SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Museum of Art's exhibition of the work of Chinese artist Li Huai stands in stark contrast to the world-shaking events now going on in China. The show, officially titled "Li Huai: An Artist in Two Cultures," has nothing to offer in the way of grandeur to compete with the real events occurring in that vast nation.
On the other hand, it offers what the news does not. It tells the story of an individual--a woman who, at age 34, is of the post-war generation we call "baby boomers"--in whose life and art all the gyrations and perturbations of Chinese history have had a profound effect. In fact, the ultimate effect of those experiences was that she left China in 1983 to pursue her art career here.
The several stunning insights the show offers of her experiences as an artist in China come only partly from the more than 60 paintings and drawings on view. Much of what's most revealing comes instead from the texts in which the artist describes, often at great length, the various works and the contexts in which they were produced. From these emerge the record of the often wildly varying rules by which the Chinese government has decreed what artists can and cannot do. Throughout her life, however, there were always officially decreed rules and restrictions of one kind or another, and this is what Li left China to escape.
Among the earlier works in the exhibit is a group of ink and gouache paintings on paper depicting the artist's interpretation of ancient frescoes in four Taoist temples she visited in 1980 with classmates from her school, The Beijing Film Institute. These images are remarkable to Western eyes in the way they capture a sense of spiritual and metaphysical energy; that is, as representations of minor gods. For Li, however, what's remarkable is that she can actually see such a treasure of the past--one that hasn't been destroyed by the Cultural Revolution.
Similarly remarkable are several landscape paintings, in gouache on paper, which she also produced in 1980. To our eyes, these interpretations of the stylistic qualities of Van Gogh and Gauguin may seem unexciting, but for Li, exposure to this 100-year-old European work was almost entirely new. And the opportunity to work openly in the style without risk of exile to the countryside must have seemed especially delicious.
Another odd and nearly amateurish group of works is a series of figures in oil paints created from 1979 to 1982. In these, we see the artist delighting in being able to depict individuals--friends, even--without fear of being accused of glorifying individuals at the cost of the group. More importantly, though, this was her first opportunity to receive instruction in the use of oil paints. As an accompanying text explains, this medium was very new to China and was closely identified with the hostile, foreign West.
It's against this background that Li left China for the United States, specifically, for Southern California, where she is now a graduate student at CalArts in Valencia.
The works she has produced here over the past several years suggest the struggle she must be experiencing: coming out of the Chinese culture, but looking toward establishing a mode of working that isn't necessarily Chinese-inspired. A relatively early, but representative, work produced on these shores is "The Yellow Wind" from 1985. An oil on canvas, it harks back to the gouache on paper paintings she did in the Taoist temples, especially in the way the flow of line, in the Taoist originals, seems driven by a combination of wind and fire. Finally, the most recent paintings combine text and imagery to suggest the discontinuities that prevent people from fully appreciating and understanding one another. They're about disjunctions, disconnections and lack of communication. In one of these works, a text describing how eating only plain rice can be embellished is accompanied by an image of two tightly corseted female torsos expounding their love of Mao.
The complexity of these latter images may make one nostalgic for some of the simplicity of Li's early, China-born imagery. And there's certainly something very attractive about her presentation of the ancient gods whose images she encountered after the Cultural Revolution. But this whole situation, in art as in the world, is a confusing one. If one likes a little confusion and some challenge, this show is rich fare indeed. It's a case where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.