Artist, writer, and community organizer Alan Lau grew up in Paradise, California. In his first book, The Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99, Lau recalls early memories of his grandmother teaching him calligraphy in her kitchen – his first experience with the brush. After earning his BA in Art from the University of California – Santa Cruz in 1976, Lau traveled to Japan where he studied sumi-e and brush painting. After settling in Seattle, Lau developed a visual style inspired by the traditional brush painting techniques, but unfettered by strict tradition.
Lau’s style is rooted in the Chinese Literati tradition and Northwest modernism. The Chinese calligraphy he learned from his grandmother as a child and the patterned abstractions he did in art school in the 1960s inform his work, as does the traditional brush and sumi-e painting he studied during the 1970s at the Nanga School in Kyoto, Japan with mentor Nirakushi Toriumi. Lau’s work is rooted in traditions yet fused with contemporary style and free in his own interpretations. Primarily working on delicate Japanese rice paper, Lau layers sumi ink, watercolor, pastel, and other media to create abstract works with great depth yet surprising lightness.
"The spirit of the tradition looms behind me not as a role model but as a continuing renewable source of encouragement to push ahead."Alan Lau
In quieter days, Lau reflects on his recent years – time spent walking through a gentrifying neighborhood to his small Ballard studio, solitude as his wife cared for family members in Japan, and the glimpses of memory that surface during these times alone. The title of each piece gives the viewer hints into Lau’s state of mind – evocative phrases that range from melancholy to whimsical. Lau often says his art “is not for people who like precision.” He creates mystery and depth, as if looking into a pool of water that shifts and shimmers beyond what the eye can see.
(Lau's) compositions are usually overall abstractions, built up in watery layers of ripples and shadows, bright squiggles of confetti, or squirming cellular forms. He can weave ink, paint and pastel into tight, rhythmic patterns.Sheila Farr, Dances with Brushes, Seattle Met, 2012
Alan Lau has enjoyed an extensive career that defies quick summary. He is a painter, poet, journalist, and creative organizer who has been a key figure in Seattle’s Asian-American cultural scene for decades. His visual artwork has been exhibited since the 1970s at numerous venues including Francine Seders Gallery, ArtXchange Gallery, and an extensive list of regional and international museums and collections. In 2014, he was awarded the Mayor's Arts Award by the City of Seattle and was the recipient of a major award by the Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation in 2015.
Infinitely Present: The Art of Alan Lau
— Christine Deavel
At the end of every winter an evening comes when the air carries the year’s first warmth. Its shimmering touch and budding fragrance exhilarate no matter how many years we’ve lived. This moment has been repeated for millenia, yet it is ever fresh, a timeless thing, like Alan Lau’s painting “at night when spring meets a bough of plum blossoms,” alive with fluttering lines of young color over a drifting, primordial darkness.
Indeed, all the paintings in quieter days, this vital exhibit of his recent work, are timeless, awakening us to a present lit by the infinite. In doing so they remind us that we are not alone, that what we inhale was exhaled eons ago, that the transformed carbon that is our bodies will continue its transformation forever.
The very tools of their making link these paintings, their maker, and so us, to the ancients. With ink made of soot, Japanese brushwork blooms and sweeps in tones from deepest black to palest gray over fibrous rice paper. A centuries-old song rises in Lau’s work and is transformed by his unmistakably contemporary voice. Jots of color, brisk circles, swoops and slashes, lithe curves—he has picked up the world’s old tune and made jazz.
As with many of Lau’s earlier paintings, these pieces can be considered abstract, but their titles hint that the world is in them, and so it is. Here, he shows us, are “ice fractures or where light puts its windows,” there, “the shadow in my woods.” In fact, we don’t just look at an Alan Lau painting—we are invited to enter it. We stand inside its weather, the spreading clouds of sumi ink, the pastel bracelets of sunshine.
But standing is not sufficient. Each painting is in motion and we must move with it. He leads us to the place “where river meets thicket,” and we are drawn into the painting’s slipstream of tangling and untangling dark lines and aquamarine wash, a river whose beginning is unseen, its end impossible to know. The painting, like the others, fills the paper to its utmost edge and, we now sense, extends beyond it. Lau’s work tells us that art, the timeless thing, goes on beyond this moment, beyond us—we only need to keep searching for it, and when we cannot continue the search, others will take it up.
And so here we are, autumn approaching in the year 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, profound economic upheaval, and a nationwide reckoning with the racism that riddles the United States of America. The “quieter days” when Alan Lau walked to his studio to paint these pieces seem not only a lifetime ago, but vanished. And yet, and yet—his art tells us otherwise. Not that all will be painless and just. It never was, after all, the paintings show—villages are bombed, we find ourselves lost, we lose others who leave just a mark behind. But, his art says, we are not separate and solitary, we will endure. All along, we have been the ash that makes up the inkstick. Alan Lau’s paintings give us back our infinite selves.
Christine Deavel is a playwright, poet, and essayist living in Seattle.
In lieu of a live event, ArtXchange Gallery presents “Otoliths,” a collaborative performance series.
Alan Lau reads his original poetry, highlighted by sounds created by Susie Kozawa, a composer and sound artist.
< ---- Watch Part One here.