Her career is in ruins Marina del Rey artist Flora Kao has divined artistic inspiration from decaying structures in the Mojave desert

By Michael Aushenker

Flora Kao’s rubbings of ruined buildings chronicle “the visual residue of failure and forgotten dreams”

Flora Kao’s rubbings of ruined buildings chronicle “the visual residue of failure and forgotten dreams”

Images of dilapidated shacks, houses and barns collapsing and imploding in the burning Mojave: In artist Flora Kao’s creative universe, where both natural landscapes and man-made structures have long worn out their welcome, home is not always where the heart is.

The objects of Kao’s obsession are some 100 miles away from the ocean-side community of Marina del Rey where she lives. Yet the authenticity of the blight and decay her art installations have captured has garnered the young artist her first solo museum exhibit, which wraps up Sunday at Pasadena Museum of California Art.

Kao described her “Homestead” show as a presentation of “the rubbings of ruined buildings evolved from my interest in mapping the topography of the land and its physical structures.”

Those life-size rubbings on canvas depict surfaces of wooden planked walls and beaten-down brick.

As Kao explains her process, the rubbings record a particular homestead’s surface “at a specific moment in its decay. My installation work is often a desperate attempt to capture something fleeting in a world where things are constantly changing and disappearing.”

The ultimate goal, she said, is “to inspire a heightened awareness of one’s relationship to physical space and environment.”

Kao has worked in a variety of mediums and has written and photographed two books, one on desert homesteads and another on the architectural traces of demolished homes in Taipei.

Four years ago, Kao took part in a symposium called “Mapping the Desert,” organized by the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts.

“The symposium took place within walking distance of the abandoned homesteads featured in my project,” she said. “These structures seemed so out of place in the expansive space of the desert, and I began to research how they came to be.”

Kao grew up “in the horizontal sprawl of Texas” before “studying in vertical Taipei, working in pedestrian-scale Boston, and living in car-bound Los Angeles,” all of which has “heightened my sensitivity to space. I am constantly examining my physical environment and questioning why cities and buildings look the way they do.”

Her Westside home has also been an inspiration.

“Living near the ocean and the rich wildlife of Ballona Creek is quite literally a breath of fresh air from the intense urban experience of Los Angeles,” she said.

What drives Kao’s fascination with her subject matter is the contrast between what is and the promise of what might have been.

“For me, the desert homestead is a physical reminder of a final wave of American manifest destiny — a 1950s land grab for five-acre tracts of expendable government land. The shack’s simple gabled form recalls the American dream for a single family home,” she said.

“My rubbing of this abandoned homestead is a poetic response to the inevitability of collapse,” she said. “It is a visual residue of failure and forgotten dreams.”

“Homestead” continues through Sunday at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena. Call (626)-568-3665 or visit pmcaonline.org.