Fay Ku’s exhibition Asa Nisa Masa, which opens at Eight Modern on Friday, May 31, takes its title from Fellini’s 8 ½. In the film, protagonist Guido Anselmi, an Italian movie director, remembers magic words he learned as a child to make a painting come alive at midnight —asa nisi masa. In the course of chanting the phrase to herself, Ku remembered nisi as nisa and decided to keep the title based on her altered memory.
“It’s mostly an emotional reference,” Ku told Pasatiempo from Brooklyn, where she is based. “When I recently watched 8 ½., I hadn’t seen it for seven years, and I was thinking about how we shed our skin every seven years or how the cicadas come out every seven years or so, too. The first time I watched 8 ½, I wasn’t super happy with my own work, and I thought the film was awful and self-absorbed. But when I watched it again, I thought it was brilliant. Asa nisi masa is such a pivotal memory, and it’s a catalyst for the rest of Guido’s life.”
Ku was born in Taiwan to Chinese immigrant parents, who moved to the U.S. shortly after her birth. After living with her grandmother, Ku joined her parents when she was 3 years old and spent her childhood moving between suburbs in Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and Maryland. “My parents weren’t very social, and we were isolated in many ways. Diversity was not cool at all growing up. At home, we spoke Mandarin and ate Chinese food, but it was very different than actual Chinese culture.” Ku’s sense of that culture beyond her own home in overwhelmingly white communities came mostly through stories. “The things that were not actually around me were translated through history, myth, and folklore.”
Ku’s work is unearthly and sublime, the stuff of dreams and nightmares. A mixture of watercolor, graphite, and ink on paper, Ku’s drawings focus on figures engaged in surreal interactions with themselves and others. In Birdfight, two figures — half men, half birds — claw at each other with talon-like toenails and fingernails, their teeth bared in fury and pain. Local Weather is more subdued but no less disquieting: five nearly identical women, dressed in yellow raincoats, languish with fishbowls on their heads. Their hair streams around their faces, and we wonder if they are drowning. Luncheon is amusing and odd: here, we see no faces. Six pair of voluptuous legs and bottoms, clad in torn black stockings and vermilion high heels, are surrounded by about a dozen penises dressed in dapper pastel suits. The male appendages worship at the ankles of the lovely legs, or interact with one another, inclined as though in conversation, as they stroll across the grass. Ku’s line is calligraphic and precise, but if you look at certain pieces (like Rain or Shine) up close, you can see where she erased and started over, or pressed very hard and tore at the paper.
“I draw on printmaking paper that’s not actually meant for drawing, and you can’t erase without abrading the surface. It also scars really easily with a hard pencil. Once I get too comfortable [with a material] I have to switch. When you’re not thinking, How do I react to that mark? and wonder what’s happening, you’re not playing with the material. Sometimes I think I’m a little too precious, a little too controlled, and should let go even more.”
When Ku first started making art, she wanted to paint like Baroque artist Caravaggio. “I was trained in oils,” she said. “And who wouldn’t want to paint like Caravaggio?” It wasn’t until she got to graduate school at New York’s Pratt Institute that Ku realized she wasn’t supposed to paint like Caravaggio. While the human psychological drama represented in his work still appealed to her, Ku’s mode of expression was very different from Caravaggio’s dense chiaroscuro paintings. “I really resisted drawing at first. I wasn’t very sophisticated about contemporary art, and my notions about art were antiquated. I thought if Caravaggio is valid, then drawing isn’t valid. I thought I wasn’t supposed to make pencil-on-paper works because it was easy for me. But being easy didn’t make it invalid; it was my natural way of working.”
After graduate school, Ku moved from residency to residency in locales as diverse as Honolulu and Omaha. She completed two residencies in New Mexico — at the Santa Fe Art Institute in 2008 and Albuquerque’s Tamarind Institute in 2009. Though she’s happy now to be based in one place, moving left its mark on Ku’s work: her materials dwindled, and different landscapes influenced her presentation.
“The landscape of the Southwest really speaks to me. It’s like a drawing or it looks like one of my works, with washes of color, sparseness, and light.” When Ku was at the Santa Fe Art Institute, she completed just one painting: the 16-foot-long Women Warriors, a group of fierce, one-breasted Amazonians in colorful Chinese dress riding on robust horses across the canvas into battle. “I hadn’t done animals, much less horses, but suddenly I had the physical horizontal space. I didn’t understand this till years later, but my vision blew wide open, and that happened because I was there.”