Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - November 19, 2010

Stories of his life

Characters and situations intrigue in the narrative art of James Su

by Rebecca Wallace

The halls were filled with sassy textile art, huge paintings and dignified architectural illustrations, but I kept coming back to one pastel drawing.

I was strolling the halls of the Paul G. Allen Building at Stanford University looking at the art hung there. If you ignore the bunny-suited people working behind glass in the nano-processing clean room, it's like any other art gallery.

As part of the Stanford Art Spaces program, curator Marilyn Grossman regularly highlights trios of artists, hanging their work throughout this and three other campus buildings. Earlier this month, my walk led me past textile art by Alice Beasley, paintings and drawings by John Sundstrom and paintings and pastels by James Su.

It was Su's pastel "East Meets West" that I kept revisiting. As a writer, I'm drawn to art with a narrative sense, to scenes that could prompt stories with their characters and emotion. This pastel depicts a girl in a museum and her visible connection with one piece of art. She looks up at a sculpture of a man, her gaze drawn in as though he has inspired her. Holding a book, the man watches her right back.

I thought a lot about what their story might be. But my thoughts turned toward a different truth a few days later, when I was interviewing Su at his Palo Alto home: A single work of art can reveal many facets of an artist's life. Look closely at "East Meets West," and you can read Su's own story.

First, the pastel's style: figurative and realistic, the way Su was taught at the Shanghai Art Institute. This was a few decades ago, and Su recalls his art-school training as precise and rather rigid. Abstract art was not encouraged. He felt he got strong classical training, but that his teachers weren't open to new approaches.

The Cultural Revolution brought new pressures for artists in China, and Su shifted to studying engineering. When he came to the United States in 1985, he earned a doctorate and continued to work as an engineer. It was only recently that Su made a serious return to art. Now he felt free to work in any style — and medium. His choice of pastel in "East Meets West" says something about him, too.

"Pastel was new for me here and I was curious," Su says. "Pastels in China are not very popular. Here you can get big sets ... 200 colors, or 400 or 500." He grins with the infectious enthusiasm of a child.

Su's years as an engineer are also reflected in "East Meets West." He pays a lot of attention to lines and planning, often gridding his canvases and carefully anticipating where the viewer's eye will fall first. Here, the viewer is drawn immediately to the girl's face, with the light focused on her skin and the lines of nearby painting frames pointing toward her. The long rectangles in the parquet gallery floor are meticulously drawn, also leading the eye up to the girl.

During the interview, Su pulls out "New Ideas for Better Drawings," an art textbook he wrote, then published in China. Several pages are filled with images of his artwork, lines carefully drawn on them to show the paths that viewers' eyes are likely to take.

He points to an image of another of his works that's currently up at Stanford, called "Hope." It's a scene from a recent earthquake in China, and shows an injured woman holding a baby up to the sky. The baby's finger leads the viewer's eye toward a distant rescue helicopter.

If the sky were empty, the work would be missing something and the viewer would feel unsatisfied, Su says. "If I make a composition, I try to find logic. I have an engineering background," he adds matter-of-factly.

But Su also feels an emotional link to his work far beyond logic. Sadness over the earthquake led him to create "Hope." And in "East Meets West," he's very close to the girl standing in the art gallery. She's his daughter Ellen, who is also studying art, at Yale University. Lean in, and you might see the family resemblance.

Step back, and the pastel's whole theme and title reflect Su's life in China and the United States. The gallery that the young Asian girl stands in is at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The sculpture is of the young Christopher Columbus, who set out from the Western world to find the East, and found more of the West instead.

"Her eyes connect with his," Su says. "Ancient times and modern times — they meet together." And, the sculpted Columbus is holding a book on China.

Overall, Su has 18 paintings and four pastels in the Stanford Art Spaces exhibition. One watercolor painting, "West Meets East," is a companion to the aforementioned pastel.

Or a mirror image. It shows two Caucasian people looking at a pair of Chinese sculptures. The sculptures represent health and prosperity, but Su has chosen to paint the scene with the couple's faces turned away. One can speculate whether they understand what the sculptures really mean.

Nowadays, Su does a little engineering consulting, but he's mainly a full-time artist, doing commissions and architectural work along with his own paintings and drawings. He hopes to publish a book of sketches he drew of life in China.

And, true to form as a Bay Area artist, Su has also been working on a series of environmentalist paintings. Some are in the Stanford show, including "Last Tree," an apocalyptic scene filled with the circles of tree stumps seen from above. Su said he wanted to try a different point of view.

Also in this scene are three women in white robes. They fly across the canvas toward the one remaining tree. Bright birds follow them, and their hair streams out behind in their haste. Clearly there's a story here.

What: Stanford Art Spaces exhibits paintings and pastels by Palo Alto artist James Su, together with textile art by Alice Beasley and paintings and charcoal drawings by John Sundstrom.

Where: Mostly in the Paul G. Allen Building, with some artwork at the David Packard Building, the Huang Engineering Center and Jordan Hall's psychology office.

When: Through Jan. 20, open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: For more about the exhibition, go to http://cis.stanford.edu/~marigros/ . James Su has some of his art at http://www.wjsart.com .

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