Last year on a visit to the school, an old friend from L.A., collector Max Palevsky, and LACMA's curator of Japanese art, Robert Singer, saw one of her installations. They connected her with the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
"I'm very interested in showing artists [here] who are important in an international context," says Elsa Longhauser, director of the Santa Monica museum. "When I saw Pang's work and saw how beautiful it was, it made sense for us."
Today, Pang has brought along three catalogs of her shows from the 1980s--mostly expressionistic paintings--but she doesn't seem very interested in them, except as a paper trail of her career. She hints at years of psychotherapy and working out her frustrations through painting. In one series shown in Japan in 1989, she was exploring the "schizophrenia" of being torn between two, perhaps three cultures. In one work, a central figure reaches through a window toward a land decorated with an American flag and palm trees. The figure looks backward, toward maple trees and a mountain that looks like Fuji, with a melancholic expression. By 1992, Pang was questioning why she was painting at all. She gives a light, slightly dismissive laugh as she says, "It was all so self-involved."
Her current work, she feels, is not like that at all. "I felt I wanted to move people, to provide something nourishing to the soul," she says. "Working with natural material is like collaborating with a god."
Her studio in Hayama has a stockpile of things she has found on her walks. Usually, she ties objects together with thin, paper-coated wire, which she sometimes dyes to match the color of the natural material. In the case of the Santa Monica installation, she has dyed the wrapper a khaki color to go with the bamboo.
She still feels the pull of two cultures. And she admits that after years in the U.S., certain aspects of life in Japan--a lack of privacy, for example--is hard to adjust to. Still, she says, "I can make a living in Japan. I'm not sure I could here." Three times each month, she commutes from Hayama to Tokyo--about two hours each way--to teach her classes, but the rest of the time is her own, in her studio.
Her students at the Sogetsu School range from their 20s to their 70s, most of them are 50-plus--the age at which their children have finally left home and they have more time of their own. "I like them because they don't have time to waste, so they are very eager to learn," she says. "And when I say there's a difference between 'pretty'-- kirei --and 'beautiful'-- utsukushii-- they know, because they are mature enough."
And what is that difference?
The artist pauses. She ventures, "You recognize a life in every living creature, and not just a decorative thing."
"LIGA PANG: NEW WORK," Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building G1, Santa Monica. Dates: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Through Sept. 2. Admission: Free. Phone: (310) 586-6488.