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Once on the run, now in the sun

Cao Yong fled a China that inspired his dark visions. He's back -- with a brighter outlook.

March 30, 2008|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Climb the steep slope of Cao Yong's driveway in La Habra Heights, and the idyllic fruit of his hard-won immigrant success story suddenly appears.

A huge, green, stone Buddha sits benevolent and serene above a trickling artificial stream. Behind the shrine, the hill goes on ruggedly upward. Here, Cao's house of dark wood and cream-colored stucco seems to be a peaceful way station for a life that has unfolded like an adventure tale, filled with bold gambits, daring escapes and hard new beginnings in foreign lands.

Once an art-rebel who was literally a wanted man in his native China, Cao is now a wealthy painter of romantic visions of California, Hawaii and the Italian coast, having remade himself in three countries by mustering physical endurance, resourcefulness and a classic immigrant's willingness to adapt.

Cao (pronounced "chow") first emerged in 1989, the tumultuous and bloody year when freedom of expression flowed briefly in China before being snuffed in the Tiananmen Square massacre. By 1999, he was on his way to success in Southern California, painting tenderly manicured scenes as benevolent and serene as his hillside Buddha. He issues his lush landscapes and inviting city views under his own imprint, Cao Yong Editions, and they hang on thousands of middle-class American walls. Cousins to the critically reviled but vastly popular paintings of Thomas Kinkade, signed, limited-edition prints of Cao's work are sold in more than 300 galleries, fetching $1,000 to $2,000 each.

Now the rise of a frazzled bourgeoisie in China -- millions of people who might want to flop into an easy chair and gaze on serenity at the end of a hardworking day -- has prompted him to launch his own gallery in the Beijing he fled 19 years ago. The Cao who was forced to run in 1989 was a painter of disturbing, darkly surrealistic visions suffused with spirituality and sexuality and shrouded in death. The one who has returned paints benedictions to the good life he found in the West.

Beijing, Feb. 19, 1989 (Reuters): Chinese police have raided an exhibition of nude paintings influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and shown to a shocked Beijing public. . . . Uniformed policemen confiscated six paintings and questioned artist Cao Yong. . . . One painting shows a heap of naked women below Buddhist monk-like figures and another depicts a woman dragging two men by their genitalia out of a fire.

Fearing imprisonment for obscenity, Cao and his fiancee, Japanese art student Aya Goda, went on the lam for eight months, ducking authorities while trying to jump through Japanese bureaucratic hoops so that Cao could emigrate to Tokyo. In 1995, Goda published her memoir of that time, "Tao: On the Road and on the Run in Outlaw China." Last summer, a publisher in London issued the first English translation. "A dozen film producers would die to adapt this book," said the Guardian.

"Tao" is also an account of Cao's life to age 27. If all its tales are true -- among them an astonishing account of his participation in the Tibetan Buddhist ritual of sky burial -- this stocky, long-maned man with wispy whiskers, furrowed brow and an unguarded manner is a global-era successor to the irrepressible American individualists carved in the pages of Hemingway, Jack London and James Fenimore Cooper. He says Goda's story is accurate, although, given his limited Japanese and English, he hasn't read her book.

Treated as an outcast

Cao was born in 1962 in Xinxian, in the mountains of southern Henan province. When the Cultural Revolution erupted four years later, his family was on the wrong side of a dangerous socioeconomic fissure. Tainted as descendants of landowners, the family with five children was scorned and became abjectly poor after the father, Cao Hongshan, was sent off for a year of forced "study group." Eating chicken was a once-a-year luxury, at New Year's.

Cao Yong, his hair in a topknot, recalled those times recently while seated cross-leg on a cushion in a large studio that includes the curtained-off cubbyhole where he sleeps. It is no typical rich man's den; like much of the house, which Cao shares with his younger sister, Qing, her two sons, and her husband, it's the repository for a haphazard collection of whimsical decorations. A mounted stag's head oversees the front hallway, with a starlike light fixture hung from a chain around its neck. Textiles covering the walls abound with African and Asian motifs. His own paintings are absent; with his art, he says, he likes to look only forward.

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