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 landscape as an enigma is the impression of my monochromatic oil painting, Interlocked, which depicts a semi-abstract, difficult to decipher landscape, under the threat of heavy and broadly zigzagged clouds in the upper region, while underneath, an orderly and calm swatch of staggered and slightly angled roofs, indicates order, and furthermore, social hierarchy and constraints. The dripping liquids permeating the landscape lends the notion of connectedness and the interlocking nature of the environment, natural or man-made.
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”.
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.