The human gaze is a powerful thing. I realized this the other day as I was watching a video featuring MIT Professor Sherry Turkle as she spoke of the emergence of sociable robots. These imitators look you in the eye, gesture in friendship, and practice face recognition, that last piece of trivial technology now the bread and butter of online photo albums. Once a robot can complete these simple tasks, Turkle goes on to explain in the video, we come to “believe there is a sentience there, a sentience that not only cares, but one that we want it to care about us.”

Over a month ago, I met and chatted with Brenda Zlamany, a Brooklyn-based artist who traveled to Taiwan for a year on a Fulbright grant. In addition to her prolific production of 888 watercolors, Zlamany also completed several oil paintings — seen here — of teenaged Taiwanese boys who took great pride in their hairdos, their dance skills and motorcycles. To the artist these boys were kindred, rebellious spirits. And as each portrait shows, there is quite a bit of sentience there, along with a good dose of individuality and depth. We can see these boys have feelings — feelings about themselves, possibly about each other. And if we spent enough time with them, we’d probably want them to care about us.

It’s partly true cameras have replaced the function of the portraitist, the patient, curious artist who details the contours of your face with an unblinking eye, capturing the waves of your hair, or the slight perspiration on your skin. That kind of care in this fast-paced, tech-driven world is probably a thing of the past. But I also imagine the moments when the eyes meet, a chemistry between artist and subject is born, and along with it an acknowledgement that there is a powerful human behind the gaze. That acknowledgement, as Turkle reminds us, is so visceral and gripping even technological imitators will draw our attention, and as Zlamany shows us, transcends cultural and geographical differences.

In many ways then, Zlamany relived an instant but rarefied moment over 888 times. Each time she was brought together to new friends via her art, and as she traveled she could observe how people in Taiwan, much like elsewhere, “were really craving the relationships,” relationships of more profundity than merely selecting to ‘Like’ your friend’s snapshot on Facebook.

Zlamany in turn, said she was “truly struck by the beauty and grace,” of her numerous Taiwanese subjects, an experience of compelling, staying power.

“With each painting, I felt a new relationship emerged,” relationships, she says, she maintains even after returning home.


Lan-Chiann Wu, Tranquil Artist

by Liz on July 16, 2011

in Art & Design

Firefly Dream (2000)

Not too long ago, I received a lovely, introductory e-mail from a Chinese painter in Los Angeles. Lan-Chiann Wu, an artist specializing in contemporary Chinese ink painting, has lectured and exhibited in the Los Angeles area, San Francisco, as well as in New York, Taiwan, and Japan. She’s currently exhibiting at the Maloof Foundation in Los Angeles, and the show runs until September 3, so be sure to check out her work if you are in her neighborhood.

Lantern Festival I (1999)

Wu’s best paintings illustrate the depth of her imagination. At first glance, her world echoes the China of a fabled past. Red lanterns glow in hutong alleyways. Bamboo reeds whisper to the winds. Fireflies glow with flickering warmth.

But true to the contemporary nature of her works, there’s more to Wu’s art than mere visual references to the pastoral Far East.

House of Souls (1999)

What makes Wu’s paintings special is the interplay between meticulously planned illustration and the magical realism that is at the core of many novels. True to form, some of Wu’s paintings are inspired by classics, such as The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. Beyond the inspiration of fictional history, Wu’s paintings seem to exist neither in the past nor the present. Instead, she catapults the past into contemporary composition. She makes Chinese imagery her own, beckoning viewers with their familiarity but also imbuing the scenery with measured doses of not-seen-but-felt novelty.

I love Wu’s paintings for their emotional resonance that lives in the unpopulated fields, silent rivers, and the glow of evening. Her world is a harbor. The good Earth, our Mother. And it’s nice to know that in this Mother’s overarching arms, we are unfettered to fall asleep in peace and to dream safely in the knowledge that harm, worry and fear are at best figments of a child’s imagination.