In 1991, painter and professor Baohong Cheng of Hangzhou, China, made his first trip to the United States, spending most of the year as a visiting scholar at Cal State Northridge.
During that time, CSUN librarian Angela Lew organ ized a small show of his ink-on-paper works in the University Art Galleries' South Gallery.
Encouraged by an enthusiastic response to that exhibit, Louise Lewis, the galleries' director, decided that she and Lew would organize a more comprehensive show of contemporary Chinese art for the main gallery.
One can now find Cheng's new work sharing the gallery with two other artists from China and two American-born artists of Chinese descent in the show, "The Chinese Heritage: Five Contemporary Perspectives."
"We selected artists that represent different perspectives and different degrees of immersion in American culture," Lew said.
Before Cheng came to the Los Angeles area, "his work was typical traditional Chinese--that is ink on very fragile paper, with almost no color," Lew said. "What impressed him the most in this country as far as artists is their elaborate use of color--how people mix different things together rather than stay with very simple lines."
"As a Chinese artist, I don't want to just throw away my Chinese heritage or artistic discipline, but I do live in this world today, so I want to work from the tradition and yet bring in the contemporary," Cheng said in Chinese interpreted by Lew.
In his series of ink and color on paper, "The Spirit and the Soul of China," color is an important component of his traditional figurative compositions and two abstract illustrations. One of them appears like a cave painting; the other presents simplified cursive calligraphy that symbolizes the word dragon.
Shiyan Zhang came to Los Angeles in 1988. Last year, he painted the mural, "The Party at Lan-Ting," on the north wall of the Los Angeles Public Library's Chinatown branch. In it, he incorporated lacquer painting.
"He is the leader of this newly established art form," recognized by the Chinese government as a new category of painting in 1984, Lew said. "Lacquer painting in its old form, a very simple form, was used decoratively on room dividers, screens and boxes. It goes back 2,000 years. It was like a craft. But then a group of artists decided it is a good art medium."
Lacquer is organic, made from tree sap. Through Lew's translation, Zhang said he combines it with colored powders and forms his textured compositions with several layers of the mixture and all kinds of materials, including colorful fabrics, glitter, vinyl and plastics.
With the aid of directed light, the three colorful lacquer paintings in the show--polo players in action; a man, woman and child, and a glorious combination landscape/cityscape--sparkle and appear to move.
Painter De-Cai Jian arrived in the Los Angeles area about two years ago.
"One thing that has really impressed me is that American art is really the ultimate showing of individuality, which is not the experience in China. Because of the 5,000 years of history and heritage, the Chinese artist really can't be apart from that," Jian said through Lew's interpretation.
In his dark, completely abstract "Black Series 1" (1990), Jian "tries to express the depth and breadth and mystery and power of nature where human beings have no influence," Lew said.
After the Los Angeles riots, Jian altered the piece, she said, "adding something about Los Angeles that he wanted to work in," and giving the painting the subtitle, "Existing and Transcending." Recently, he began his "Chinese Peasants" series.
Los Angeles-born artist Betty Wan says: "The interaction and integration of Eastern and Western techniques and ideas is my life and my art."
Within that context, her installation, "Orientation 9," muses on myriad themes, including her relationships with family members, cultural heritage, racism and sexism. She also considers the number nine, which "has somehow put a spell on me," she said. "It's considered an odd number, mathematically, yet to me it's very even, balanced."
One must bow to enter the installation, where its central figure, a nine-foot woman made up of small stones, lies on the floor. Time ticks in the form of a man's watch that rests on her heart, which is made of salt and encircled by barbed wire.
The woman is a manifestation of Wan, surrounded by images of the dragon and the phoenix, and representations of her family. Two toolboxes on either side of the stone figure are filled with items that signify her two brothers; two baskets represent her two sisters. At her feet is the suitcase her mom brought from China when she came to the United States as a child.
A clear plastic canopy with the outline of a male figure hovers above. On it, Wan has written quotes of things that have been said to her, by men, about herself. They include, "Your name can't be Betty; that's my wife's name" and "Would you like to come to my studio, so I can draw you?"
There are also homages to her deceased maternal grandparents, and many objects she has collected over time that symbolize personal and political concerns.
Illinois-born Betty Lee deals with two intertwined but different heritages in bold, black-and-white composite photographs titled "Immigrant/Invader," "Chinaman/Chinese Men" and "Soldier/Warrior." Each includes 1940s images of her father (in "Immigrant/Invader," Lee has photographed his immigration papers) and conveys the confusing dichotomies a person of Asian descent faces in this country as well as in their own country.
Where and When What: "The Chinese Heritage: Five Contemporary Perspectives." Location: CSUN Art Galleries, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday through Dec. 19; beginning Jan. 4, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays through Jan. 30. Call: (818) 885-2226.