In the heart of Beijing, lies Li Huayi's immense studio perched on top of a hotel's annex. Upon entering, we are greeted by monumental landscape ink paintings and gold panels produced by the Shanghai native ink master Li. At first glance, the artist’s large-scale paintings can be associated with the Song Dynasty era. Looking closer, they reveal another story in terms of their composition and light. Having survived the Cultural Revolution as a “worker artist” and exposed to California’s sunny coast while living in San Francisco in the 80s, Li experimented with both Eastern and Western practices, developing his own singular style. This has resulted in powerful paintings with rich detail and subtle compositions. Earlier this year, the artist held his first solo show in Hong Kong and will plan to return in 2018 showcasing his newest series of Golden Screen landscape paintings. Additionally, a new publication of Li Huayi’s paintings is in the pipeline, presenting approximately 200 works from the 90s to today.
BLOUIN ARTINFO spoke with Li Huayi about his distinctive style and splash technique as well as his experience during the Cultural Revolution and his move to San Francisco.
You predominantly work with large-scale paintings on paper. Why do you prefer to work with this medium? How long does it take you to produce a painting?
The time I take to create a painting varies. I like to start off with a number of concepts and finish them one by one. The duration also depends on the size of the painting. My paintings are normally six feet tall and they usually take me one month to complete. My works can take as long as three months to finish. I produce 10 to 12 paintings a year.
Can you walk me through your creative process and your signature splashed ink technique?
First I splash ink and water on paper and then I use my flat brush, which leads the direction of the water flow. Before it gets dry, I have to water wash to create different formations of different areas. Then I focus on the details. Most of the time, I have a complete idea of what the painting will look like, but not always. I let the ink lead me to my painting direction. There is no realistic landscape in Chinese painting. I splash ink and the splash will come together and form images and then I work on them. I try to catch the feeling and atmosphere with the ink. Different areas of my painting represent different drama. You can visualize their movements. Chinese landscape is all about layers. Different layers make the painting look three-dimensional.
Your work is devoid of figures, animals, and flowers - elements traditionally found in Chinese landscape paintings. Why is that so? Should viewers look for symbolism elsewhere in your work?
Unlike Western perspective, there is no vanishing point with my paintings. The brush is my instrument. Power goes through my entire body to the instrument.
You were a “worker artist” painting propaganda during the Cultural Revolution. How did this impact you?
I was in my 20s when the Cultural Revolution hit. I survived as a “worker artist”, producing large Social Realist works in Shanghai. I left China in 1982 at the age of 34 and relocated to San Francisco. I didn’t join any movements during the Cultural Revolution.
Could you expand on your experience living in San Francisco?
I arrived in San Francisco in 1982 and I experienced a cultural shock. I benefited a lot from the American system. I attempted more abstract paintings and different ways of ink painting when I was there. The California coast influenced my earliest paintings. They have beautiful trees and landscapes. I started using ink as my key medium and began painting with very fine and significant brush strokes. I discovered my splash ink technique during that time. I was very inspired by California. For example, the California coast has strong winds and you see so much power and energy in their trees. I started doing my new style of Chinese ink painting exactly 10 years after I arrived in California. To many, my paintings may appear to be classical paintings but they are actually contemporary artworks that are made in the style and tradition of Chinese landscape paintings using traditional materials, subjects and compositions.
A core aspect of your artistic practice is to travel to historic and cultural sites throughout China. Where have you traveled so far and what do you to connect with these expansive landscapes?
Life is a journey. I travel to explore nature and to find inspiration. I take very specific trips to remote areas across China in order to gain a deeper understanding of the master painters of the period. I always travel with a purpose to connect with the ancient landscape, and re-discover its silent energy. I go everywhere. I would select destinations from far-flung tourists’ destinations. Sometimes I try to go to places before they develop or places that have failed to develop. I always try to seek out the invisible natural energy of these amazing places. I visited a number of China’s important scenic, historic, and cultural sites - many of my paintings are inspired by those celebrated peaks. Capturing the essence of some of the far-flung locales is an important part of my artistic process. I enjoy the communal spirit between myself and nature, and the awe-inspiring energy and natural beauty of these areas. I always try to incorporate them in my monumental artworks. Since 2009, I have traveled extensively throughout Xinjiang and Zhejiang provinces, visiting historic sites. In 2015, I took a month-long trip to hike in East Tianmu, Huangshan, Qiyun Mountain, Jiuhua Mountain, and Tianzhu Mountain in Anhui Province. I visited the Wulong natural karst bridges in Chongqing; and made a special trip to previously inaccessible areas of Shichuan, Hubei and Hunan, including the spectacular Wulingyuan area, a UNSECO World Heritage site.
In your opinion, what are the pinnacles of Chinese landscape painting? What vital skills are required from artists to attempt this challenging genre?
Energy (chi) is the most important element in Chinese painting. It gives life to a painting. Western painting makes your blood run fast and gives you positive energy. Chinese painting, on the other hand, tranquilizes you and calms you down and lets you take everything in. You can enjoy their simplicity and their own elegance and their simple lifestyle.
Literati painting is a reflection of the inner world of the painter. A noble soul will paint with respectable sentiments, a broad mind will paint wide horizons, and a pure heart will paint simple truth. Chinese painting isn’t done based on realistic images. 3-dimensional Chinese painting is a new concept. It’s done based on imagination, possibly a place you cannot recognize. It is a feeling that you are trying to capture. Western painters would ask “how do these mountains look like?” Whereas a Chinese painter may ask “how should I look at these mountains”? Expression is the unique technique I use. I don’t paint visually. Chinese painting is an expressive art form.
Your work thus blends old traditions from the East and modern practices from the West?
My techniques do have roots in the Song Dynasty, but my work also takes several radical breaks from traditional artistic forms, such as mountain backgrounds, for example, which have no resemblance to any Chinese artistic movements from the Song Dynasty. The way I magnify a small detail of a landscape scene to an immense size has its origin in the West.
How is your latest series “Exotica” an evolution for you? What were you seeking to achieve?
“Exotica” was my first solo show in Hong Kong, which took place earlier this year. It featured my latest series of monumental landscape paintings, inspired by my travels to remote areas in China since 2007. I hope my paintings act as a window for the audience to look into the beautiful atmosphere and beauty of landscapes and place the viewers within the painting itself and experience the unknown and the unexplored.
We received very good reactions from the public for the “Exotica” show. It was beyond my expectations. I hope my work and the perspective I use allow viewers to feel as if they are being given a specific, secret glimpse into another world.
Can you tell me about the new publication “Li Huayi”? What will it cover?
The publication will present the development of my ink paintings, categorized by subject, timeline and theme. It combines small images and larger artworks that I’ve done from 1992 to present day. It will feature around 200 paintings. Next year, I will have an exhibition in Suzhou Museum. In 2018, I will have another show at the Honolulu Museum of Art.