return to the valley for ah chong, Alan Lau mixed media with sumi, 1986. Courtesy Francine Seders Gallery

 It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to count on our museums to provide career retrospectives to top-notch local artists. Alan Lau is one of a lucky few whose dealer has stepped in to fill that void.

Lau is a painter and poet whose delightful style is rooted in the Chinese literati tradition as well as Northwest modernism. Even before the opening reception for Lau’s “things to come from those now gone, images from the eroding road” at Francine Seders Gallery, I started hearing from other artists about what a good show it is. It surveys Lau’s work from 1980 through the present, and what makes me happy is seeing how the paintings have grown organically from Lau’s nature, his heritage and his environment.

Lau’s work is about chance, rhythm, color, motion and emotion, and his compositions are often impromptu dances with a brush. The Chinese calligraphy he learned from his grandmother as a child and the psychedelic abstractions he did in art school in the 1960s inform the work, as does the tea ceremony and traditional brush painting he studied later in Japan. In 1978, when Lau moved from his native California to Seattle, he immersed himself in the artworld here and absorbed the Asian-influenced modernism of the Northwest School. The glove fit.

In this show, you get to see both the unity and the diversity of Lau’s style over recent decades, sometimes exhuberent and playful, sometimes sorrowing and dark. His compositions are usually overall abstractions, built up in watery layers of ripples and shadows, bright squiggles of confetti, or squirming cellular forms. He can weave ink, paint and pastel into tight, rhythmic patterns.

The knock-out painting of the show—the 61- by 111-inch sumi and mixed media return to the valley for ah chong—had everybody talking. Held to blacks and grays, the painting stands out for its more formal, orderly grid composition, while keeping the expressionistic charge of Lau’s brushwork. The composition may appear to be abstract, but Lau said he painted it to record the view looking down from an airplane at the central valley farmland of California when he flew home for his father’s funeral. The painting belongs in a museum.

A retrospective is like having a friend for many years and really getting to know what motivates them and what they care about. For Lau, assembling the show was a challenge. “At first I felt like a stranger thrown into a dark closet going through someone else’s belongings,” he said. He came upon work that hadn’t been shown before and that he hardly recognized himself. But what a gift to viewers to have these new revelations from an artist in his 60s! You begin to appreciate the depth of his dedication, the struggle that goes into the process, the break-throughs and the triumphs. You can go beyond the stylistic development to sense the importance of family, friendship and tradition.

Lau’s work is often inspired by his friends and usually his exhibitions include performances of music or dance along with readings of Lau’s poetry. This Sunday, August 5, at 6:30 pm, Lau will join Seattle musician and composer Stuart Dempster, sound artist Susie Kozawa, and Peter Joon Park, a specialist in Korean traditional music, for a free performance event at the gallery. It should be memorable.

“things to come from those now gone, images from the eroding road—paintings by alan lau, 1980-2012”

through August 12 at Francine Seders Gallery

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