearly made to be filled with life, the lack of people is jarring. Further, remnants of the original crowd bleed through like ghosts. The scale and frenetic energy of the brushstrokes draw viewers in and transport them to the eerily calm scene.
Liao’s maternal grandmother is a recurring figure in “Mind the Gap,” highlighting Liao’s connection to her family and the gaps that form in their distance. In “Neon Lights Lullaby,” her grandmother sits at the front of a bus, staring serenely out into the bright lights of Taipei. Liao explains that this piece represents a “collapse of space and time.” Her grandmother, who is experiencing dementia, is soothed by the neon lights of Taipei, like Liao herself was soothed by the same lights as a baby. On a personal level, her grandmother represents the many gaps of a loved one with dementia. On a larger scale, she personifies the fear of many Asian Americans as anti-Asian hate ramped up during the pandemic.
“Mind the Gap” pushes viewers into the in-between. It is neither arrival nor departure, neither home nor destination. The pieces tell a story that is both deeply personal to Liao as well as universal. Through these works, Liao has translated the indescribable aspects of liminal spaces to a language that can be felt rather than simply explained.
Kathy Liao: “Mind the Gap” continues at Studios Inc, 1708 Campbell St., through Feb. 25. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday – Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information, 816.994.7134 or studiosinc.org.