Thursday, April 12, 2007

Visual Dialogues (part 1)
Sylvia La at Work

by arnoldo garcia

A work of art, a painting, is never done. The paint may dry, the painter may have passed, but the work of art never stops.

A painting is non-stop talk, fields of color striding back and forth across your pupils, sending molecular shock waves, transmitting across the synapses, sending your other four senses into disarray: Your tongue in a seizure, your nose gasping, your ears waxed literally, your skin curled over skeletons and shadows.

The painting, talking and talking. Your eyes, reacting, responding, flinging your body into the mix.

Everyone takes a turn and tries to out talk the painting. Every encounter with the painting is different; she is a lover for all times, for all lovers.

To Enter a painting, you enter into the visual fields that most people only have access to in their dreaming. A painting is waiting for you to enter, as in a dream you dream and see only aspects of your self. Maybe you can see a painting because you see something about yourself that is not beautiful, good, positive. (As incredible as it seems unlikely, painters only paint what is beaututiful, even it's gross, ugly, war, dark, unperceivable, abstract, disfigured disfigurative, unintellgible -- all however about beauty.)

Forms, content collide, mix as a river collides, mixes in fury with and against the sea. Two liquids, two plastic arts commingle, hybridize, become something new, different:

Photographs, ink, oil, Chinese calligraphy paper with neat squares. Our words, our identities fit, don’t fit, have been remade and the old ways no longer make sense in the new land: this is the work of Sylvia La.

I came to visit Sylvia La at her studio one evening. We talked mostly, sipped on beer. Outside the rain pounded the night, the sidewalked glared under the street-lights.

Her artistic process, the gestation of images, colors, forms, content, drafts and inspirations literally strewn about the three walls, floor and counter-top of her studio space. Palettes with fresh oil paints, various canvasses in different stages of completion, on the floor leaning against the walls, on easels, pinned against the wall alongside photos, ink washes, pencil and charcoal drawings.

Out of chaos, fields of color; her brush filled with mixes. Sylvia paints her family, her Vietnam, the U.S. war against Vietnam, against her, being resolved peacefully, paintingly, by her artwork.

Inside, the aroma of oil paints, sharpened lead pencils and every imaginable and unimaginable combination of paint covered walls and nooks, crannies of a labyrinth of makeshift spaces turned into studios without walls. Works of art facing each other everywhere.

Sylvia showed me how she both mixes paints onto the canvas surface and the sources of her images. I took a series of pictures with the recurring image of hands, hers, to see in the photograph she had enlarged, from immigration/refugee and other types of government-issued identity documents. These are not simple or mirror/photographic reproductions through oil paints. No, all materials are raw materials in the hands of a painter. She transforms them into a organic hybrid painting that tells her story and stories.

In Sylvia's work, the leap from the raw materials, the sources and stimulations that inform her brushes to what she creates on canvas and other surfaces are a transformation, an examination and critical offering to the human eye.

Her work is part reflection, part kneading, part crushing of what happens to you when you are disrupted and forcibly removed from your roots. You survive, but not just any old way.

I was struck by the parallels of Sylvia's work in progress that I observed that night in her studio to that that Mexicans in the U.S. have endured. We are two peoples, a divided nation, whose each off-shoot develops in the new conditions, independently and co-dependent on the root.

In Vietnam's case, the U.S. war was the culmination of a long struggle over self-determination, that in the end became self-determination through displacement, bomb-craters, agent orange, socialism, the heroic guerrillas, Ho Chi Minh and other contradictions of a victory and a defeat. Those who stayed may not have fared any better than those who left. Both decisions were made under onerous conditions.

A painting is a double movement -- once as art and then as life itself. In Sylvia La's work, painting is another country that divides itself from her painter, her artist and from her viewers.

What is Vietnam to Aztlan, to the U.S. war, to the refugee camps, to the collages, the oils, acvrylics, to who we are?

Where does Vietnam end and the U.S. begin and when does our painting blur, mix, cross-fertilize and create new borders?

Every country that has been pillaged, bombed, looted, massacred -- even those that exist now in reservations or ones that existed for other people who no longer exist in the same way they did thousands of years ago (Aztlan, too), in other words, that were deciminated, disappeared forever.

In Sylvia La's work, her family, her country, her loved ones, her experiences as a transterritorialized nationality, not a divided country but a nation that exists in two nations as a whole, everyone everywhere every place is whole, is united. Refugees are the vanguard if the human community re-placing herself as a result of human conflicts, war, economies, political strife, ideology: Vietnam in the U.S. and the U.S. war against Vietnam still being settled, dis-imagied and Sylvia healing us all, healing herself, her family, her commnity, by putting us back together, in our place, on her canvasses.

And we may all be the better for it.