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Playful art dominates new UT exhibit

Luke Quinton
'Dip' by Beili Liu

When I ran into Austin artist Beili Liu standing near her new installation at the University of Texas' Visual Arts Center a "tusk" of curved wood that balances (alarmingly) on nylon rope strung up to a far wall she told me something that the gallery probably wishes I wouldn't pass along: It's a lot more stable than it looks. "You can touch it, actually."

"It won't fall," Liu said, plucking the white nylon, sending the dark wood vibrating. And it didn't. Each side just traded little spasms, back and forth until they both went still.

Naturally, I had to give this a shot. (I mean, at the artist's invitation, who wouldn't?). It's amazing. There's nothing attaching the wood and rope. It just hangs in a slight dip at the rope's balance point, perfectly still, with both tips pointing to the floor.

Staring at it feels fierce and daring, but delicate too. There is something sublime and heart-stopping about the shape and precariousness of "Dip," as it's called. Discovering it's not as dainty as expected just adds another layer.

And Liu is just a fraction of the VAC's display this semester. Her piece opens a gallery of work by Chinese American artists' video, sculpture, prints and paintings. And it splits the upstairs with another successful juried show from the International Print Center New York — prints on every surface imaginable, from rice paper to hanging carcasses of "meat" printed on foam (less gross than you're thinking).

This semester's artist-in-residence is the critically acclaimed young sculptor Diana Al-Hadid, whose work "Suspended After Image" dominates the vaulted main room.

At first the piece is an undefined architectural shape, with steps leading up to porous boxes and "invisible stairs," that are revealed only because they're framed by dripping paint.

It's rough and ragged, as though it's sprinkled with wax. It seems complex, but when we spoke, Al-Hadid explained the piece in the simplest way possible. "I wanted to make a sculpture out of a painting."

Aha. The key. Angle your head just right and you can see the "painting" from the main doors. A decorative cloak tumbles down the white steps (it was inspired by a Gothic painting from an unknown Spanish artist). To the right there's a giant white figure encased in the steps like a half-finished Michelangelo sculpture. The drips of paint frame a waterfall that appears to be falling just behind the figure's (missing) head.

But tilt your perspective and this image changes. "When you walk around the back you see the paint's pulled away from the surface," said Al-Hadid. It expands into a series of stacked boxes with little pools of paint, hovering above the structure.

It's among Al-Hadid's more linear works, with clean lines running out from the steps. Completed with the help of a dozen UT student assistants and a few of her own, "Suspended After-Image" is the manifestation of the artist's visionary imagination.

Al-Hadid's typical tagline is "Syrian-born artist," a calling card that is both accurate and overstated, she explained. "The irony is that I look at so much Western art history that in the percentage of my work there's probably 5 percent that's a direct reference to Syria."

It's there to see, in the spires that appeared in her past work, and in her dripping paint walls here that recall the screens common in Islamic architecture. But the work has much more to do with Gothic and Renaissance painting.

"I'm not negotiating with my identity in such a focused way," she said. The Syrian angle "can be a pretty thick lens," if that's all people want to see.

Her family moved from Syria when Al-Hadid was six. Her parents have extended family and friends there now, suffering and worrying about the armed conflict that's taken over the country, but since moving to America Al-Hadid's parents have never returned.

"I'm not a refugee," she said. "I grew up in Ohio, and no one ever asks me about Ohio."

"Diana Al-Hadid: Suspended After Image" and "Across the Divide"