Starting this horizontal group portrait in a somewhat more upbeat time, employing a colorful palette, I aimed to create a group of people engaged in dialogues and interactions. However, during the painting process, those figures took more and more an air of despondency, and the vibrant colors started to become untruthful and had to fade. A couple of months later, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the piece was finally completed, it had morphed into a monochromatic nightmarish hallucination, featuring some sketchily painted heads, shrouded in white gauze, turning into different directions, strikingly silhouetted against pitch dark background, and emoting resignation, sadness, and anger. Though compressed in space, they seemed hardly related to one another, and remained in utter isolation; a party without conversation. To their left, a jumble of cantilevered structures protruded from the distance, adding an atmosphere of foreboding and disintegration. This painting ended with a sad wailing note, aptly echoing the signs reverberating in our daunting time.
At first glance, Emergence is a calm sliver of routine life due to the simplicity of its composition and color scheme; upon closer inspection, what emerged from this picture was not so simple, rather it revealed something indecipherable and with a hint of sinisterness: against a sparse backdrop, a few curious looking, semi-translucent figures floated like ghosts from behind thin vertical bars, which made the whole landscape reminisce of a jail cell, despite the openness of those bars. What was emerging? Inner strength? Outside menace? Guilty conscience? Or stoical indifference to anyone’s fate?
Away is a fantastical portrait of a young man, whose striking features outlined in broad and loose strokes, staring at viewers unflinchingly. Lifting the portrait beyond realism realm were two white patches hovering just below the sitter’s eyes, as if two small wings had grew out of his deep thoughts and were ready to bear him away, from the confinement of the tight space allotted to him, from the heavy vertical bars on both sides, and from the ruined bridge and houses on the corners of top right and lower left, respectively, testaments of some traumatic past.
Immediately after the devastating 2016 US presidential election, I was in the grip of a stark vision, in which innocent and powerless people were rounded up by an oppressive strongman regime. That was the inception of my new project, “Our Winter of Discontent”, to evoke an assembly of miserable, discontent, and angry people, behind a sprawling web of barbed wire and menaced by dark clouds from above. This vision was not paranoid fiction; it was based on observation of Donald Trump’s increasingly divisive and hateful rhetoric, which led to his capture of the presidency, and reaffirmed the ugly political and cultural reality of an almost apocalyptic US.
The world at large had been threatened in recent years by rising totalitarian and nationalistic trends, and the diminishing of liberal democracy. The situation worsened every day as I painted, under the weight of Trump’s daily assault on democracy, free press, the rule of law, etc. My warning vision became a sad prophecy, as many asylum seekers and their young children were brutally separated, and summarily detained. It seemed — and seems now — that things could only get worse, that those behind the barbed wire fences could well include U.S. citizens and legal immigrants, not only those deemed “illegal.”
A good vision doesn’t necessarily lead to good painting. After many months’ struggle, I put aside my first attempt, which had become 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.
Having learned my lessons from those two attempts, I started a third version, and it achieved what I set out to document, with an unsettling and fluid visual style that matches our disturbing and depressing zeitgeist.
Here, the final product, “Our Winter of Discontent”.
The painting was completed before the world was assaulted by the novel Coronavirus, and most brutally affected in countries whose leaders are waging wars against science, and suppressing free press and truth. The painting was created before the tsunami of “Black Lives Matter” protests took hold in the US. But it evokes, or perhaps portends, the suffering and struggle that rolls on ceaselessly through human history.
These are the emotions and historical trends, my painting “Our Winter of Discontent” is trying to capture and reflect.
Our Winter of Discontent
Oil on Canvas
22” x 28”
Completed in 2018
A giant verdant tree, erect on its strong and knobbly roots, full of colorful chairs hanging from its riotously wide-spreading branches, is quite a heartwarming congregation. Warm and deep colors intertwined with shades cool and pale, helps to create modulating and shifting moods.
Despite joyous colors of those chairs, their positions are somewhat precarious, manifested in a lone chair underneath the seemingly carefree gathering, clinging to the roots of the tree — knocked down, a fallen one, or a cast out one? It would be up to viewers to interpret.
Apropos viewer’s perception, I was also somewhat surprised to hear from a friend on how disturbing the painting was. Those swinging chairs, somewhat called more disturbing images to his mind — hanging bodies swinging in high branches, echoing those from war times documented by Goya, or from not so distant periods of concentrated lynching, whose records were fading fast from our collective memory. This linkage to the darkness was so serendipitous, that even I needed such illumination. Apparently, my intention, combining with viewers’ interpretation, could have generated much more interesting dialogue, thus create another form of congregation.
This painting currently is being exhibited at Berkeley Central Arts Passage, as part of the Unity show (June 16th – October 13th, 2018)
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 a 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 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.
My 2015 painting Waft features, against an empty and nondescript landscape, a very small girl in the lower right corner of the vertical canvas, running away from the viewers, while holding strings tied to floating human balloons, all in the shape of young women dressed in pure white, in postures of awakening or drowning. Was it a hopeful dream, or a potentially nightmare? It is up to the viewers to decide. Perhaps, what I captured was the the hope and trepidation of a very young person at that cusp of growing into herself, while facing a future unknown.
This painting was chosen as cover art and as a featured piece on page 19 by Pomona Valley Review (Volume 11), published by California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, in July 2017.