A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

The Powerful Line: An Interview with artist Fay Ku

David Xu Borgonjon, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, helps make Wave Hill a welcoming space for artists and a stimulating experience for visitors. 

Each winter, Wave Hill opens Glyndor Gallery as workspace for New York-area artists. They benefit from intimate exposure to our garden setting, and also reveal part of their working processes to visitors through open studios and artist-led workshops.

Fay Ku, one of 12 Winter Workspace 2015 artists, makes extensive use of gongbi (meticulous brush), a traditional Chinese ink technique that emphasizes anatomical exactness and fine detail in splendid color. Before we both turned to careers in the visual arts, Ku and I had an interest in literature in college, so we started on common ground.

David Xu Borgonjon: Your work suggests narrative but I can’t always tell what the story is. How do you come to your characters?

Fay Ku: What the characters I depict have in common is that they’re outside society. They’re defined in reference to particular tribes, whether those are racial, sexual, geographical or otherwise. But mostly, they exist the way animals exist: outside morality. Did you read The Razor’s Edge? The “bad people” go unpunished. And the one who suffers or is wronged just goes off at the end. You have to let go of the idea of justice. It’s more like survival.

Fay Ku, Ceremony, 2010. Graphite, ink, watercolor, metallic colors on paper. 50 1/2 X 78 inches. Courtesy of the artist

DB: To render characters against just the suggestion of a background, you tend to use a lot of fine line and textural details with some simple washes. Can you talk about how you came to this way of working?

FK: I was really frustrated with a painting that I spent an entire semester on in school, an interior scene with a group of women fighting over a man. During critique each week, we’d eliminate characters and elements that felt unnecessary until finally even the man in the center was erased. I realized I had to keep what was essential, which was the act of violence and not the reason for it, and only the necessary props. So in the next project I tried to be more direct. I just needed a break and wanted to do it fast. Instead of painting them with these layers of oil paint, I just drew them directly on to paper. And people started to respond to that! I was surprised. In hindsight, I’m not interested in atmosphere or modeling, I’m just interested in line. All the painters I like, such as Vuillard, Toulouse-Lautrec or Klee, are artists who draw rather delicately. Also, I guess it’s natural that I respond to a lot of East Asian work, to its elegance and compression and simplicity.”

DB: That influence is evident. I feel that—especially with the way you leave your backgrounds open to imagination—you must be looking at Song dynasty paintings.

FK: That started with a residency a few years ago out in the middle of the woods in winter. I’m terrified of the dark, so in retrospect maybe it wasn’t the best idea. [Laughs] They’d discontinued the gray paper I’d been working on, so I arrived with a stack of terrifyingly white paper. At the same time that I was in this cabin in the middle of the woods, the Iraq war was on, and still is, so I was thinking about all that violence. In China, the early landscape painting, which used a more expressive, looser style, was a form of political protest against the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty court’s dense and illustrative style. That inspired me to see that this was a way for me to enter that white world while staying political. I made a series of drawings of wars in a world where all the sky and the water were just blank paper.

DK: Many of these new works focus on a person morphing into an animal. Maybe it’s the other way around, actually. Can you talk about these characters in transformation?

FK: I need something that’s more powerful than me, and animals can do that for me.  Even though I grew up in the suburbs, the most unnatural place in the world, I think I connect to animals on a basic level. Also, there’s an anthropomorphizing of animals that I really distrust. And I think part of it is that I’m a meat-eater and I don’t want to sanitize what’s happening. There’s this story my father used to tell about a little girl who would carve meat from her arms to feed her parents when they were hungry. These were my childhood stories! Savage but also fantastic, like the original Grimms fairy tales or the Greek myths. They’re ways of discussing, but also containing, violence.

­Ku will demonstrate how to use the white of the paper to evoke water, weather and landscape in her artist-led workshop Sunday afternoon, January 18.




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