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An American Export at Home in Futurist Shanghai

Chinese-American microbiologist Robert Mah discredits the conventional wisdom that thought processes fueling art and science are relegated to opposing sides of the brain.

For the last 15 years, since retiring from decades teaching college-level science courses, Mah has morphed into a respected abstract expressionist painter. Locally, he is represented at Marion Meyer Fine Art in Laguna Beach, where he also maintains a weekend home.

During a visit last year to Shanghai, where his wife Adeline had grown up, the couple met Jane Chang and Jonathan Chen, developing the Holiday Inn Shanghai West hotel. When they saw photographs of Mah’s large abstract painting “Algal Rhythms” and catalogs of his other paintings, they commissioned him to create a similar work for the hotel’s lobby. The result is “Curvilinear Algal Rhythms,” a spectacular canvas filled with flowing lines and abstract forms vaguely reminiscent of Jackson Pollock with a dash of Sam Francis. (Five other Mah paintings from MMFA have also been bought for the hotel.)

“The feeling of the painting is aquatic, evoking the ocean and the plant life in it. The title is my own private joke, an allusion to my past passion for the anaerobic organisms that keep the ocean and the rest of our planet alive,” he said.

Shirley Feiwell, a collector of modern California art (Sam Francis, Roy Liechtenstein, Charles Arnoldi, Roberth Motherwell, the Venice School) said that she found a feeling and rhythm in Mah’s latest work that is almost musical. “I can delve into his paintings entirely and find solace and pause,” she said. “They are both eye catching and uplifting.”

During graduate school, Mah came to specialize in studying organisms capable of living without oxygen, instrumental in recycling the waste generated by other life forms. “Many of my paintings reflect what I spent years observing through microscopes and also that the years in grad school were the happiest of my life,” he explained.

Mah, 78, was born in Fresno. He discovered his love for science in high school and earned a PhD in microbiology from UC Davis. But, he always had an interest in art and carried a sketchbook.

As an assistant professor teaching at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), he began to seriously study art, including ceramics and painting. “Painting opened a whole new door of creativity, especially at a time when young people could use and do anything they wanted to be creative,” he recalled.

He returned to Los Angeles in 1971 to teach microbiology at UCLA. There, he met Adeline, an anesthesiologist. During the years the couple raised their family, art went on the back burner. When they both retired, his wife turned to writing and he returned to brushes. Their daughter, Ann Mah, is the author of “Kitchen Chinese,” the life story of two sisters connected to their roots by their mother’s recipes.

The couple has opened their Laguna Beach home to emerging writers needing a sanctuary. Andrew Winer wrote his recently published “The Marriage Artist” in the sweeping contemporary structure with an ocean and canyon view.

Mah’s painting has transitioned from black and gray geometry and lyrical black and white landscapes that contain visual elements of Chinese brush painting to the current, color-saturated abstractions that perhaps most successfully evidence the mindset of a spontaneous artist and a disciplined scientist.

Gallerist Marion Cuddyer was first drawn to Mah’s geometric work and had no idea what was going to come later.  “His evolution has been fascinating. As a former physics major, I can identify with his scientific roots and with what I would describe as careful spontaneous calculation. What looks like a happy accident is really the result of skill and vision,” she said.

Both she and Mah point to the international appeal of his work. “Abstract Expressionism is the quintessential American art form and yet it fits right into a futuristic city like Shanghai,” said Mah. “I see myself as American with Chinese cultural sensitivities and all my references are Western, except for my cooking,” he said.

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