By Derek Wilson
A plastic bottle is drained of its contents and then thrown away. The bottle has completed its function in its current form, but there is more to its story.
“I took all these plastic bottles and I saved them,” said San Anselmo artist Hwei-Li Tsao. “You know when they are sitting on the shelves in a store, they have been designed so people will pick it and try what’s inside… As soon as they finish it, they toss it. That’s the purpose of that bottle design. So I took all those bottles and I try to give them a second life … and I find out they can actually be really beautiful, especially a plastic that is kind of transparent or translucent. They have a reflection, or when they cast a shadow, they cast a shadow based on the color of the plastic instead of just a grey shadow.”
She points to a replica of a historic Asian robe hanging in her studio loft. Instead of silk, the translucent robe is made of plastic. Sunlight shines through the windows and through the robe.
“When you shine the light on it, the shadow is actually pink,” she said, guiding the observers eyes from the robe to a pink shadow on the opposite wall. “That all kind of comes from the idea to put it up and then re-examine it, and then think about it from the Chinese history in the old garment. Think about what the original garment could be like today under consumerism and what it could be made of and it could look like.”
Form and function. Art and beauty. Where do they all intersect? And how do they change as society changes over time? These are questions raised by the artwork of Hwei-Li Tsao, whose painting “Loud and Clear” is currently hanging on a wall in the de Young Museum as part of a juried exhibition that includes 877 pieces from 762 Bay Area artists.
Seventy artists from Marin County are included in the de Young Open. A list of those artists can be found at www.marinarts.org. Images of the artwork in the de Young Open can be found at www.deyoungexhibition.artcall.org.
Tsao’s “Loud and Clear” shows a strand of white plastic pearls playing amidst a gold-colored cup, some lipstick and a pair of ear buds. The image is all brightly lit and joyful … until you look more closely at what lies hidden in plain sight.
Tsao describes the image: “Reflection, distorted or not, gives a way to view a surrounding and the maker. On the surface, the painting seems to speak loudly and clearly of a colorful existence of life. Underneath, multiple versions of the same reflection stir an unsettled reality. Amid everyday illusions we discern the real to keep us whole.”
Tsao, whose family immigrated from Taiwan when she was young, studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and College of Marin. On her way to earning her Masters of Fine. Art degree, she examined various styles of painting and various perspectives of society.
Lately, perhaps naturally during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tsao has turned her attention more to thoughts of mortality.
“I think of old age and dying and death and that’s something that right now I find interesting,” she said. “I feel in a society like this that elders are not respected. And from my culture the elders are very well respected. The teachers are very well respected. And here, the teachers are not respected.”
Her gaze falls on a painting of a fading sunflower.
“I would use that as a metaphor like the flower dying,” she said. “Maybe it would be something interesting and intriguing and aesthetically pleasing. Then, maybe people want to think a little more about appreciating their elders.”
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