My little idyllic painting, Brook, depicted a thin stream snaking through a quiet grove, seen through imposing placed black trunks in the foreground, and enclosed by delicate silhouettes in the background, behind shimmering bright light like a liquid curtain. The sedate creek, painted impasto, with paints dragged downward rough bottom edges, as if a living creature planting its roots or sinking its teeth into the meadow; meanwhile, its varying somber colors, and the impossible spatial relationship between the tree trunks and the seemingly floating creek forks, simultaneously ups and downs, and in front of and behind those tree trunks, created a sense of disorientation, uneasiness, and otherworldliness.
Immediately after the devastating 2016 US presidential election, I was in the grip of a stark vision, when innocent and powerless people were rounded up by oppressive strongman regime, and that was the inception of my new project, “Our Winter of Discontent”, to capture the image of miserable, unhappy, discontent, and angry people, whose almost anonymous heads, shut behind a sprawling web of barbed wire, and oppressed by menacing dark clouds from above. This vision was not paranoid fiction; it was based on observation of Donald Trump’s increasingly divisive and hateful rhetorics leading to his ascension, which reaffirmed the ugly political and cultural reality of the almost apocalyptic US.
The world at large had been threatened by the rising totalitarian and nationalistic trends, and the diminishing of liberal democracy, and the situation only got worse by the day, under the weight of Donald Trump’s daily assault on democracy, free press, and rule of law, etc. My warning vision had become a sad prophecy, when many asylum seekers and their underage children were brutally separately, and summarily detailed. And thing could only get worse, and those behind the barbed wires could well extend beyond those “illegal migrants”.
A good vision doesn’t necessarily lead to good painting. After many months’ struggle, I put aside my first attempt, which became somewhat too belabored, and a bit unyielding, and started over with version two. Yet, though satisfying to a certain degree, it became a bit regimented, less spontaneous, and also a bit removed from my vision of a manic world of disorder.
Learned my lessons from those two attempts, I started a third version, and it largely achieved what I set out to document, with proper unsettling and fluid visual style matching our disturbing and depressing zeitgeist.
Here, the final product, “Our Winter of Discontent”.
A vision serendipitously visited me, and my subsequent partially-successful effort to capture it, resulted in a sparse and drawing like oil painting, Birches. The vision I pursued was a field of blurry birch woods, with the outlines of those slender white trunks emerging and disappearing constantly into darker background, as if the constant ripples of a vast waterbody. My final painting looked almost like the negative of that vision – bright serene background, on which floated silhouettes of several birch trunks, branches, and leaves, isolated or in clusters, in panoramic view, or zoomed-in detail.
When artists strive to make things new, we can not and should not completely remove ourselves from the past or tradition. Often, the sediments of the past lend more meanings and poignancy to our new endeavors, or our new interpretations.
One of the greatest living artists Anselm Kiefer, is such an example who is steeped in tradition, and I was often moved by the historical resonances he brought forth to his monumental paintings, often through motifs connecting the past to the present, or the future. One of his striking paintings can be seen in SFMOMA, Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion), placed a tin bathtub in a desolate field, containing several battleships. According to a curator, the manufacturer of those domestic bathtubs, was also manufacturer of weapons used in WWII by the Nazi armies. Such deft reference was a master stroke of Kiefer’s.
That painting, particularly its intriguing bathtub, left a strong impression on me, and it compelled me to record my understanding and imagination grew out of Kiefer’s motif, and led to a painting which I simply named as Anselm Kiefer’s Bathtubs, which was populated with several of such bathtubs in various planes and angles, as if floating on an open sea or in the space. Inside the central tub, a lonely-looking naked man hunched over and hugged his knees. The occupied bathtub, though surrounded by its “peers”, who were obviously in disagreement with one another, and rendered its lone occupier quite isolated and vulnerable.
Such painting is also my tribute to a leading artist of our time.
My recent painting Modern Man is a portrait of a faceless man (or a woman) — dark, brooding, and quite uncertain — who symbolizes the anxiety-ridden man or woman of our uneasy and quite dangerous time, who’s willingly or unwillingly blind, and can only stumble along in the deep fog from which he or she could never escape. The world is a trap.
My painting Colony depicted a roughly sketched tight grid, in which several skeletal ants nervously roam around these low barriers. The whole painting was awash in a cold and almost sinister bluish green, and the insects were barely discernible at the first glance, as they seemed to have merged with the thin grids underneath their wiry bodies. The painting was a bit starling as it presented the ants in close-up, and they looked rather monstrous in their enormities.
This painting is currently in a Group exhibition Color Speaks (Sep. 23, 2017 – Jan. 20, 2018), in the vibrant art district of Downtown Berkeley.
My recently painting New Century’s Shangri-La is rather visually intriguing — a colorful and orderly semi-abstract landscape/cityscape, serene and paradisal, being menaced by heavy dark storms swirling above, which threaten to crush down at any moment and bring havoc to the orderly world below. The ironic title unfortunately aptly described the state of our world, if not yet today, soon tomorrow.
My monochromatic painting Procession is a visually engaging and topically challenging work, which depicts a group of fantastic birds, treading despondently in a nondescript and barren landscape, carrying a dead companion in the middle of their solemn funeral procession. The overwhelming sadness was manifested in the starkly contrasted white and black color scheme, and the bend and stretched postures of those dejected birds, from gigantic to tiny. The loose brushstrokes and the lack of the last measure of definition, also contributed to the unreal and dreamy atmosphere.
Despite some success of my 2015 painting Waft, which was recently published by Pomona Valley Review (Volume 11, Summer 2017), I clearly saw rooms for improvement, and recently I made a new version of the painting, titled Wafting — much darker and more dramatic, with additional whimsicality and humor, lent by the black flakes, resembling playful butterflies, darting above the little girl, who was, as in the 2015 version, running away from the viewer, holding strings tied to floating human balloons, all in the shape of young women dressed in pure white, against much darker and more ominous background, as if in the process of awakening or drowning. I believe that the latter effort was psychologically more penetrating and indeed a big improvement.
The inspiration of my 2017 oil painting, Autumns Impression was a photo I chance encountered – a room of eerie green light, resembling electric currents, against a background of a irregular pattern of wavering pink tiles. Besides the striking color palette, I was also intrigued by the shifting spatial relationship between the light and the background, thus moved to commit my appreciation to canvas.
Naturally, I would not ape the photograph; rather, the photo served as a springboard for me to “record” my vision.The painting soon departed from the electric glow, and morphed into an impressionistic abstract landscape, and reached a state that I could stop and consider the project complete, though the painting was not truly satisfying.
With layers of additional paints applied to the canvas, it moved further away from the inspiration and my initial attempt. Now, the colors of painting somewhat recalled what I saw in Yosemite National Park I visited last fall, therefore, a new resolution presented itself and I happily complied.
I managed to find the good balance of recalling the spirit of a slightly unhinged forest or meadow, softened by some darting patches of rather joyous colors, without being slavishly realistic. It’s a recollection of memories and emotions. The spatial relationship of many elements and colors of the painting, though not the same as the photograph, was also similarly intriguing.