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La Jolla Artist Traces Career Back to Lonely Days of Cultural Revolution

May 25, 1988|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

From the time she was 12 until more than a decade later, Li Huai lived alone, in a small Chinese town or in the countryside. She had been separated from her family by the Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution, which took hold in her homeland in 1966.

More than two decades later, Li Huai lives in La Jolla, in the shadow of Mt. Soledad, in circumstances far different from those she found herself in as a peasant farmer, planting rice.

Today, Li Huai, 32, is one of San Diego's top young artists, a woman whose paintings, drawings and sketches have drawn the attention--and the praise--of some of the city's most respected art authorities.

She now speaks English, a language she didn't know when she came to the United States in 1983 with her husband, Paul Pickowicz, a professor at UC San Diego. She is the mother of a 3 1/2-year-old girl and a frequent exhibitor in local art shows.

Her work includes abstract paintings and portraits as well as drawings, sketches and calligraphy. She even does some sculpture. Perhaps the best description of Li Huai's work comes from her husband, who has studied it for years.

'Very Strong Feeling'

"The main thing everybody talks about in viewing it is strength," he said. "It induces a very strong feeling, a feeling of power. There's nothing weak about it. It's extremely strong and bold. It carries with it a powerful sense of force and drama."

It also makes liberal use of color and, at times, eerily dark shadings. Li Huai is frustrated about the rigors of competition that American artists have to endure, but those in the know say she has had remarkable success in a climate that often doesn't invite it.

"She's a fascinating artist in many respects," said Steve Brezzo, director of the San Diego Museum of Art and one of the champions of Li Huai's art. (A two-month exhibition of her work will take place at the museum in 1989.) "Her style is bold, adventurous and risky to the extent that she celebrates a kind of visual catharsis. Hers is a wonderful and vivid exploration of color and form."

That in itself makes Li Huai different from Chinese artists as a whole. In a land where style is content and opposition to the norm is tantamount to artistic treason, Li Huai has emerged as an artist's artist.

"I'm impressed by her technical facility," said Hugh Davies, director of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, who first met Li Huai through judging her award-winning work in local shows. "She has a wonderful command of the medium from the point of view of craftsmanship, which is probably attributable to a longstanding tradition in Chinese art. But, wedded to this very accomplished technique, is a compelling vision that I wouldn't describe as Western but which is driven by Western influences. It's very interesting, and very unusual to find someone whose work absolutely knocks your socks off. But hers had that effect on me."

Featured Artist

Last summer, Li Huai was the featured artist at the San Diego Art Institute in Balboa Park. She then took on the same role at the Spectrum Gallery downtown, and in September begins a stint at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where her master of fine arts graduate work will be completed with the aid of a generous scholarship.

Li Huai's journey has taken scores of twists and turns since the imposition of the Cultural Revolution. Scared is the word she uses in describing the terror of having her family torn asunder at age 12. She lived alone in a house in the town of Hefei and had nothing to do all day but draw.

Schools were shut down, on the order of Chairman Mao. But what might have seemed like hell had the effect of giving a young artist the discipline--and the time--to master a craft. (It also managed to free her from the tyranny of conventional instruction, which she concedes would have made her a radically different artist.)

Li Huai's interest and exposure to art started even before the reign of Chairman Mao. Her career began at 7.

"In China, the field of calligraphy has been almost totally dominated by men for centuries," she said. "But my father had no sons." (He had two daughters). "I was not big enough to sit at the table, so I had to sit on my teacher's lap when I first put brush to paper. I was required to work at calligraphy every night in order to master the many concepts of balance, symmetry, tension, contrast and proportion associated with Chinese calligraphy--and philosophy."

Period of Solitude

During her period of solitude and exile at the family home, and later in the countryside, Li Huai would sit for what seemed like hours. She would draw or paint a vase or a piece of fruit as many as 75 times, hoping to capture its shadows and images from every vantage point possible.

She later painted revolutionary murals, ignoring the inherent propaganda to focus instead on form--learning how to paint, regardless of Maoist content. She treasures her years in the countryside, not for the isolation but for the peasants she grew to love.

"They're so sincere," she said. "They don't play games. And they never try to hurt you."

Li Huai loves the United States--its freedom, its exhilarating, seemingly endless array of possibilities and dreams. What she doesn't care for is the yen of many to view art as sheer commodity--pictures on a wall, trophies to be bought or sold.

She learned a lot about craft as a student at the Beijing Film Institute, which she entered as one of a handful and the only student picked from the countryside. She met her husband through her work in Chinese film, in which she specialized in animation.

She looks forward to continued work in the local art world, and to graduate school, where concepts other than form have become rooted in the artist's mind.

"I find myself paying great attention to something that is not emphasized in China: the need to be fully conscious of the idea that forms the foundation of the work," she said.

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