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”.
I hope that this small diptych, double portraits of a mask-wearing man and a woman, alert, vigilant, a tad fearful, yet resolute, titled 19, would give viewers a sense of fellowship, and fortify our resilience.
14”x11” & 14”x11”
Oil on Canvas
Completed in 2020
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
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.
Painting human faces and figures, not as means to document, rather, as means to probe and investigate, is hugely challenging and exciting, and thankfully, such is also a the validity of portraiture painting in selfie age.
One of my successful attempts was a portrait of a young man, whom I saw near Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and I was intrigued by his serious and even severe countenance, and his chiseled features, intelligent, graceful, vulnerable yet vigorous, an enthralling concoction led to my 2001 painting, A Young Frenchman, which managed to capture many of these engaging characteristics.
Someone once wondered about the “Frenchman” in the title; I was fairly confident that the young man was a french national, because not only I saw him in France, also to me, he was the epitome of Gaullic attributes and attraction.
My 2009 oil painting Progression, conceived and executed after our nation and the world had suffered the dark era of George W. Bush, and entered an epoch ought have ushered in some changes in the U.S. following the ascendency of President Obama. Alas. It was not to be. Many people’s feverish hope proved constructed from thin air, and the changes were ever elusive, and the human rights abuses we collectively permitted largely remain in place. The long list of human sufferings continue.
My painting attempted to catalog such sufferings in a collage of iconography images, from Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary, Michelangelo’s slave sculpture, David’s Liberty Leads People, and the hooded abused prisoner in Abu Ghraib. The focal point of the painting is the sad face of an earnest man, personification of the sorrows and compassion of humankind.
Here is a video presentation of this painting:
This painting has been choose to be part of a group exhibition, Today’s Artists Interact with Major Art Movements from the Renaissance to the Present, at Arts Passages in Berkeley (22 August – 11 November 2015), curated by Expressions Gallery in Berkeley.
A recent such instance presented me an entangled group of tight embracing muscular bodies, in agony or ecstasy. In the end, my decipher of the image drew the conclusion that it presented the embrace and reconciliation of estranged persons who ought to be close to each other, father and son.
Base on that quick sketch, I made a monochromatic and muted yet quite evocative and powerful painting, on the theme of Prodigal Son.
The strength of this piece lies in its universal touching theme, the heartbreaking posture of those once broken men, the strong outlines of the figures and the high relief of the bodies.
The painting is small in format but big in the feelings it emotes.
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.
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.