Eight years in the making, Contemporary Landscapes: Li Huayi opens Aug. 24. It is a chance to see 30 years of groundbreaking work by the Shanghai-born, San Francisco-based artist Li Huayi. He speaks in a calm, thoughtful way you would expect from someone who draws his inspiration from nature and considers trees as the heroes of his dramatic landscapes. He generously answered questions about his art and practice. The interview has been edited for content and clarity.
You didn’t start painting landscapes until you were in your forties, after exploring different styles of painting, including Abstract Expressionism. Why did you decide to devote your practice to landscape painting, and what made you feel you were ready to do so?
I was lucky that I had a very good teacher when I started to paint. In China you start by painting flowers and birds, and the final stage is landscapes. Chinese call it “mountains and water.” You start with a single white flower, then you learn, step by step. So when I started learning at six years old, this kind of idea was already implanted in me. I moved to San Francisco when I was 33—it was a cultural shock for the first couple of years, there were so many possibilities to explore, so I tried everything. I was very much influenced by Abstract Expressionism.
I planned to do landscape painting a long time ago, but I try to use contemporary eyes to look at landscapes. My instructor in school told me if you want to do landscapes, you need to have at least 10 years of visual experience. Just 10 years after I started my new style of Chinese ink painting, you could see a lot of influence from California—like tree shapes, how to use soft elements, such as fog and wind, in my paintings. The paintings are very much related to my life.
You block out basic composition of a painting in loose, big strokes, then let the paint drop and flow. Does letting the paint do what it wants excite you?
The way I’m doing my painting is influenced by Abstract Expressionism. The big strokes—I do that as a new kind of body movement experiment. I found that Expressionism has a lot in common with Chinese calligraphic principles. Some people say that Western painting consists of areas of color. Actually, you can think of each part of the painting as a character or a dramatic element…just like in Chinese calligraphy. If you think of one stroke as an area, that movement has hidden connections behind it. Of course, things happen by accident, which is exciting to me.
From that basic black and white composition to a finished, mystical landscape, there is so much work involved and so many layers—how many layers go over the original composition? And do you use different inks to get the desired effect?
When I finish a rough composition, I spend the most time looking—to figure out how to get the effect I desire. The effect should be harmonious between hard elements like trees and rocks, and softer elements like fog and water. So I like fog to go through rocks, because that makes the rocks softer. Sometimes one layer is all you need to complete the work, sometimes you need 10 layers. But one thing you need to be careful about is the fact that you cannot cover up mistakes in ink painting, so whatever mistake you make will always be there.
People always ask, “How do you not make a mistake?” Even if you do everything right, you might make a mistake with the very last stroke, but does that ruin the whole painting? This is an unrealistic question because with Chinese painting, you learn how to make mistakes from the first stage. So, for example, you cannot judge if one line is beautiful or ugly, because the following line will affect it. Some mistakes become a remarkable set up for what is to follow. The ink is always the same, but the way you use it is different. It seems like I base (my work) on the traditional way to do trees and rocks—called the wrinkle technique—but if you look closely it is not traditional, it is my own way. You can build a contemporary building with stainless steel and glass, and it feels contemporary, but if you use traditional materials like bricks you still can build a beautiful contemporary building—it’s just the way in which you do it. Of course, there are risks, but if you don’t take these risks, you cannot have that beauty.
You were just in China—did you do nature walks for inspiration? If yes, where?
I went to Shandong and Hunan Province, but besides seeing nature, we were also trying to find some original stelae that have calligraphic carvings on them. What interests me is that they used a knife to carve the stone, in place of using a brush. The next time we do a nature walk it will be in Shanxi Province.
Do you have a favorite inspirational walk in the Bay Area?
Yes, in San Francisco there is a place called Point Lobos, it has beautiful pine trees and is so quiet, there is a cliff and seashore, with waves all the time, and the ocean breeze is mild, very much like a Song dynasty painting. So I always go there, because it gives me energy.
How do you record what you see—through sketches, photographs, memory?
When I take walks in nature I have different questions. I never think about how the mountains look. The question for me is, how shall I look at them? I try to find something—a pattern, the way nature is arranged, in my painting. I don’t try to record anything visually, mostly I depend on memory. The best way is when I paint, something just comes out, like wrinkles on the rock, the way a branch of a pine tree will appear in my mind.
What is your favorite tree, and why?
Trees are the heroes of my paintings. I want the landscape to become timeless. I don’t include human elements. I want the environment to just be the environment. Different places have different characters—it is the same with trees. With a Chinese tree, even from just a branch, you should be able to recognize some kind of Chinese identity in it. I really want my tree to look like a tree growing in China. This is my favorite kind of tree.
Is there a work in the show that has particularly special meaning for you? If yes, why—is there something you can tell Hawai‘i art lovers to look for when they come to see your exhibition?
The work that I am really concentrating on now uses gold screens. I try to make painting three-dimensional, and the screen is flat, but it is still a three-dimensional object. Also, the gold reflects light in a way that highlights the dark contrasts of the brushwork. And it stands out strongly when it is displayed with other paintings. But gold has the possibility to become vulgar, so you have to be careful. I am interested in painting old trees on gold screens. Maybe I love old trees because they can still grow and have new green leaves. The special meaning for me is that people at any stage of their life can dedicate themselves to creating new things in whatever area they are interested.
What do you hope people will take away from seeing your works in Contemporary Landscapes: Li Huayi?
First of all, I really admire the natural beauty of Hawai‘i. It is a very lucky opportunity for me to have my exhibition there. I hope that people can appreciate the nature of Hawai‘i, because with Chinese landscape painting, “outside you have to take nature as a teacher, while inside you release your energy.” This is a very old saying, but it is true. If you have nature as your inspiration, you will have more good energy in anything you do. Also, I am lucky they included “landscape” in the exhibition title because I think landscape is cultural. Ink painting is a limited [genre], it’s all about form. So we have different cultural perspectives through landscapes, that’s why we should exchange them, to make [the world] we live in a better place.