Sight and Sensation
Words by Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung
You are captured by raised lines on paper thrones:
Pupils trace symbols on textured surfaces.
Like ships at sea there is ebb and flow to each seal:
curved forms composed to maze like rhythms, pulsating in strictly contained – yet unmarked – square borders.
In this room you connect line and phrase between each painting,
frames broken to punctuate stories of ancestral dictum and spiritual oneness.
The gravity of each work resounds and echoes off the next, translations flooding the space between as each painting collapses into one continuous whole:
a dance choreographed to be broken and reassembled time
and time again, until your own volitions become faint and peripheral;
aligning instead with that of the artist’s.
Angie Pai’s practice is inherently selfish, though she does not outwardly proclaim it to be. Instead, there is an acute self-awareness to each stroke and breath in her art: selfishness quietly exalted to be true and necessary in the immigrant experience. For Pai, caring for herself is akin to caring for those around her, and similarly the pursuit of spiritual and artistic growth is paramount to those who depend on her success.
The selfishness Pai carries is what she labels as second-generation guilt. A familiar and primal feeling to children of immigrants, Pai’s conceptual rationale is unpinned by this constant sense of deficiency – one that weighs a parent’s sacrifice of immigration to the child’s pursuit of making up for it, a call to succeed that beckons a suffocated and inaudible response. Having grown up in Melbourne after her parents’ immigration from Taiwan, Pai not only grapples with the perils of diasporic guilt, but also with the nuanced shame attached to being a Taoist in an Eurocentric context. Pai’s active pursuit of conciliation between East and West is one that propels her practice to be as equally pioneering as it is testing, insofar as her role as gatekeeper between the two worlds is inherently slippery and self-critical – belonging fully to neither world yet instinctually obligated towards both.
My artistic practice is inescapably purgative, documenting continual narratives of personal change and evolution. — Angie Pai, 2017
Working centrally as a painter, Pai’s work straddles and skews the aesthetic perimeter between East and West. From abstracted faces bisected and skewed by the physical limits of a canvas, to strictly aligned Chinese seal scripts seemingly embossed yet painted onto paper, Pai’s oeuvre distorts strict art historical conceptions of movement and school. While many would perceive and consign Pai’s hybridity to the realm of ‘contemporary art’, she intuitively rejects any inference of arrogance or self-hinting progressivity. Rather, Pai’s stylistic approach is underpinned by ancient Chinese teachings in conjunction with lived experience of spiritual disconnection as a child of diaspora. Pai’s works then are equally as sagacious as they are contemporary - voiced on a continuum that is neither linear nor attenuated but rather ancestrally circular and self-aware.
The narratives Pai exalts are tied to the stories of an abject past as well to her embodied present. In her inaugural solo show Gravity of Thought (2017) at Melbourne’s Metro Gallery, Pai positions her audience towards a suite of paintings that depict ancient Chinese maxims ground in Taoist philosophy. Framed behind perspex and rendered through enamel on paper, each maxim marks formative moments in Pai’s cultural education and upbringing.
In one work, Pei Yang Jiao Yu, four characters are stylised into white lines balanced against one another, whirling like smoke to paint meaning:
Foster the act of educating yourself as an integral part of your being,
so as to grow intellectually, morally and socially.
Upon first glance you notice the meticulousness of Pai’s hand. Her lines are precise and mathematical; each white ribbon symmetrically poised against another while others cross and join to complete a symbol with elegant coherence. Singularly, these lines are soft and fastidious, though when viewed wholly they form a seal that is bold and knowingly proud, embossed with meaning that is inward looking to the lessons of time.
The adulation of such maxims speaks volumes for the way history holds weight for immigrants like Pai. As metaphor, the fluid contours of her characters are the bloodlines that allow for the present to speak openly with the past: with Pai traversing the white cube (and privileging) gallery to proclaim space and presence for those who exist in the in-between of East and West. Extending this metaphor, each maxim is born from a lineage of trial and error, of failures and shortcomings grafted onto those who came before. This in itself is reminiscent of the immigrant experience: how those who fare the seas and cross the skies must learn resilience and embrace failure to achieve betterment in an intrinsically hostile new world. Through learning and unlearning, immigrants assimilate to a new way of life, though their tenacity in holding onto the words of cultural history is a reminder of their seity - with Pai returning to and celebrating this ethos in her practice.
* * *
Angie Pai is an artist based in New York City. Her work expounds the concerns of diasporic guilt, longing and the potentials of interpersonal connection. Since her first solo show at Metro Gallery Melbourne, Pai continues to investigate the relationship between spirituality and lived experience, as well as both the hybridity and compromise between East and West in her everyday life.