In her exhibition, “Murmuration,” which opened on September 9 at Morton Fine Art in Washington, D.C., Katherine Tzu-Lan’s new works delve into the realms of identity, environment, and mythology.
Through a blend of techniques such as weaving, paper folding, papercutting, mosaic, sumi ink, acrylic painting, monoprint, silkscreen, woodcut, and etching, Mann reimagines the concept of landscape. Her work celebrates opulence, ornamentation, and fragmentation, inviting viewers on a journey that challenges traditional boundaries and narrative constructs.
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann is currently the artist in residence at the National Children’s Museum in DC. She also has a concurrent solo exhibition at Glen Echo Park in Maryland, where she collaborates with children and community members to create immersive installations. Notably, Mann was recently selected as a MacDowell Fellow and recognized as a semifinalist for the prestigious Sondheim Prize.
We chatted with Mann about her process and the conversations she’d like to encourage.
You mentioned in another interview that your “first painting move is at heart an ode to paper and water.” Can you tell us about traditional Sumi ink painting and why it’s been integral to your work?
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann: I begin most of my work by pouring sumi ink and water onto paper as it lays on the floor of the studio. This is a chance operation, and the final mark is decided by evaporation and fluid dynamics, rather than any compositional decisions that I’ve made. It’s a way to let the materials–paper and water–speak first and be the first layer of time in the process of building the painting.
Your works offer the viewer lush portals to immerse in fantasy worlds through detailed, layered composition. Before cutting, weaving and folding, do you make sketches beforehand or throughout the process? How does working on a piece unfold for you?
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann: I usually don’t make sketches or compositional drawings beforehand because I view the pour as the first painting movement. It’s more a process of gradual accumulation, carving away, and evolution rather than making a certain pre-decided image happen.
You’re inspired by ancient wall paintings, from Buddhist cave paintings in China to garden frescoes in Italy. You work with floral imagery such as peonies and chrysanthemums embedded deeply into Chinese art history and tulips from Western European art history. Can you share more about that contrast and the conversation you want to encourage?
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann: Botanic imagery references centuries of culture and art history, works as a soothing, even decorative, shorthand, and lies at the heart of our understanding of landscape and environment. I was originally trained as a traditional sumi ink painter working with plant still life, specifically bamboo, plum blossoms, chrysanthemums, and orchids. These four plants refer to the four seasons, which in turn reference cycles of life and death. I love that a symbol that is unapologetically beautiful also has these layers of meaning.
I look to wall and cave painting histories because they expand our understanding of immersive artwork as an experience, a living place, even a magic tool. I try to live and work in that tradition, but when I am making my own murals and other immersive spaces, I’m interested in using as much fragmentation and incongruity as possible. I draw specifically from Western and Chinese art histories to populate these fragmented environments because it speaks to my personal history as an Asian American, a biracial person, and a person who grew up as an expatriate.
On September 9, you opened “Murmuration” at Morton Fine Art. Tell us a bit about the show.
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann: The show is made of paintings that explore identity, environment, and mythmaking through a deep dwelling with, and experimentation with, my materials. By combining weaving, paper folding, papercutting, and mosaic with sumi ink and acrylic painting, monoprint, silkscreen, woodcut, and etching, I explore what landscape can mean and glory in lushness, decoration, and fragmentation.
Could you pick a painting from the show and tell us about its creation process?
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann: “Swimming” is a painting on paper where I began the process like most of my work: with a pour. I built around the body of that pour with decorative imagery, botanical drawing, fiery halos … then folded the entire paper into a Miuri-Ori fold, which is a type of repetitive mountain/valley origami tesselation. I then continued to paint onto the folded paper, and the finished piece was pinned in place and framed. The treatment of the paper as a literal landscape, with mountains and valleys, at once confuses and makes literal the idea of the picture plane as a place of escape.
Is there ever a moment when you get very discouraged during your work, and how do you get past it?
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann: Every day in the studio that moment arrives, multiple times. I get past that by remembering that my stupidest ideas are usually my best ones.
What kind of opportunities interest you as an artist?
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann: Opportunities to push materials and scale.
What vision do you have for yourself in five years from now? Where do you see yourself as a practicing artist?
Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann: I hope in five years I will have evolved a direction that I wouldn’t be able to delineate right now.
“Murmuration” is on view through October 10, 2023, at Morton Fine Art in Washington, D.C.