Out for a Stroll

The work of Syau-Cheng Lai is on display at Ithaca’s State of the Art Gallery


A solo exhibition by local painter-pianist Syau-Cheng Lai is an event. (This applies effectively to her two- or three-person shows as well.) Relatively rare, they present a chance to see her sophisticated, beautiful, and ever-evolving works on paper en masse where they can take on the quality of a dialog. And adding to the conversation in recent years, her shows have featured long horizontal scrolls that commandingly engage with their gallery settings. 

Lai’s style is both dense and ethereal, incorporating drawing and painting into richly generative image-scapes that meld traditions of modernist abstraction with elements of global folklore—recalling the Near and Far East in particular. We see layered allusions to maps and cities, science and mysticism, music and writing. Her sense of color, texture, and gesture is both multi-faceted and rich, imparting a strong sense of tactility and an organic vitality. 

Although self-sustaining, Lai’s eclectic style is in the tradition of Klee, who wrote of himself as “abstract with memories.” 

Through February, “Recent Work by Syau-Cheng Lai” fills the smaller back gallery of the State of the Art Gallery, where she is a new member.  

The focus of the show and the most compelling piece by a good measure is Strolling with a Botanist, her most recent scrollwork. Like her others, it marries incessant detailing with a larger scale sequence-of-sequences that here captures a vigorous sense of movement. Graphite, pastel, black ink, and metal-leaf laboriously mark up the white of the paper. Delicate microscopic stipplings and expressionistic scribbles coalesce to form roller coaster curves that explode or effloresce in punctuated bursts of bright colors. 

Although less delicate overall, the sweeping style recalls that of contemporary NYC sculptor Alan Saret in his “gang drawings,” for which he has dragged clusters of colored pencils against virgin paper.  

Characteristically, Strolling has been attached directly to the walls with nails, clips, and magnets. This is effective because of the piece’s imposing feeling of weight and physicality; the wrap around the corner and the scrolled up paper at one end become part of the work. That the modest selection of small and mid-size pieces on paper that make up the rest of the show have been hung similarly is more problematic. These feel more self-contained, less flowing—an effect that might be enhanced by having a frame or some sort of rigid backing.

In contrast to the more abstract feeling of Strolling, these pieces delve into Lai’s more literary and fantastic interests—themes that could be cloying in the hands of a lesser artist, but which she pulls off convincingly. 

Most of her work here has been arranged in pairs, coaxing the eye into seeing beyond the rectangle. 

Two tall pieces, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 and Easter Landing hang side-by-side. Upright egg-shapes inflected with busy, intricate markmaking and a suggested overall tone—rusted-ochre and bright yellow-green respectively—appear silhouetted against solid black. Penciled, carved-into, inked we see vast worlds detailed with scribbles, exotic scripts, pictograms, bird’s-eye-views of buildings and cities. The two have a heavy, solid feel that contrasts with both the weight-in-movement of Strolling and the text-like levity that characterizes most of the other works. (They also allude to the human head.) 

A striking tall piece, Indigo Dreams has been divided into fat horizontal bands of background color—from top to bottom: foggy gray-black, luminous blue, Indian yellow, muddy brown. Lai has punctuated and interwoven the image using an eclectic panoply of obscure pictographic symbols, cursive-like scrawls, and patches of color.  

Songlines and Nordic Dream, not Lai’s strongest pieces to begin with, would particularly benefit from having some sort of frame or border. The former’s decoratively laced murky pink and gray and the latter’s layering and clashing of effusive color and wintery white paint both feel unstructured. Some strong rectilinear element—within the picture or without—would bring welcome focus.

Despite its shortcomings, this is an intriguing show and Strolling with a Botanist, in particular, is a major venture. One looks forward to seeing what Lai will present at the gallery next. 

Those interested in Lai’s gestural, mixed-media approach to abstraction on paper would do well to seek out the sympathetic work of local artist Melissa Zarem. She has a fine small show, “Mind Under Matter,” currently on-view at Exhibit A in Corning (it runs through Feb. 22). 

The SOAG’s main front gallery is presenting the second half of a two part members’ exhibit, featuring artists who didn’t show last month. Highlights include a generous selection of small, luminous pastel still-lifes by Yvonne Piburn and bronze figure sculptures by Gurdon Brewster exploring his signature humanistic themes. •

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