Interview with Cathy Lu at Recology

The Artist in Residence (AIR) Program at Recology is a staple of the San Francisco arts community. In operation since 1990, Recology has given over 120 professional artists and over 30 student artists (including myself) the opportunity to source materials from the city’s dump. The resulting work spans all media and practices, offering artists a glimpse into the untold stories of a discarded city. The current residents—Erik Scollon and Cathy Lu—typically work within a ceramic practice. I sat down with them to chat about their time at Recology, and how the experience relates to the world of ceramics.

Cathy Lu: I guess I could start with the spiel I usually do, should I do that?

Matt Golberg: If you want to, are you tired of doing that?

CL: Actually, I have it all memorized now. The dates are Sept. 22 from 5-8. There's a free pile, lots of food, open to the public. My initial proposal was to make this museum/warehouse situation. I was interested in ceramics being this permanent material, never decaying, and its ties to culture. I’m also interested in this idea of copies—where you can go to the Asian Art Museum and see a vase, then go to Chinatown and see the same vase, and the production is similar but the sense of value is so completely different.   

Also, China being this place where porcelain was discovered and everyone wanted it. At the same time China being seen as this mass producer of super shitty goods—plastics, throw away stuff that’s plaguing the environment. So those two ideas of porcelain export and making terrible plastics. Those are the ideas I thought about when applying for the residency.

So when I got here, it's so overwhelming. And it's funny because people tell you that it's going to be overwhelming, but you can’t understand the reality of what that means until you’re a part of it.

MG: There's something futile about it, like we're trying to get water out of this boat that's never going to stop filling up.

CL: Yeah totally. It will never stop filling up. And physically too—just pushing the cart and hauling materials—and such a weird luxury that we have in this country to waste so much.

When I came here, I didn't think I would find beautiful ceramic vases. Before this residency a lot of my practice has been taking found vases - like really shitty oriental style vases and gluing stuff to it. Or breaking it and gluing more stuff or adding my own ceramic handmade parts. So initially I was thinking that I wanted to find a bunch of vases and ceramic stuff and see what could happen.

Cathy Lu studio, Recology, San Francisco, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

Cathy Lu studio, Recology, San Francisco, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

MG: What's important about the vase?

CL: One, I find them aesthetically really beautiful: the shapes. Also the idea of luxury it portrays. It's such a huge part of Chinese culture. Initially I thought I would make alterations to found vases, but that didn't really happen. In the beginning it's tough because you have all these ideas but then you're only finding certain materials.

MG: And you have to respond to what those are.

CL: Yeah totally, and have it come together. Initially I was thinking about what are ways of working with clay that I can apply to non-clay materials—so that's where these cabled vases came from, which is like coil building. Then with the zip-ties it all started to make sense.

Cathy Lu studio, Recology, San Francisco, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

Cathy Lu studio, Recology, San Francisco, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

MG: As you’re making work and thinking about Chinese culture and authenticity, do you see the dump as a uniquely American space?

CL: I don't know if it's American, but I do see it is a luxury. In any rich country, there's probably a ton of waste. I remember talking to this guy who was throwing out a mirror and I was looking for mirrors and I said, "Oh I'll take that off your hands" because once they throw out the mirror it shatters instantly. And we were talking for a little bit and he was from the Dominican Republic. He was saying this would never happen there. So much of this stuff is reusable, but the culture of repairing and reusing does not exist in the US. You use it, you're done, then you throw it away.

MG: And it's out of sight.

CL: Yeah so it's gone from you, but it's not gone.

MG: Which is a different sense to the word luxury than a ceramic vessel would be in a home.

CL: Yeah, the objects at the dump have a kind of hidden value.

MG: Do you feel the sculptural process of coil building is the default way you build something?

CL: When I was making these vases it also reminded me of the 3-D printer look, which basically extrudes coils on top of each other. It's funny for me to take this traditional, ancient, basic technique and then use internet cables—very Silicon Valley—and make vases with them.

MG: A lot of the times when I'm teaching someone how to coil build now, I'll reference 3-D printers.

CL: No way! Do they know what you're talking about?

MG: Sometimes, if they've seen one work they know what I'm talking about. Another topic I wanted to bring up is the role education plays in your practice and, seemingly, in ceramic practices in general—and the sense that teaching is maybe more embedded for a ceramic artist's practice than artists working in other mediums. What are your thoughts on education and your role as an educator?

CL: What I love about clay is that it's so basic. I've taught clay to all age levels, and I love the fact that as a five-year-old or a college student, you can get a lot out of it. There are so many different avenues in which clay interacts with the human experience. It's a part of every culture, each with its own ceramics history. I love that. I love, you can get super nerdy and science-y about it. I love that our toilets are made of ceramic, it's such a part of our lives.

MG: Are there materials you find yourself drawn to or that you keep picking up over and over?

CL: Yeah, certain things that I think would be attractive to most people—mirrors, shiny things, colorful things. My interests in Chinese culture and authenticity is why I'm so drawn to the vases.

So I was trying to find objects that would speak to Chinese culture: these grocery bags and these little plastic stools. But then, some items felt too general, too cliché, or stereotypical. For example, I had a bunch of chopsticks, but I thought, "I don't wanna work with this."

I knew I wanted to do something with casting because the majority of my ceramic practice is slip casting. We found bags of concrete that became the material to cast.

Cathy Lu studio, Recology, San Francisco, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

Cathy Lu studio, Recology, San Francisco, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

Cathy Lu studio, Recology, San Francisco, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

Cathy Lu studio, Recology, San Francisco, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

MG: Do you want to talk about the title of your show?

CL: Oh yeah, Real Imitation. I feel a lot of what I do is make copies. I start with something that already exists and make an imitation or copy of it. I love this idea of how or when something becomes less real and why that is. Like, again, the Asian Art Museum versus a trinket shop and what those contexts do to an object.

Cathy Lu,  Treasure Case , 2016, ceramic, wood, concrete blocks, 102 x 108 x 16 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

Cathy Lu, Treasure Case, 2016, ceramic, wood, concrete blocks, 102 x 108 x 16 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

MG: I think of food when I hear Real Imitation. Where a sign will say "Authentic New York Pizza" but it’s in SF so it can't geographically be authentic. Or imitation crab.

CL: I think about that kind of thing all the time. Also substitutions for something—my parents moved to the States and I remember a lot of their cooking was trying to substitute ingredients unavailable in the US. “We don't have that like we had in Taiwan, but we’ve got this.” When the "real" thing isn't there, you have to use what's available.

MG: So is your "real" thing ceramics, and the imitation is the same sort of process but a different material? Is that the imitation?

CL: My interest lies more in the objects and their correlation to authenticity and that relationship—that's the imitation.

Also, I want to say with my background in ceramics, I never feel like a real ceramicist because I never do anything really vessel-oriented unless it's something I bought and altered. I don't know if you feel this way, too. There was a while I was slip casting fruit, or making objects more historically associated with the genre of ceramics, but I've never had this desire to make functional vessels. I don't care about that.

MG: I agree, I don't really either.

CL: I try to care. It seems so nice for the people who do care. But I don't.

MG: Canonically, looking at contemporary ceramic artists, they also don't care. That's almost a qualifier to get into that space, you can't care about vessels and pottery and all that.

CL: That’s true, and there is that weird rift between ceramics and art.

MG: Yeah, which I don't find to be that interesting of a conversation.

CL: It's been around for a while.

Cathy Lu studio, Recology, San Francisco, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

Cathy Lu studio, Recology, San Francisco, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

MG: What has the residency been like for you? There are steps along the way in a ceramic studio that give the practice a sense of rhythm. Has this residency been more rapid? What do you find to be the differences in terms of pace?

CL: The access to materials and working within such a structure is really unusual. I think this residency is so hard. It's difficult because there's so much to choose from. The possibilities are infinite. Anything you're looking for you can find. At the very beginning we found a fog machine and I thought, “I'm gonna do everything with a fog machine.” But then I never found another one, so that idea got killed just because it wasn't there.

Working with all the different materials, having to figure out and understand each material, or take it apart from the thing it was attached to. I've done clay residencies before, and that's difficult in other ways, but you buy the clay, you use the clay. And whatever you do, maybe there's other stuff with the clay, but you're gonna use clay. Whereas here it could just be anything, and it’s really challenging to not be in control. To not know what the final object will be composed of, and to be really attached to certain materials, without knowing what to do with them. I definitely felt that way.  

Cathy Lu’s work revolves around the manipulation, appropriation, and de-contextualization of traditional Chinese art imagery and presentation, exploring how Eastern imagery is seen and understood in the US, and how ideas of cultural ‘authenticity’ and ‘tradition’ interface with contemporary trans-cultural experiences. Lu works mostly in ceramic-based sculpture and watercolors, with materials rooted in traditional Chinese art. Her work draws inspiration from the displays at the Asian Art Museum, fruit markets in Chinese immigrant neighborhoods, and the trinket shops in Chinatown. Lu currently lives and works in San Francisco.

Matt Goldberg is an artist working in San Francisco where he runs the ceramic programming at SOMArts Cultural Center. Goldberg is a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute (MFA 2015) and has participated in residencies at Recology (2015) and the Palo Alto Art Center (2016). His ceramic and assemblage sculptures remix American pop cultural icons through a comic, cut-and-paste aesthetic.