Now in Utah, Lu Wei’s first solo exhibition in the U.S., My Sole Desires comprises ink paintings, handmade art books and scrolls. Quickly, the viewer is drawn to how the Taiwanese artist exquisitely explores the vicissitudes of time and space in the female gaze. She captures with gentle elegance in warm hues the boundary layers between history and myth, along with the counterpoint of reality and imagination which propel a woman’s lived experiences.
In the show at the Material art gallery (2970 South West Temple), Lu’s works show a finely balanced style indicating traditional and contemporary praxes in visual art media, most notably in the form of Yin writing from its origins in calligraphy and ink painting. The show, which is sponsored in part by the Taiwanese Ministry of Culture, continues through Oct. 27. Lu also is in her first American residency through December at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, California.
Lu also is well known as a gallery curator in Taiwan. She appropriates and incorporates collages of images from historical works into her paintings, which supersede the traditional male gaze, by acknowledging women’s direct, personal experiences of their bodies — significantly, pregnancy and motherhood. The exhibition’s title emerges from her response to The Lady and the Unicorn series of six tapestries, created more than 500 years ago. Five of the tapestries signify the senses while the sixth one with the title À mon seul désir (to my only desire) has sparked a debate to this day about whether it was meant to represent a royal court affair or manifested the individual expression of free will.
One of the elements in the tapestry features the coat of arms of the Le Viste family who were prominent in the royal courts in medieval France. The tapestry includes a woman surrounded by a ‘thousand flowers’ and with a unicorn and a lion on either side of her. Lu says her experience of being pregnant while studying and practicing her art as well as raising a son, who is now six years old, became the driving emotional force of re-envisioning a work heralded as one of the most celebrated in Western art history.
Viewing Lu’s work, one can absorb her holistic experience in fusing traditional and contemporary aesthetics. This encompasses her dedication to respecting the integrity of original source work and the scrupulous techniques of calligraphy and other media techniques to convey the emotions of experiences that are integral to her personal development as an artist. Her works include painstaking details that place them on the same technical level of appreciation and merit in which traditional and classical representations have been valued and cherished. Lu’s work is strong for how the viewer acknowledges the subtle shift from traditional appreciations of mythological and religious iconography to enlightened contemporary representations where the woman or mother figure is no longer absent or relegated to the background or considered as the corporeal vessel for an infant.
In an interview with The Utah Review, Lu talked about her formative background and the gradually expanding presence and embrace of feminist philosophy in Taiwan. “It was a difficult situation for me, a woman who had given birth while I was still in college,” Lu explained. “I was told that I could not be a mother and an active artist at the same time. And, I realized how the interpretive and visual language relating to women and mothers from the woman’s and feminist perspectives in Chinese paintings has been missing.”
Lu grew up in a household dominated by art. Her father is a calligrapher and her mother is an art teacher. “My family supported me in the beginning but once I became pregnant, they wanted me to focus on being a mother,” she added.
Many of Lu’s art professors in Taiwan were male, even in contemporary art classes. But, she also has been guided by two Taiwanese women from different generations who have inspired her about how she could use traditional materials and techniques to articulate her unique responses to classical works in Chinese art history. One was a professor who advocates that an artist can thrive in her career while fulfilling the goals of motherhood, Pan Ping-yu. Pan’s own work, for instance, includes a series of fiber art with the title Family Recipes. These are based on representations of food with themes about cultural fusion, how culinary traditions are embedded in one’s sense of home and family and the archetypes of myths and celebrations associated variously with culinary cultures. Representing the bridge in Lu’s work to Chinese ink paintings and how she interprets visual traditions and draws from historical Chinese master paintings and other media textures and materials comes from the works of Yuan Jai, an artist who is now in her eighties. Like Yuan, Lu mixes her own natural pigments and integrates the works of Asian and European artists, as she considers how to portray visually her own experiences.
Lu became an avid student of French feminist philosophy, which has become an essential anchor for her to embrace the challenge of communicating the emotional empowerment in her art to celebrate the woman’s body during pregnancy and motherhood. This is a notable consideration in France, which is considered among the most fertile of European nations, with more than 700,000 births annually. Many observers in France have spoken or written about how many pregnant women are confident about having a child without having to radically change their philosophies about life and its experiences. French feminists — such as Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva — became prominent for contending that maternity and pregnancy hold the keys to female empowerment, a conclusion which challenged previous thinking that suggested women were marginalized or fetishized through the male gaze when it came to pregnancy and motherhood.
In Taiwan, there are unique historical features to consider for female artists who must contend not just with traditional male-centered ideologies but also that of the country’s own colonial past. In addition to Korea, Taiwan was annexed by Japan in the period leading to WWII. But, what was missing in Taiwan (which views its colonial history with Japan more warmly than in Korea) were memorials honoring individuals who were forced into the comfort women system by Japan. It was only in 2016 that a museum was opened for the first time in Taipei, which made clear Japanese culpability in practices that were seen as demeaning to women.
As new generations come forward, as Lu explained, more doors are then opened to Taiwanese women who express a complicated past and illuminate their country’s intellectual history through their art that also acknowledges and spreads enlightened attitudes about gender and body politics, gender fluidity, non-binary sexuality and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.
The exhibition will also be available for viewing on Oct. 20, 6-8 p.m., as part of Salt Lake City’s Gallery Stroll; during the closing reception on Friday, Oct. 27, 6-9 p.m., and by appointment. For more information see the Material art gallery website.