The Maze (2019) Graphite, color pencil, watercolor, gouache on paper. 29 ½" x 41 ½"
Bodies become landscapes in the surreal drawings and prints of SZU-WEI HO. Braided hair weaves in between and around figures—human, animal and mannequin—engaged in fantastical and lively rituals. Szu-Wei earned her M.F.A. in Printmaking at Pratt Institute (Brooklyn, New York) after receiving her B.A. in English Language and Literature at the National Taiwan Normal University (Taipei, Taiwan). She has exhibited at International Print Center (Chelsea, NY), A.I.R. Gallery, (Dumbo, NY) and Gallery 456 at the Chinese American Arts Council (NY, NY), where she had two solo exhibitions in 2014 and 2019. Szu-Wei recently relocated to Taichung, Taiwan, where she and her husband are currently setting up an art studio and printmaking workshop.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Can you talk about the surreal qualities of your work?
Szu-Wei Ho: I come from a background of literature and love of storybooks. So when I started to create art, stories naturally came first. In my images there are a lot of natural elements, animals, fairytale motifs, human events, and everyday objects. These are glued together by rearranging and reinterpreting my daily encounters. This is the most fun and intriguing creative process I could enjoy for now, so I stick with it. But I also think my work is deeply rooted in reality, which is always more surreal than what I could imagine, especially the year 2020!
OPP: The braid is a recurring form in your drawings and prints. It shows up in The Braided Island (2011), Braid (2014) and Reins (2019) to name a few. What does it mean to you? What keeps you coming back to this visual motif?
Reins (2019) Graphite on paper. 29 ½" x 41 ½"
SH: Human hair is like an extension of us, which grows but without senses. It plays such an important role in our appearances, sometimes even defines our look. Braided hair especially aroused me not only because of it’s woven and lush texture, but the action of braiding and the reason behind it could carry many sexual, social and cultural connotations. Braids can have different colors, which could imply race and point to beauty standards. As a girl, I had a popular doll with ankle-length, blond hair. I brushed and braided her hair everyday. It was like a rule of thumb that to be pretty and to be a princess, long blond hair is the standard.
OPP: And your braids move beyond the human head. . .
Hair Salon No.4- Braid Me A Spring, Spider Man (2011) Etching. 9" x 12"
SH: Yes, braids show up in my work as tentacles, tails, ropes, fiddleheads, and question marks. Whichever shapes they take, they imply female existence and cultural restraints. From the Brothers Grimm, the image of Rapunzel letting her hair down from the tower bewitched me. The captive woman connects herself to her mother-like figure and her lover with the long braid, which was like an umbilical cord. And then she was pregnant with twins.
OPP:Landscapes and bodies are often conflated in your drawings, prints and ceramics. Is the landscape a way to talk about the body or vice versa?
SH: Landscapes are just like bodies; they breathe and grow. I like to magnify the body to the scale of landscape so it becomes a giant or an island. And to minimize landscape, they just look like creatures lying there. I’ve lived on islands all my life, whether in Taiwan or New York. I love the idea of being surrounded by water, and the unique quality of being isolated but open at the same time.
Blue Egg I (2012) Ink, watercolor, and Gouache on paper. 44" x 30"
OPP: Please tell us about the relationship between color and graphite in Blue Egg I (2011) and Ripe (2019).
SH: I think color and grayscale talk to each other when they are in the same picture. In these two pieces both the focal points have bright and colorful appearances. The others with only grayscale would fall to the background. But with the impression of the colors that first meet the eye, the grey scale then opens to more air and possibilities.
In Blue Egg I, the colorful part is at the center: a number of figurines danced around a blue egg. The figurines were like mannequins but only with the lower body, and they were decorated with different objects on top of narrow sticks. They were running, walking or dancing, as if a celebration was going on. Colors could emphasize the liveliness of the event.
In Ripe, the only bird in bright colors was the one that held an egg. One can tell the bird head was a costume as the eyes were hollow. This colorful bird confronted the viewer with no facial expression, making the viewer wonder who was hiding behind and what kind of emotion there should be. I applied so many bright colors on this bird to create a theatrical event.
Ripe (2019) Graphite and color pencil on paper. 29 ½" x 41 ½"
OPP: Ripe and The Maze, both from 2019, feature a colorful parakeet costume hiding an egg protected by human arms. What is the egg being protected from?
SH: The idea of a colorful parakeet came from the sun conure I met at the place I used to work. She lost her mate a long time ago, but still laid infertile eggs from time to time. It was a natural habit, but I felt sorry for her, as if she would be lost by us taking those eggs away. Thus the sun conure became a character I used to talk about reproduction and motherhood. The human arms topped with a bird costume would hold a huge egg like a pregnant woman holding her belly.
I do not intend to have the egg being protected from specific things, but to just present the way a mother would be protective and cherish her prize by holding it in her arms. But ironically, what is in the egg is another question. . . it could be just another infertile egg the sun conure bears.
The Braided Island (2011) Etching, aquatint, spitbite, drypoint. 22 1/2" x 31"
OPP: How does the egg in these new drawings from 2019 relate to the Blue Egg I (2011) and Blue Egg II (2012)?
SH: In the earlier drawings Blue Egg I & II, the egg symbolizes life and happiness, in a naive way. Robin's Egg Blue is a color I am not very familiar with when I grew up in Taiwan, but it is so popular in the United States. It is a very bright and eye-catching color, which I think is a bit superficial when applied to objects and merchandise. That is the feeling I want on the egg: a bit too happy, too good to be true.
In Ripe and The Maze, the eggs held by human hands are only in grayscale, because I want some more uncertainty, and more of a feeling of the past.
I would say eggs in these earlier and later drawings relate to each other while the environment changes- eggs are still eggs, but what happens through time would possibly affect what was inside the eggs.
Blue Egg II (2012) Ink, Gouache and color pencil on paper. 88" x 30"
OPP: You mentioned the crazy year that has been 2020 at the beginning of the interview. How has the pandemic and other world events impacted your studio practice? Working on anything new?
SH: This February my husband and I moved back to Taiwan after almost 12 years in NYC. At that time Asia was the center of the pandemic, but we still made the move because we were 7 month pregnant and wanted to raise the baby with more family support. Because of Covid, everything we packed and cargo shipped from Brooklyn took more than 6 months to arrive. We are now setting up a new art studio and printmaking workshop in Taichung, where we live. Luckily Taiwan has been a very safe place to stay, so hopefully everything will be on track next year to make some new work.