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.
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, 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
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.
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 2003 oil painting Net, currently exhibiting at the McGuire Real Estate gallery in Berkeley as part of the “Crowded by Beauty” exhibit, is a study of alienation and anxiety of our time. The vertical canvas is split unevenly into three narrow stripes – a bright and somewhat richly patterned center “panel”, flanked by two darker and simpler outer “panels”; with the slanting perspectives of the outer panels, the whole image resembles an opened-up triptych. Furthermore, the center panel was covered by repeating yet subtly varied outlines of small windows and some interlocking ladders, which tilt in various degrees; the joyless left panel is a simple building façade, immobile, and featureless, except for some blank windows; the right panel features one large window, and behind the casually divided glass panes, there is a broadly sketched sad-looking man, looking out, tentatively raises his hands, as if attempting to make gestures of hesitant acknowledgement.
The strong contrast of the three panels, with the vivid and colorful middle, and somber and austere at the sides, plus the alien-looking ghostly person locked inside his flat, captures a sense of dislocation and disjointedness quite well.
Not a surprise for a painting created at a sad moment of history – it was done in the year when George W. Bush poised to invade Iraq in spite of the fierce and sound oppositions from virtually every corner of the globe. My painting managed to capture the Zeitgeist then; unfortunately, the overall mood still fits today’s gloomy atmosphere.
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.
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.