"Renee Lai: A Study of Fences" at grayDUCK Gallery

In her grayDUCK Gallery solo exhibition, the artist considers not only what these barriers keep out but also what gets through them

Near and Far, by Renee Lai (Courtesy of grayDUCK Gallery)

Artist Renee Lai is on the fence about fences. What exactly is their purpose? In "A Study of Fences," on view now at grayDUCK Gallery, Lai attempts to answer this question through a series of paintings and drawings based on the enclosures in her own Austin neighborhood.

"At night they look almost threatening, with sharp points, but in the day they turn into such mundane structures," she observes. "I'm interested in that switch and the way the same shapes can hold different emotional registers."

Lai, who is originally from Spring, Texas, recalls seeing fencing everywhere while growing up. As a college student in rural New England, she was surprised by the more open, uninterrupted landscape. It got her thinking about access to spaces and the boundaries we create.

"A Study of Fences" is as much about invisible barriers as physical ones: what gets included and what gets excluded in the vision of American society. Lai says the symbolic nature of a fence took on new sinister urgency back in 2016 with the divisive rhetoric around building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

But instead of Trump's border wall, Lai looks to the white picket fence as America's first line of defense. Her black-and-white painting Suburbia emits a certain neighborhood hypervigilance, as does the drawing Picket Fence Portrait IV, with its creepy carceral vibe. A friendly facade of fresh paint, she notes, disguises a "deeper fear of anything that might try to invade the carefully controlled territory of the American home."

Barrier VII, one of the more abstract pieces on display, does away with fences altogether in pursuit of unseen barriers. Lai has chosen simple materials (graphite, ink, a clear primer) that allow the natural quality of the canvas to come through. The canvas, however, has been torn in two, an insert hand-sewn into its center, thick black button thread suturing the surface. These countless stitches – a project which took Lai six months to complete – might easily be overlooked from afar. Painstaking pencil lines, relentless in their repetition, barely leave a mark.

But sometimes a fence is just a fence, like the one in Near and Far, which pulls you in from across the room with its mellow silhouette against a fading sky. A bit of space between the boards gives the whole thing surprising sway. The lines in this painting – as in most of her paintings – deserve a closer look. Lai tells me that as a young girl, she enjoyed playing with Chinese ink sets; that early informal training clearly carried over into what she's doing now.

In the back part of the gallery, a sudden shift: Three bamboo paintings burst with calligraphic vigor. The brushwork totally loosens up as nature takes over. These organic forms are a nice juxtaposition to her other structures, a leafy alternative to securing one's privacy. Bamboo, Moonlight is still drying on the wall when I visit, the smell of fresh paint like a sign of spring.

Since the lockdown began last March, Lai has noticed more fences going up in her neighborhood. They tend to be medium height, somewhat sturdy, kinda friendly. She still wonders about their purpose and that white picket politeness. What gets kept out, but even more so, what gets through.

"Renee Lai: A Study of Fences"

grayDUCK Gallery, 2213 E. Cesar Chavez, 512/826-5334
Through Feb. 7

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More grayDUCK Gallery
"Amada Miller: Everything in Tune" at grayDUCK Gallery
The San Antonio-based artist's new show rings lunar and true

Sept. 18, 2020

"Sarah Fox: Bruisers" at grayDUCK Gallery
In this solo show, boys will be boys, sometimes, and sometimes also horses

Wayne Alan Brenner, Nov. 22, 2019

More Arts Reviews
Art Review: “Masters: Calder and Dalí”
Art Review: “Masters: Calder and Dalí”
Rare gems get the chance to shine at Ao5

Cat McCarrey, July 19, 2024

Art Review: “Encounters in the Garden”
Art Review: “Encounters in the Garden”
Laredo-based artist renders open interaction with the unfamiliar

Lina Fisher, July 12, 2024

More by Barbara Purcell
Deborah Hay's New Work for Dancers in Sweden Was a Long-Distance Creation
Deborah Hay's New Work for Dancers in Sweden Was a Long-Distance Creation
The pandemic forced the Austin choreographer to adapt her dance and even premiere for an audience of no one

Sept. 10, 2021

Artist Calder Kamin Envisions
Artist Calder Kamin Envisions "A World Without Waste"
With animals crafted from plastic bags, the Austin native turns our eyes to nature

July 2, 2021


grayDUCK Gallery, Renee Lai

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle