Interview with Claire Lau

Plein air paintings: San Francisco/Hong Kong

22 NOVEMBER 2016,
Claire Lau - From Sui Wo Court
Claire Lau - From Sui Wo Court

Claire Lau is an artist known for her plein air paintings who was born in Paris and who has done work in Hong Kong and San Francisco. According to her statement, she “…explores the unique spatial relationship between nature and metropolis… cityscapes on a macro level; banyan trees and succulents on a micro level.”

The cities seem nestled within but autonomous of the surrounding landscapes – carved out of nature and not meaningfully integrated into it. Both Hong Kong and San Francisco are situated near mountains and these are spectacularly rendered by Lau even though the mountains near both cities may have become, in the popular imagination, more picturesque than sublime. Both types of flora (banyan trees and agave plants) once held deep mystical significance for the earlier inhabitants of these respective regions so a conclusion to be drawn might be that the modern city dweller wants the paradoxical situation of proximity to the sacred without the meaningful engagement of the sacred. The once-sacred in nature merely catches and pleases the eye of the hurried city-dweller but no longer stimulates the imagination to the extent it once did.

The ability to introspect and examine aspects of our inner reality derived from the mediation of symbols and our earliest symbols came from the natural world. So, to me, Lau’s paintings seem to point to the fact that one thing which has been lost through urbanization is a desire to engage nature on a deeper interpretive level, a level which only comes from a type of integration that allows really seeing and trying to grasp the natural - having a direct and meaningful experience with nature which then throws light on our own humane development.

Why are you so committed to plein air painting?

Plein air painting is a process that forces me to study the world around me with intent, and to build a connection with it. It is a way for me to reflect on questions like ‘Why does this form interest me so much?’, ‘What are the movements that I see and feel here?’, ’How does this all fit together? What are the forces at play?’, and ‘How do I also fit in this space?’. After I’ve painted a scene or a tree, I have built a special connection with it that gets triggered every time I pass by. It’s like how Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s fox taught the little prince about “aprivoiser”. It’s “créer des liens” - to create connections - and that to me is through plein air painting. I find this particularly important today against all trends towards the digital world. I moved from Hong Kong (a place where everyone’s eyes are constantly fixated on a screen, whether it be a hand held device or TV screens on trains and buses), to the world’s tech capital, San Francisco. While I believe that technology has made our lives a lot more convenient and is attempting to solve some important problems, I firmly believe that we must not lose sight of and lose our connection to the world around us. This is everything from the trees, the plants, and the water around us, to the struggling families and homeless people on the streets. It’s about being observant, caring and understanding.

How did you develop an interest in your cityscapes?

When I grew up in Hong Kong, I lived on top of a forested hill. Over the years, I witnessed the forests next to my bus stop being completely removed for highways, the adjacent hill chopped off for skyscrapers, as well as the deteriorating air quality due to the industrialization of Shenzhen. This made me very aware of the relationship between human development and nature. By junior year of high school I made a painting of the chopped off trees next to my bus stop and a very grey painting of the valley called "A Sunny Day in Hong Kong”.

The banyan tree has aerial roots which can point upward while other roots drop to the ground forming new trunks. The banyan tree can therefore be considered ‘upside down’ – roots going upward and trunks/branches downward - as if it were being reflected in a river. So the tree once was a reminder to Buddhists that all is reflection and that even the real or permanent is merely a concept deduced from reflection (a reflection of a reflection). What does it mean to you?

The banyan tree’s forms remind me of life and its cycles, connecting earth and sky with their air roots. They’re a visual embodiment of sustainable systems. They flow, roots like rivers and air roots like arteries; they stretch, they lean, and they dance; they show strength, show support, and are grounded.

A lot of the plants you highlight in your SF paintings are agave plants. Did you do research into this plant and its use before the urbanization of that area of the US?

I did not do in-depth research into the agave’s use before the urbanization of the US, but I did know that it was used for medicinal purposes, consumption, and daily use. I grew up with my mom cooking me aloe vera soup when I was sick, and using its skin to treat burns. I chose it because I found it fascinating that such a majestic and purposeful plant would be growing around the city like a weed. Formally, they demand attention through their layers unfurling from their core (like a rose), yet with their rigid strength and spikes they recall resilience, especially during California’s historic drought. As with other succulents, they remind me of the beauty and adaptiveness of nature, of how wondrous life forms will continue to exist even after human beings make this planet uninhabitable for their own species.

What have been some of your influences?

I'm influenced a lot by my physical environment, the spaces, the plants, the light and colors. In terms of artists, compositionally I've been very interested at how David Hockney and Rackstraw Downes explore space - the compilations of multiple fields of vision as your eyes move, creating an experience of a space much more fluid than the Renaissance theories of perspective. Nowadays people call it "fish-eye", because they are all conditioned by cameras. But how do we describe the full experience of being in a space?

Artists you admire?

Other artists that I admire include Wayne Thiebaud and Sébastien Mahon (color, exaggerated space, giving personality / energy to landscapes), Sangram Majumdar and Suzanna Coffey (for color, touch, composition, visual abstraction). I also can't deny that having spent my childhood in the Musée d'Orsay and Pompidou, I had always admired Cézanne. Even though I only really came to the conclusion that plein air painting was for me in my final year of college, after experimenting with many different ways of painting, I think my childhood in France affected me tremendously.

Chow Chun Fei, from HK, recently had an opening at Klein Sun Gallery in NY City (one of the best galleries to see contemporary Chinese work in the US). There are actually a few galleries devoted to mainland Chinese art in NY and this seems to be meeting a growing market in the US. Are HK artists a part of this trend or do you folks see yourselves separate from this new wave of mainlanders?

When I was in high school and was asked what I wanted to study in university, my classmate (herself going into art) was extremely surprised by my answer and exclaimed “But your grades are so good, shouldn’t you be studying something other than art?”

In Hong Kong, I think there is still very little respect for fine art as a career, and thus less resources put into nurturing local artists. The situation is slowly improving, but even projects like the new West Kowloon Cultural Centre so far mostly benefit real estate developers, tycoons, politicians and those in the top of the art market rather than any local emerging artists. With the insurmountable cost of living in HK, it’s often difficult to survive as an artist. Consequently there are fewer artists that can rise to attention internationally. I think as there is a greater ‘thirst’ for Asian art in the US, Hong Kong will start to benefit from this trend, but I don’t think it will produce the same number of artists per capita.

When you are not painting, what do you like to do? Books you like? Movies? Music?

I am a singer, used to be a composer and have done a lot of a cappella arrangements for groups that I've led. For the past year I've been extremely busy being a political organizer and volunteer for the Bernie Sanders primary campaign, and I'm currently the co-founder and co-Chair of a progressive political group in San Francisco. I'm also part of a political club for Hong Kongers in the Bay Area. I'm currently writing a graphic memoir on my participation in the Umbrella Movement and my grandma's escape from China to Hong Kong in the late 50s.

I think everyone should read ‘Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed’ by Jarred Diamond, and watch Miyazaki's films, especially ‘Mononoke Hime’ and ‘Nausicaa'.