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Flora Kao
at Haus, Pasadena, California
Preview by Andy Brumer

Supported by twin pillars of conceptualism and expressionism, Kao's paintings, and installation address the physicality and lure of L.A.

One might instinctively raise an eyebrow or two (one in surprise, the other admiringly) when learning that the young, Venice (CA.)-based artist Flora Kao holds both a B.A. from Harvard in Environmental Science and Public Policy and a B.F.A from Otis College of Art and Design. Yet after attending this exhibition viewers will instantly perceive Kao’s academic template formed the perfect foundation for her work’s seamless blend of heart and head.  

Supported by twin pillars of ephemeral conceptualism and expressionism’s earthy materiality, Kao’s acrylic ink paintings, and room-size installation of the delightfully odd musical instruments she created address the intimidating physicality and lurid lure of L.A.’s urban/nature matrix, the alienation and social isolation of a corporate driven America, and even the at times distancing, antiseptic experience of showing and viewing art.

In one piece, Kao uses L.A. street maps as the starting point for her acrylic on vellum wall installation titled “Lines of Desire.” She creates from these maps creates stencil-like screens of the city’s streets, avenues and freeways, then lathers them with the blue acrylic ink to compose an   improvisational and wandering image both held together and set free by its loose geometry.

The inimitable Yogi Berra once said while finding his way across a city, “We’re lost but we’re making really good time,” and, indeed, the eye feels more calm and comfortable (i.e., humanized) sinking into Kao’s maze than anxious about finding its way out.

A similar piece titled “Manifest Destiny,” presents cloth-like hues of forest greens, bruised purples, and atmospheric whites, and addresses L.A.’s status as one of the nation’s smoggiest cities, but one that also contains more open space than any other. The colors have more weight and warmth here than in “Lines of Desire,” and the effect draws and anchors the viewer toward the work’s center, as if to allow for a kind of thoroughly abstract, though nevertheless panoramic vista of the region’s vast basin.

Using the same screening technique in “Clone Cubicle,” though this time with the ink applied on a wood panel instead of cloth, Kao softens and aerates the physically and spiritually suffocating chain of cubicles that fracture the floor of a corporate office (the artist once worked in such a space in Boston). Rather than purposely erratic lines or built up textures, this piece presents small irregularly shaped squares composed roughly in rows that partially overlap the faintly perceived data of a business’s Excel spread sheet. The piece presses down, as it were, on this bubbling brew of profit indicators, as if the artist herself were struggling to protect her own soul and those and her co-workers from the business’s efforts to pressure them into one corporate body.    

Of course, while even the best artists can’t uncover all of a city’s parking lots to put up the paradise they once may have paved, they do create art in which the human spirit finds sympathetic company and in which the mind delights. Kao’s room-sized installation titled “Sound Forest,” is such a work, with its ensemble of constructivist, sculpture-like instruments built from ordinary cardboard mailing tubes, round Styrofoam tortilla warmers, electronic sound sensing devices, and fishing line. Threaded from top to bottom, this modest band of recycled everydayness quite literally breaks out into heavenly chords, triggered into their music by the sound sensors on the floor, whose wire tentacles respond to the gallery’s ambient sounds by twirling furiously in elliptical dervishes, while plucking the strings mounted on the sculptures as they spin. Whew!

Published courtesy of ArtScene ©2009

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