American Dream

Article excerpt

California painter and Chinese native Huihan Liu's versatility is hard-earned

HUIHAN LIU WAS BORN into a world set radically apart from the freewheeling, reinvent-yourself American West, but arguably few contemporary painters are interpreting the region with fresher insight or a greater appreciation for artistic freedom. After all, how many U.S. artists can say they owe their classical training to Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, late godfather of China's Cultural Revolution and architect of the most sweeping purge of modern art in history?

Today, Liu and a handful of contemporaries from the oldest civilization on Earth are leading a new movement that is broadening the traditional boundaries of western art. Their brooding landscapes, textured still lifes, festive portraits of costumed Native Americans, and cultural sketches taking viewers from the streets of San Francisco to Taos Pueblo are finding resonance among young, emerging American painters, who are drawn to the kind of art education their parents and grandparents abandoned.

"Chinese artists who were insulated from the influences of post-modernism during the latter half of the 20th century are now helping us find our way back to classicism," says Peter Adams, president of the Pasadena-based California Art Club, of which Liu and a large number of Chinese artists are members. "It's ironic that Communism, which destroyed so much art, kept the classical tradition of painting alive in China."

According to Elise Olonia of Total Arts Gallery in Taos, NM, "Huihan is one of the most versatile painters we have in the gallery. Our clients who collect his work come from all over the country and they are drawn to his aesthetic sensitivity, which is hard to explain in words. Because of the universal approach he takes to subject matter, you sometimes can't tell what setting inspired the work-it could be Tibet or a Native community in New Mexico."

BORN IN 1952 in the Cantonese city of Guangzhou, Liu grew up in a China that moved to eviscerate what Mao perceived as the corrupting forces of capitalism. While his generational counterparts across the Pacific Ocean were watching Leave It to Beaver, listening to the Beatles, and charting the ascension of Andy Warhol (all of which would have been jailable offenses in China), Liu was treated to military parades and warned by Communist Party apparatchiks that his country could, at any moment, be invaded by westerners bent on enslaving the people. Liu saw his parents, both intellectuals, periodically shipped off to farm and factory labor camps to serve the state.

Before the revolution, Liu's mother, Shao Qing Li, held a degree in Chinese literature. His father, Gong Liang Liu, had been a professor at a Christian college, making him a marked man in a nation that embraced atheism and made Mao the godhead. Following the rise of the Communists, his parents were assigned to "re-education" programs that resulted in Liu's father teaching ancient Chinese literature and poetry since contemporary fiction and non-fiction were outlawed. "The scholars had to adhere to what was acceptable," Liu says. "Sometimes you wanted to say something but it was dangerous to tell the truth. My dad taught ancient literature because it was an easy way to avoid conflict."

After taking art classes in the Chinese equivalent of high school, Liu was sent to a labor camp, in part as punishment for his family's earlier association with Christianity. In any political regime, he who controls the flow of information also controls power and the perception of it. As Mao explored ways to indoctrinate the masses with Marxism, he looked to Joseph Stalin and the neighboring Soviet Union, and he recognized the role that art can play in marshaling propaganda. Mao decided he needed an army of artists. In 1972, as Liu toiled in a factor job, he learned the state was re-opening the prestigious Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art years after it had been shuttered by the Communists. …