Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Art Seen: Last Frontier meets Far East in natural lacquer paintings

It was the Tai Chi that lured her in. Kathy Matta, of Soldotna, had a Chinese neighbor who liked to practice the mesmerizing physical art outside daily. Matta was intrigued by the practice, and eventually traded her English speaking skills and help with grocery shopping for his Tai Chi expertise. She eventually traveled to Fuzhou, China, for Tai Chi competitions, and was finally introduced to the art of natural lacquer painting.

It took seven years of returning to the area before contemporary artist Tang Minxue was willing to begin teaching her the strict and difficult discipline using what is considered to be one of China’s natural treasures. The subtropical climate is critical in the drying and polishing process, which usually takes a year to complete, but sometimes even longer.

Matta has been returning to study this art for nine years, and is interested in keeping the tradition alive and pure. Chinese television has produced two documentaries about her art and life in China, and numerous articles have been done on her life in Alaska. She says she lives in two of the best places in the world.

Matta grew up in New Jersey and studied at the NYC Graphic Center in New York. She is an accomplished watercolor and acrylic painter, but finds her most exciting niche in the lacquer painting she imbues with the natural pigments of mother-of-pearl, duck eggshells, silver and gold leafing and many colorful minerals.

The fresh natural lacquer is actually poisonous, related to poison ivy. It was originally used 700 years ago to coat coffins and housewares like pots and bowls, and was only later introduced as a painting medium. The visual effect needs to be experienced in person; a photo cannot sufficiently deliver the exciting effect caused by the luminosity of these mediums.

Because of the complexity of the pieces that are currently on view in a small but exciting exhibit at Frames and Things in the Blazy Mall, it can be difficult to discern which marks are the artist’s, and which are a pure outcome of the entirely unique materials. One gets the sense that the images have grown out of the medium, and as such have an organic birthright.

Her most successful and sophisticated works are those that have larger areas of visual rest but then also contain a solid composition, as in “Curiosity and The Drum.” Others could use a stronger design element to hold them together, with more effort toward breaking up the spaces more fully.

Matta is well-known for combining Native motifs with loving renditions of local animals, and the lacquer and eggshell effect is well-suited for describing our mountains and tundra. I would love to see what the artist could create nonrepresentationally with these fascinating mediums.

Matta’s variety of work can be seen in other venues in Alaska, including the Arctic Rose Gallery in Anchorage and Art Works in Soldotna. Her show will be on exhibit at Frames and Things until the end of March.

Zirrus VanDevere is a local mixed-media artist and owns Art Works gallery in Soldotna. She has bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and education.

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