First, can you introduce yourself?
I was born in a small city called Jiaozuo, located in the central part of China. My hometown sits under the Taihang Mountains, a range that extends over 400 kilometers from north to south. Those mountains are pretty rocky, barely have greens surrounding them, but if you go up high enough, there are some beautiful pine trees standing by the cliffs, being lonely.
I spent my whole childhood and teenage years in this town. I remember, as the only one child in my family, I was pretty used to doing things by myself, like reading or watching television, and I enjoyed being with myself especially when I was drawing. My mom liked posting my drawings on the wall as a praise. My parents are not very art-minded people; they are just very supportive of the things that I like to do. I moved to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province when I went to art school there, and I was trained as a painter. I had been living in Chengdu for seven years until I got into graduate school in the United States.
You earned a BA and MA at Sechuan University in China, and are now pursuing an MFA at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. What made you decide to study painting in the U.S.?
There are several reasons or triggers for me to start to think about study painting in the U.S
As I said, I grew up in a small city, and I didn’t get chances to travel when I was young, so I’ve always been very curious about the landscapes and people beyond my hometown. I got several chances to travel with my college friends around different places in China. Those were phenomenal experiences. And then, I realized I hadn’t seen the ocean before, so I went on a backpacking trip in Southeast Asia by myself to celebrate my 23rd birthday. The nature was so wild, but even more stunning were the cultures and people. So I start to think about living and studying in an exotic land as I realized that the ways I think and observe would be influenced by my surroundings. Back to that time, I was believing something would change internally if I lived in a different environment, and it would ultimately affect my works in a subconscious way.
Luckily, I had a painting professor who has been worked and lived in the U.S for many years. He recommended that I pursue an MFA degree in the U.S. And then, I crossed the Pacific Ocean.
How has studying in the US, or pursuing your MFA, influenced your work?
Pursuing the MFA in the U.S definitely influences my work. I am not sure how much percent I‘ve been influenced in an academic way, but I’ve been inspired and encouraged a lot by the great works made by my peers. It is so inspiring to see how other young artists work in the studios and fight for their artistic careers. Living in the U.S changed my perspective so much because I am around so many people who have different cultures, ethnic, and education backgrounds. Plus, the U.S has tons of master paintings in the museums. These are truly precious resources for me that I wouldn’t able to reach out to if I was not studying in the U.S.
Your paintings often feature figures within an interior setting. Is there a story or narrative here, or is this meant to be somewhat ambiguous?
There are not stories in my paintings. I admit, they are narrative, but not in a plot. I consider narrative as the collage.
I am a big fan of magical realism literature, like Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Haruki Murakami and Italo Calvino. Those writers were all kind of on a migration during their whole life. I think their migration status evokes the weakening consciousness about space and time. So in their narratives, there is not a specific geographical space or a homeland, but rather it is an invented space created by the writers through their imagination, memories, and folktales ultimately woven with some fragments of reality. For example, in Calvino’s book, The Baron in the Trees, the Baron is from a noble 18th-century family, set in Liguria near the French Riviera. However, Calvino didn’t elaborate this historical context by giving details of this period in this region. Instead, he used an exaggerated and humor rhetoric to describe the “tree space” when the young baron climbs up a tree and decided to live in on the tree for his rest of life. Calvino transplanted the childhood memories of climbing trees into a fictional narrative that connects the fragments of reality to the imagination.
I used a similar approach in my visual practice. As I am aware of being both the narrator and creator, and I am still very suspicious at the reliability of narrative, so the narrative in my paintings remains undefined and ambiguous.
Your recent work has grown in scale and taken on installation characteristics in the form of beautiful, bold folding screens. Can you elaborate on this?
My recent work has grown in scale, but it remains dealing with my interest of the perspective of the inside and outside. Through looking at these screens/paintings, viewers are implicated as voyeurs; they become the third person or “outsider.” The nature of the question about inside and outside also concerns the objecthood of the screens, and how objects are related to their own properties. The screen as a space divider rearranges the space. It covers up parts of the interior scene of the space, and at the same time the imagery of plants and windows cover the figures in the paintings on the screen. Concealment happens twice, both in physical and pictorial space. These tangled bodies are borrowed from Japanese erotic prints, however I reduced the aggressiveness of the eroticism by shielding some parts of the figures with floral shutters and climbing plants. Here and there trembling limbs only appear through windows open to the viewers. I like to bring a sense of secret into the work and make all people who are looking into the voyeurs. I think the more something is concealed, the more alluring it becomes. The cover-up itself is both an illusion of, and allusion to seduction.
What is your process like?
I do a lot of primer work before I start to paint. I like a very smooth and fine surface. For my recent screen paintings, I tried to mimic the effects of gouache and watercolor on paper, so I used a lot of acrylic-based ground to prepare the wood panel.
My inspirations are from everywhere, and I am not a typical “start from drawing” person. I do draw a lot, but I don’t consider my drawings as sketches or rehearsals for my paintings; they are individual to me.
Most of the time I feel my process is very intuitive. The images often emerge in my mind first and I will trace and enforce the draft a little bit while I starting painting. During the process, if I think I need something more specific like I want the hands to pose in certain ways, I will ask my friends pose for me or simply take photos of my own hands. It also includes a lot of internet surfing when I need a picture of some kinds of climbing green plants. Nothing is solid before I actually paint on the surface. I hope I can have lightness and honesty in my work, so I spend a lot of time looking at my painting. Staying around with my work can help me to know better about what I am really going for, thus I can play with the speediness in the paintings.
How would you describe your studio or workspace?
My studio space is super messed up. I like the way I don’t feel I have the responsibility to keep it neat and clean. It could be a huge pressure for me if I tried to keep everything organized while I am painting. I’ve got a big window in my studio, and the natural light is lovely. Unfortunately, I am moving out after August. I don’t know what my next studio will look like.
Do you have a favorite tool or object to work with in the studio?
My favorite tools or objects definitely are the paints! I get very excited about the color and consistency. I have a color chart from a supply company, you know, a whole chart of different colors in varies scales. I like looking at it and creating my own color palette.
My second favorite object is unrelated to my work at all, however it is so helpful to me: a longboard. I started to learn longboard last summer, but recently, I found it is a good thing to do during my studio breaks! Usually, I will stay in my studio for working several hours. If I am tired or fresh air is needed, I will go outside and do longboard dancing for 40mins to 1 hour. I like it so much not only because it is fun to do but also the high concentration on balancing muscles makes my mind get a break from studio mood.
What is your favorite mantra, quote, or piece of advice?
I can’t decide which quote is my favorite, but now, I have been thinking a lot about “Don’t let other people project their fears on you.”
How would you define “success?”
I define success as a harmony situation in which I can support myself as a life-long artist with enough creativity and economic considerations, and meanwhile I could bring happiness and satisfaction to the people who I love and care about.
What do you feel is the most challenging or daunting thing about pursuing art, either creatively or professionally?
The most challenging thing about pursuing art is staying true to myself. It also sounds like a big philosophical question for life. Sometimes it is just so easy to not think about the difference between what I really want and people think what I want.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on series of book cover size paintings! I am really excited about them because at this point I feel like I have enough confidence and art instincts to move back and forth among big scales and small scales. Also, the freshness and energy from working on the big screen may ignite something exciting on the small canvas, too.
Anything else you would like to add?
Kate! Thanks for featuring my work on this amazing platform. It is fascinating to see so many brilliant artists from all over the world.
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