By Michele Leight
The magnificent large panels
of gold silk on view at the Eskenazi Ltd. exhibition of Li Huayi's
work, "Trees, Rocks, Mist and Mountains," at the Ukrainian
Institute on Fifth Avenue at 79th Street in New York from March
25 to April 3, 2010, together with other large, monochromatic,
stunning landscape paintings have the magnified appearance of
traditional Chinese hanging paintings and scrolls, without the
traditional silk borders and formality of their classical counterparts.
Those that are forced by circumstances
to leave their homeland at some point in their lives seem to appreciate
the art of their past more intensely. Absence makes the heart
grow fonder, and longing is a powerful trigger for creativity.
That void of the lost or left behind is often replaced via the
arts, and, as can be seen in the paintings here, with magical
When Li Huayi originally left
China for America, he began painting contemporary versions of
the Chinese landscapes depicted by the Northern Song Dynasty artists,
centuries ago - circa 960 to 1127 - superimposing them with influences
of a new life in a new land - yet they are wholly contemporary.
Li Huayi was inspired to paint
"Mountain Range with Receding View," illustrated above,
after seeing the 'Nine Dragon Painting' on a summer day in 2008.
This is the famous Nine Dragon Scroll by Chen Rong, dated 1244,
which is almost 11 metres long, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Instead of the mists and mountains
of his paintings resembling widely reproduced, populist replicas
of Classical Chinese paintings, Li Huayi has breathed new life
into an age-old art form. As in the most magnificent Song Dynasty
paintings, nature dominates, pristine and awe-inspiring. Humans,
if they are present at all, are mere shadows. Searching for clues
about time or place in the vast swirling mists of Li Huayi's work,
one becomes lost in abstraction. It is like viewing an Abstract
Expressionist painting. They are timeless, contemporary - universal.
Li Huayi was born in 1948,
and began studying art at the age of 6 in his native China. Like
many of his contemporaries, he survived the Cultural Revolution
as a "worker artist," churning out formulaic propaganda
art for the masses. When he left for San Francisco in 1982, aged
34, the Northern California landscape beckoned, and soon became
an inspiration and catalyst for his return to landscape painting.
The epic scale of propaganda
art designed to arrest the viewers attention is evident in all
the works at this exhibition, while the artist's stylistic fusion
of American Abstraction and Classical Chinese Painting utilizes
delicate ink brush painting and calligraphy, which the Classical
Chinese painters developed to perfection. Li Huayi has mastered
this gorgeous technique, but there is something infinitely bolder
in the way he wields his brushes.
Chinese brushes allow far greater
spontaneity than any Western brush; they are flexible, respond
to the slightest hand movement, and are especially effective when
propelled by emotion. To the mystical medium of Chinese ink -
that leaves no margin for error or revision - Li Huayi adds faint
blushes of color, once again emulating the great Song masters
of the past.
Of his new work, Li Huayi has
said: "Painting calligraphy is the only true art form (for
Chinese). I mix the ancient with the new by using Song painting
methods, painting in brushstrokes, but I give a personality to
each tree and rock, this is what makes my painting different.
The concept of painting on screens is not new, though the old
masters would not have painted on Japanese screens. The texture
of the gold screens is close to the silk I have painted on before
so it does not feel so different, although the final impression
Different they certainly are,
while retaining the mystery of the past.
Li Huayi's landscapes are majestic
in scale and magnificent in detail.
Li Huayi's work is well known
in the United States and can be found in the Asian Art Museum,
San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Cleveland
Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago and the Spencer Museum
of Art, University of Kansas and Harvard University Art Museum.
He has exhibited to critical acclaim in California and New York
as well as in Hong Kong and his native main land China.
Li Huayi lives and works in
Shanghai and San Francisco, one of America's most beautiful cities
- filled with inspiring mountains and mists reminiscent of China,
that are a recurring theme in his work.
The exhibition is accompanied
by a fully-illustrated catalogue ($50), with an introduction by
Robert Mowry, Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art and Head
of the Department of Asian Art, Harvard University Art Museum,