As onlookers stroll down University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto, Qualia Contemporary Art Gallery will certainly catch their eye. The medley of the paintings’ colors juxtaposed with the sleek bright-white gallery decor invites passersby to take a peek inside. Within the gallery, guests find themselves in a spacious room lined with paintings from Oakland artists Cate White’s “Here to Returnity” and Sean Howe’s “Inhabitants.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly scrambled our way of living, but local art still prevails. Owned and directed by Dacia Xu, the Qualia Contemporary Art Gallery has successfully launched two exhibitions after opening during the pandemic.
Qualia Contemporary Art is now presenting two solo exhibitions by artists Stella Zhang and Yulia Pinkusevich from Feb. 11 to April 2.
Dacia Xu, co-owner and director of Qualia, oversees all of the daily operations involving the promotion and organization of the gallery. Xu manages lighting, sound or video, as needed, and remains at the gallery to answer questions from its many visitors.
Xu meets visitors ranging in age from 14 months to 80 years and finds her job rewarding and heartening because of the connections she makes with those from all walks of life.
“[A] fourteen-month-old boy sat in [a] stroller and got very excited when he saw [the] paintings,” Xu said. “Many people would come to tell me how happy they are to discover this gallery and how much they enjoy the exhibition … and share their opinions about specific artworks.”
“Here to Returnity” and “Inhabitants” is Xu’s second exhibition at Qualia, showcasing Cate White and Sean Howe.
“Cate White’s work explores contemporary societal issues. ‘Here to Returnity,’ is a series of mixed media on canvas pieces that set her personal experiences with the structural inequalities in [her] daily life,” Xu said. “‘Inhabitants’ is a surreal body of work created from 2017-2020 that capture[s] the beautiful, overwhelming complexities and relationships that exist within nature. It plays with both hope and anxiety regarding the natural world.”
“I want my work to be accessible to people across social strata, to evoke deeper cultural conversations that could contribute to collective healing.”
— Cate White, artist
Even though both artists’ works explore separate mediums, Xu recognizes that they share a common theme.
“While Howe and White are distinctively different artists with their own unique styles, the two exhibitions are actually in dialogue with and complement each other,” Xu said. “They share a strong sense of freedom, fluidity and inventiveness in exploring new possibilities for our world.”
Howe and White’s collection are the gallery’s second exhibition since its establishment on University Avenue in 2020.
Cate White, an Oakland resident, is one of the artists currently featured at the gallery. White’s art explores a plethora of philosophical, cultural and social perspectives — each lucidly illustrated in materials ranging from acrylic to spray paint to latex.
White “takes her own personal history and experiences, as well as those of her friends, and places them within the art historical canon,” according to Qualia’s website.
The subjects of White’s work share a clarity that makes the audience feel a sense of intimacy with each painting. For her inspiration, White draws on the figures and events around her.
“I paint myself, people I’m close to and archetypal, symbolic figures,” White said. “I haven’t painted much from my past life or childhood, but I plan to very soon.”
White worked as a creative writer until, at the age of 30, she realized that she preferred working with shades of paint instead of the rhetoric of language.
“The visual world came alive in a way that inspired me to want to be creative in that way,” White said. “I wanted to have a voice in the culture, and then with the painting that came, I kind of realized, okay, this is going to be my thing.”
“They share a strong sense of freedom, fluidity and inventiveness in exploring new possibilities for our world.”
— Dacia Xu, Qualia Contemporary Art Gallery owner
Though White has promoted various collections in multiple galleries, her favorite paintings are her most recent ones. Of these, “The Problem” stands out due to its unambiguous reflection of society to its viewers.
The piece depicts a Black woman pushing a baby in a stroller, unfazed by the tumultuous metropolitan environment around her. Though she encounters all sorts of challenges, undaunted, she holds her head up high in defiance.
“I just feel like that one has a certain just visual clarity in it, a kind of emotional, psychological clarity,” White said.
The emboldened yet delicate nature of White’s artwork communicates the focal points of her purpose.
“I want my work to be accessible to people across social strata, to evoke deeper cultural conversations that could contribute to collective healing,” White said.
Sean Howe is an up-and-coming Bay Area artist presenting his second solo exhibition, “Inhabitants.” The Oakland-based creator has been painting professionally for over 20 years, and featured his first exhibit in 2006 in Italy.
Howe’s style of art is detailed yet abstract; reminding one of nature’s simplicity, while still sweeping the viewer into a journey through Howe’s imagination and into urban contemporary masterpieces.
“I have an interest in ecological sciences and animals of the forest, particularly. Maybe that’s [because of] my Washington background,” Howe said. “When I’m in the studio, which is often indoors, I start to make up my own little ecologies that are somewhat inspired by what I see out there, and somewhat just entirely imaginative.”
Howe’s “Inhabitants” portrays his interpretation of a middle ground, and the types of beings that occupy that space, varying from animals to completely imaginative creatures. Howe’s paintings — mostly in acrylics or oil — range in sizes and themes, yet connect through his overarching theme of discovering a more neutral territory.
Howe’s centerpiece, “Inhabitants of the Middle,” focuses on a creature gazing into its setting, and encompassing it are these unknown, abstract beings, yet beings that seem vaguely familiar.
“I kind of swirl around there, it’s almost the representation coming from an abstract, primordial kind of being into a more crystallized, animalistic form,” Howe said. “These kinds of elements that are gray and silhouettes that just jump out of the painting… all these kinds of abstract shapes that kind of blend in and start to pop out… [showing] the middle kind of as occupying like a space between foreground and background.”
This piece laid the groundwork for Howe’s entire exhibition. Many of the other paintings depict more inhabitants from Howe’s interpretation of the middle ground.
“Inhabitants was a good title, because essentially, these are cosmologies [from] little worlds,” Howe said. “So I wanted to clue people in that sort of what you’ll see when you enter might be a living animal, similar to yourself, [but] very different.”