The latest exhibit to open at the Albany Institute of History & Art plays with color and scale, drawing in viewers with its vivid palette.
Titled “The Four Elements of Leigh Li-Yun Wen,” the exhibition is a retrospective of the Taiwanese-American artist that includes more than 40 works, including paintings, sculptures, dresses and more.
Wen received her MFA from UAlbany in 1994 before serving as a cultural ambassador during the Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations. Her work has been on view at 18 American embassies and other governmental institutions over the years.
The Albany Institute has had one piece of Wen’s work in its collection since the late 1990s after the painting received recognition in the “Mohawk Hudson Regional” exhibit. The piece has sporadically been on display over the years. However, “The Four Elements” is the first substantial exhibit the Institute has done on Wen’s work and it’s the first retrospective of her work in the United States since 1993.
“Leigh and I have talked about hosting an exhibition like this for years and it’s thrilling to be able to finally have her works assembled together here at the museum, in a city where Leigh spent so much time developing into her own as an artist,” said Tammis Groft, Albany Institute’s executive director.
Plans for the exhibition were delayed a great deal by the pandemic since all of Wen’s work had to be transported from Taiwan to Albany on a shipping container. During a recent tour of the exhibition, Wen spoke about the challenges of getting the artwork to the Institute; she had to secure a shipping container a year in advance and while it was supposed to take three and a half weeks to make the journey, it took three and a half months.
Despite the challenges, it was important to her to have her work on view in Albany.
“My career started in the Capital Region with great support from the art community. Now after years of exhibiting abroad I feel it’s important to return to where my artistic practice began,” Wen said in a statement.
Since the start of her career, she has been interested in the four elements, and that interest is reflected in nearly all of her works. It’s perhaps most obvious in sculptures like “The Water Cylinder” where each element is distinctly represented; earth is reflected in the porcelain, water in the blue color and movement painted on the sides, fire and air are reflected in red and white rings around the top of the towering piece.
In other works, she contemplates her experiences living in the U.S. and Taiwan. One series of paintings included in the exhibit are all done on repurposed shipping crates, some with brand names like Chateau Carbonnieux or Sena on the side. Wen depicts rich red skies and calming ocean scenes on the crates with her distinctive use of line.
Using a stylus, she carves lively lines into the paint on all of her canvases to create a sense of movement; drawing the eye from one edge of the canvases to another. Throughout the entire exhibit, one can see that Wen’s technique has remained the same over the last two decades, with these carved lines reflected in most of the works on view.
Elsewhere in the exhibit, Wen plays with scale. Along one wall hangs an expansive painting depicting an iceberg, with blue-green veins crackling down the sides of the ice. In another painting not too far away, a single pink peony is magnified so that it’s nearly the same size as the mountainous iceberg.
Toward the back of the exhibit, an entire wall features gigantic flowers, from lady slippers to sunflowers. Their colors are so vibrant they almost seem to glow, especially when compared to the bleak white wintery mix of snow and ice outside the Institute. Partly for that reason, “The Four Elements” is a transportive exhibit that’s arrived at perhaps just the right time for Capital Region viewers. It will be up through June 19. For more information visit albanyinstitute.org.