As if I had anticipated a gloomy election season to conclude this year, back in late January, I worked on and finished a painting titled Apprehend, featuring a lonely bird, enclosed in a disorienting and confused space, sketchily defined by indistinct horizontal and vertical stripes of various thickness and shades of blue, black and yellow.
Oil on Canvas
Completed in 2016
The bird, in cautions pose, peers into the uncertain distance, seemingly full of expectation and comprehension, an apt metaphor of people in this traumatic post-election time.
My 2000 oil painting, Stairwell, is a monochromatic and atmospheric piece, which captures when early morning light, through side window, penetrates the darkness in a narrow stairwell, casting bright light into the confined, darkness permeated space. Though means of chiaroscuro, together with more subtle interplay of light and dark, I managed not only to have created an overall dramatic atmosphere, also given a clear definition to the tricky space through receding orders, and added depth and accenting details to the sparse and otherwise flat and dreary confinement.
This painting has been snatched away as soon as the paint dried, and last week I received this notification from Owen Wister Review of University of Wyoming:
The OWR would really like to publish your art pieces “Ink and Watercolor Lilies,” “Stairwell,” and “Rafting” in this year’s issue. The colors in your pieces spark emotion in the composition and the texturized strokes are memorable in your work. Attached is a consent form; if you agree please print the form, sign it and scan it back, then email it to us or send it in by mail. Again we really liked your work.
I am quite thrilled and grateful for the recognition.
I am very proud of my 2007 oil painting “Mackerel”, in which I managed to capture both beautiful and sinister elements of a daily object, fulfilling a most tantalizing pursuit of mine.
With its intense colors and bold strokes, this painting economically presents a sleekly fish, intently staring upwards, as if ready to confront its captor; at the meanwhile, its eye also betrayed the fish’s sad resignation to its imminent demise. The background of the painting was plain drop cloth, hatched lightly, and dominated by sickly greenish-yellow from the left and graduated to an intense blue to the right. The intense vertical blue patch also represents the deep water being turned upright, in a disorientated world.
Oil on Canvas
28″ x 22″
Completed in 2007
Just when the ill-conceived and ill-fated Iraq-invasion led by US president George W. Bush keeps and the prime minister of UK, Tony Blair, finally started to fade from our collective consciousness, it sprang back with vengeance in the tides of horrible stories and images.
Now, confronted with the terrifying aftermath of their reckless joint-decision, George W. Bush keeps mum, while Tony Blair tries desperately to white-wash his hands, yet however often he screamed “Out, damned spot! out, I say!”, his hands, together with those of GWB’s and Dick Cheney’s, would forever be stained with blood, gushed from the mangled bodies of US soldiers and Iraqi people.
During his horrible and incompetent presidency, George W. Bush (GWB) was often criticized as an imbecile ninny occupying a high office due to his fabulous family connection – his father Georg Bush was the president of the US from 1989 to 1993. To me, that argument was incorrect and way too benevolent. GWB did many horrible things not due to his stupidity, but his fundamental believe in those horrible things.
To me, this painting of mine below, The Triumph of Saint George, created during the time he was drumming up the invasion of Iraq in 2003, reflects what he was; the painting also jump-started my ongoing Apocalypse Series, to commemorate the miseries of humankind.
I had hoped that what I depicted in that painting would be simply a warning sign, rather than, unfortunately, a most awful prophecy as it turned out.
History will remember George W. Bush and Tony Blair, not kindly. As an artist, it was my duty to record and reflect the time I live in.
Painting portraits can be very challenging and rewarding – how to capture the spirits of the sitters, how to render the physiognomies and the postures faithfully yet with artists’s personal touches, how to connect the sitters to the viewers, and most importantly, to ensure the relevancy of painted portraits in the era of digital cameras and smartphones.
One of my best portraits was a group of young men, me in the middle and two college friends at the two sides of the canvas. We sat on stone benches, looking serious and somewhat despondent, and aimed our eyes away from another, into different directions. It was a moment of uncertainty, a private consultation in a group setting, a dialogue with oneself, and a congregation without exchanges. I titled it “Interaction”. My relatively broad brushstrokes rendered the bushes in the background a hallucinatory backdrop, and the deliberately bland facial features were economically outlined – a kind of abstraction.
Interaction / 交流 / Interaktion Oil on Canvas 30″ x 48″ Completed in 2002
I am quite proud of this work, as it captured the spirit of then Chinese collage students, who were facing very uncertain futures, in the age of political corruption and crackdown around the time of 1989 Tian’anmen (Tiananmen) Massacre and a very harsh economic future. I just posted a blog on my trip to Beijing during the time the martial law was about to be declared in Beijing and the ordeals my fellow students and I endured during the sit-in on Tian’anmen Square, which will explain more of the background story to this painting, a souvenir of my youth: 25 Years Later, Smell of Exhausted Tian’anmen “Warriors” Lingered.
This painting was selected for 23rd Annual National Juried Exhibition, Berkeley Art Center, July 23 – August 26, 2006.
My most accomplished painting to date is a portrait of an old woman, Grandma (2003), while its companion painting, Liberation Road (2010), is my most personal one.
This painting was based on a photo of my paternal great great grandmother, or maybe great grandmother, I do not really know for sure. She was a very elegant woman with a knowing look and her photo had often haunted me and caused me to wonder what had happened to her, to her family, to her descendants in the ensuring years – all those endless upheavals, wars, famine – human suffering of all kinds, from the end of the imperial time, the republican era and culminated in the so-called revolution in the mid-twentieth century. Furthermore, this painting also touched on the traumatic experiences my parents and my sibling and myself suffered in the iron grip of the Chinese Communist Party, or any totalitarian regime, even to this very day.
The left side of the painting showed ruined houses and railroads, balancing the right side of the portrait of my dignified grandmother. The horizontal road sign bisecting the painting read “Liberation Road”, yet at the end of the arrow, we saw a sorrow-stricken person, helplessly rested his/her head on the knees, anything but liberated. There was a similar figure, at the lower right of the painting, echoing this figure, in the same posture, though in profile.
I made this painting to pay tribute to my elegant ancestors who had striven to achieve personal enlightenment and successes and later suffered precisely for their achievements in the hands of the anti-intellectual and self-righteous puritanical Communist Party. By surrounding my great grandmother with ruins and other suffering people, I tried to demonstrate the scope of the destruction in the wake of the Communist Party.
I also made a short video (1:56) to present this rather haunting painting.
In order to show both the complete picture and its details as the “camera” panning across the canvas, I incorporated two video clips into one single final video and they can be played simultaneously. I deliberately kept my left clip static, so as to show the complete painting, while the right clip demonstrate the details, exactly as the video above.
I have always been drawn to the complex, intensely humane and deeply flawed characters in Greek mythology, and have made several paintings of based on several such figures, e.g. Minotaur, Daphne and Apollo, Helen of Troy, and Oedipus, etc.
One of my such efforts was an oil painting on the theme of Orpheus, one of the most famous musicians in human history, conceived while I was reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus.
That subject was a dangerous ground to tread into, because there were so many wonderful artworks had been created after this Orpheus myth, from paintings to operas; yet the lure of this myth and the reinterpretation by Rilke was so strong and irresistible, I pressed on.
My Orpheus was a collage of many variations of the much-told myth. My painting started with his descend into Hades to seek his beloved Eurydice, traveling on the River Styx. His lyre, which had persuaded Hades and Persephone to let Eurydice return to the earth, dominated the canvas. The lyre also took a shape of a strange animal, and was also a linkage to Apollo. After he had lost Eurydice for the second time, the grief driven Orpheus refused to entertain Dionysus’ followers who in their rages ripped him to pieces. His skull became an oracle and his flesh and bones were tossed into sky, scattered about and filled the universe with his music.
Thus the marriage of Apollonian and Dionysian spirits ushered in a new era.
The Song of Orpheus / 奧菲厄斯的歌 / Das Lied des Orpheus Oil on Canvas 30″ x 24″ Completed in 2010
I saw Orpheus as the means to bring joy and meaning to the world, through his irrepressible quest for love and his suffering, and ultimately his death. I saw his lyre singing and I saw his bones being scattered into the highest sphere, just like his notes would have crowned the heaven. Holy ointment burned in his skull, which had transformed into an oracle, rising up to dance with his ever higher notes. That’s The Song of Orpheus.
If I have to summarize my career as an artist, I would say that the biggest achievement I’ve attained was the creation of my portrait painting “Grandma”.
Grandma / 祖母 / Oma Oil on Canvas 40″ x 30″ Completed in 2003
This painting, created during the time when George W. Bush was drumming up to invade Iraq, despite the series opposition from the people within and without the US.
At the time, I was reading Günter Grass’s fantastic novel The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel), and was struck by a passage depicting the a protagonist’s old peasant grandma, whose presence in the novel, though not frequent, but impressive, due to the wonderful depiction of the author of her at various phases of her long life – many layers of her skirts, her peeling potatoes, the heated bricks
she used to stay warm, again, underneath her layers of skirts.
I have painted several portraits of old women. To me, they often can be categorized as sibyl, a word comes (via Latin) from the Greek word σίβυλλα sibylla, meaning prophetess. Old women are the personifications of mysterious wisdom and deep compassion, and the grandma in The Tin Drum was the personification of just that.
To generate a working-class and wise woman, I gave her a pair of large knotting hands and wrinkled face, and emphasized her stiff posture, against the equally thinly painted menacing sky, and somewhat comforting trees, whose monumentality again gave the grandma an air of a Greek goddess, all seeing, compassionate, and formidable.
The medium or media we choose to convey our deepest feelings and expressions, etc., however competent, can never fully convey the whole complicated concepts our brain formed mysteriously, thus the endless striving to meet the challenge, to do a better job still in the next given opportunity, thus the hunger to develop and grow as an artist, be it visual, musical compositional or a writing kind.
It also occurs often enough that one form of artistic creation, spurs on the re-interpretation with another media of either the whole story or a fleeting moment, not necessarily to prove a better job can be done; rather, to add another dimension to the engaging concept while hoping to complement the original.
I have been stimulated, on multiple occasions, by novels I read, sometimes the whole atmosphere of the book, such as Blindness by José Saramago, or sometimes, just a specific passage which may not even be pivotal in the whole scheme, such as my newly completed oil painting, Arabesque, inspired by a passage from The Known World by Edward P. Jones: “… looked over at the open chiffarobe [sic], whose door was broken and so would never close properly, looked at the black dress hanging there. It seemed to have its own life, so much life that it could have come down and walked over and placed itself over her body. Fastened itself.”
Arabesque / 阿拉伯風 / Arabeske Oil on Canvas 28″ x 22″ Completed in 2013
I actually was quite stirred by the passage and the image just flooded into my mind. Incidentally, this painting also fell into a painting scheme of mine – I have been working on a series of “White Dresses”, which I saw as both liberated and restricted, at once individual and impersonal, simultaneously beautiful and sinister. Now it started the companion series “Black Dress”.