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.
Missing making art in a community and the interaction with fellow artists, I decided to participate in a painting workshop, and one of the assignments was a small diptych, with one of them to have more and the other less paint. I did my best to capture the fear and resilience of people under threat from Coronavirus. This diptych is aptly titled “19”.
14”x11” & 14”x11”
Oil on Canvas
Completed in 2020
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?
In recent decades, the economic inequality in the world, propelled by the ever-greedy corporations and individuals, and aided or even championed by purchased colluding governments of various dominances and ideologies, has widened drastically, and the divide between the haves and have-nots has become such an insurmountable gulf that the people behind are increasingly unable to sustain themselves, let alone catching up with those sitting on top of the socioeconomic pyramid. My The Desolate Souls of Main Street attempt to give a tiny protesting voice to the voiceless and faceless downtrodden, whose dire situation, in contrast to the mind-boggling glitzy world of the gilded, is as heart-wrecking as it is damning.
My small gouache painting Weave served as a little window to a bigger universe, literally and figuratively, opening to a vast expanse of sky and ocean, which emerged from alternating tall windows and hedges in the foreground. The painting is quite still, as it was dominated by the forlorn and hushed landscape; yet it was also dynamic, with the sky streaked with dark clouds, and blue ocean interrupted by light and dark waves, and the hedges grew wild and almost hallucinative, twisting their relationship to the windows and the outside world into optical confusion. One small relief was the disc of the sun floating atop, providing a counterpoint to the dissonance below, even though its presence, obscured somewhat by wisps of clouds, was rather bleached.
Dream Forest continued my exploration of monochromatic paintings consisting of interlocking patterns and shades, some simple, some more intricate. This small gouache painting depicted an imaginary forest at night time, when moon light shimmered over truncated trunks and branches, contrasting starkly with dark surrounding. Also, the image somehow resembled a microscopic view of organism, a tiny sliver of macrocosm.
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.
A horizontal canvas divided into two zones, upper part is a white space being invaded by dark clouds from top, while the lower half uniformly dark. Connecting and separating these two spaces are five slightly wilting white flowers, caught in the no man’s land between these contrasting zones, with some of these flowers disintegrating and dipping further into the innermost of the dark space, like invading roots grew into hidden soil. This highly contrasting painting, C Major, depicts a world which was both harmonious and polarized, and the little exchange of these two worlds simultaneously terrifies and entices. Additional layers of lines, spots, and scratch marks, give the painting a patina of an aged photograph.
C major, one of the most common key signatures used in western music, was often the key for many Masses and settings of Te Deum in the Classical era, such as works by Haydn and Mozart. Without flats and sharps, C Major perfectly encapsulates the seemingly absolute separation of order and chaos. Though a bit dated and fading, like an old family album, we still yearn for it, for its orderliness and predictability, which seems forever beyond reach; in today’s world, no matter which key dominates, dissonance persists.
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”.
Our Winter of Discontent
Oil on Canvas
22” x 28”
Completed in 2018