Huihan Liu | American Dream


By Todd Wilkinson

Huihan Liuwas born into a world set radically apart from the freewheeling, reinvent-yourself American West, but arguably few contemporary painters are interpreting the region with fresher insight or a greater appreciation for artistic freedom. After all, how many U.S. artists can say they owe their classical training to Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, late godfather of China’s Cultural Revolution and architect of the most sweeping purge of modern art in history?

Today, Liu and a handful of contemporaries from the oldest civilization on Earth are leading a new movement that is broadening the traditional boundaries of western art. Their brooding landscapes, textured still lifes, festive portraits of costumed Native Americans, and cultural sketches taking viewers from the streets of San Francisco to Taos Pueblo are finding resonance among young, emerging American painters, who are drawn to the kind of art education their parents and grandparents abandoned.

“Chinese artists who were insulated from the influences of post-modernism during the latter half of the 20th century are now helping us find our way back to classicism,” says Peter Adams, president of the Pasadena-based California Art Club, of which Liu and a large number of Chinese artists are members. “It’s ironic that Communism, which destroyed so much art, kept the classical tradition of painting alive in China.”

According to Elise Olonia of Total Arts Gallery in Taos, NM, “Huihan is one of the most versatile painters we have in the gallery. Our clients who collect his work come from all over the country and they are drawn to his aesthetic sensitivity, which is hard to explain in words. Because of the universal approach he takes to subject matter, you sometimes can’t tell what setting inspired the work—it could be Tibet or a Native community in New Mexico.”

Born in 1952 in the Cantonese city of Guangzhou, Liu grew up in a China that moved to eviscerate what Mao perceived as the corrupting forces of capitalism. While his generational counterparts across the Pacific Ocean were watching Leave It to Beaver, listening to the Beatles, and charting the ascension of Andy Warhol (all of which would have been jailable offenses in China), Liu was treated to military parades and warned by Communist Party apparatchiks that his country could, at any moment, be invaded by westerners bent on enslaving the people. Liu saw his parents, both intellectuals, periodically shipped off to farm and factory labor camps to serve the state.

Before the revolution, Liu’s mother, Shao Qing Li, held a degree in Chinese literature. His father, Gong Liang Liu, had been a professor at a Christian college, making him a marked man in a nation that embraced atheism and made Mao the godhead. Following the rise of the Communists, his parents were assigned to “re-education” programs that resulted in Liu’s father teaching ancient Chinese literature and poetry since contemporary fiction and non-fiction were outlawed. “The scholars had to adhere to what was acceptable,” Liu says. “Sometimes you wanted to say something but it was dangerous to tell the truth. My dad taught ancient literature because it was an easy way to avoid conflict.”

After taking art classes in the Chinese equivalent of high school, Liu was sent to a labor camp, in part as punishment for his family’s earlier association with Christianity. In any political regime, he who controls the flow of information also controls power and the perception of it. As Mao explored ways to indoctrinate the masses with Marxism, he looked to Joseph Stalin and the neighboring Soviet Union, and he recognized the role that art can play in marshaling propaganda. Mao decided he needed an army of artists. In 1972, as Liu toiled in a factory job, he learned the state was re-opening the prestigious Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art years after it had been shuttered by the Communists. However, because he had no connections with senior members of the Communist Party leadership, he was denied entrance. Moreover, the factory where he worked would not grant him permission to leave the assembly line.


Liu’s artistic abilities, reflected in a portfolio he gathered, were eventually recognized by a sympathetic woman who served on the academy entrance board, and he won admission. Among his classmates were Mian Situ and Zhiwei Tu. China’s model for teaching young people like Liu how to paint and sculpt was the classical method employed by the Russians. Earlier, the Stalinists themselves had borrowed their system of instruction from the French Academy and salons scattered around Paris at the end of the 19th century. At the Guangzhou Academy, Liu was required to spend countless hours taking studio drawing classes. He experimented with color theory. He sketched outdoors from life and became a gifted illustrator. Surprising, perhaps, is that in the name of honing their technique, Chinese artists were allowed exposure to the works of master European realists and others who painted representationally.

Liu gravitated toward Rembrandt, Velazquez, Manet, Courbet, and Degas, but the style of realistic painting that spoke to his soul was that practiced by a movement of painters in Russia calling themselves “The Wanderers” who left their mark at the end of the 19th century. They possessed a flair, he says, that was not tightly literal as had became the rage among adherents of neoclassicism. Not only was Liu moved by the spirit of their work, but he appreciated their role as dramatic chroniclers of history and nature. They made paintings that weren’t intended to decorate homes belonging to the aristocracy but were part of traveling exhibitions accessible to commoners, in some ways serving as unvarnished testaments to the way people really lived.

When Liu and his colleagues were sent to primitive labor camps in the country, their mission was to create evocative portraits to promote uniformity and strength. Liu was told time and again that his paintings—which would be displayed prominently in public places as motivational focal points—must show contented expressions on the faces of his subjects. To do anything else was to risk being arrested by shadowy security forces and sent back to the factory, or worse.

Liu’s status as a painter earned him a teaching assignment at the academy from 1979 to 1985. Then he passed an examination that qualified him for graduate school and, to his surprise, he was permitted to travel alone to the U.S. in 1987 to enter the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. (To ensure his return, China made his wife, the artist Wei Zhen Liang, and their son, Jian Liu, stay behind in Guangzhou.) His first months in the U.S. were bewildering and exciting: He had little money, so he took odd jobs in restaurants, lawn care, and gardening, even delivering newspapers. Eventually, his background in illustration yielded dividends when his drawings convinced an ad agency to hire him to paint storyboards. His first ambition? He didn’t want to return to China. So he began the arduous process of securing permission from both the U.S. and Chinese governments to allow his family to emigrate. His second ambition was landing a teaching position, a goal he achieved in 1993 when the Academy of Art College hired him part time.

SUMMER DAY, OIL, 24 x 36
SUMMER DAY, OIL, 24 x 36

Today, Huihan, Wei, and their now grown son, Jian, whose English name is Jimmy but whose name in Cantonese means “wisdom,” live in Concord, about 24 miles from San Francisco. While he enjoys the freedoms that spring from capitalism, Liu is still getting comfortable with the reality of selling his works to make a living. “In China these guys had it difficult. They were getting nothing, paid like $5 a month to live on. Their art belonged to the state,” says the California Art Club’s Adams of artists like Liu. “Then they came here and didn’t know what to do, so they painted on the streets of cities like San Francisco and created great works which they sold for practically nothing because they didn’t know any better. Then they were discovered. They’ve become some of our finest teachers, they’re now showing their works with some of the finest galleries, and they’re finally gaining recognition after years of existing in virtual anonymity. Their rising stature is a wonderful success story.”

Adams credits Liu and other Chinese immigrant painters with being catalysts in a new attitude about western painting: They are carrying on the kind of mentorship handed down to them in China. “Even though my life was poor and simple in China, the people I met were my greatest fortune,” Liu says, explaining that his commitment to mentorship was galvanized early on when he sketched in a neighborhood park and received instruction from an older portrait painter. Accordingly, Liu teaches art classes at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco and during summers serves as a master at the Fechin Painting Workshop held on the Donner Ranch outside Taos, NM. In 2002, Liu was awarded the Gold Medal, the highest honor from the California Art Club, for his 30-by-40-inch oil, I Got A Peach, which portrays a young girl and her grandmother visiting the market in a rural Tibet village. Founded in 1909, the California Art Club was the premier arts organization on the West Coast during the 1910s and 1920s, serving as a showcase for California’s renowned plein-air painters. In subsequent years, as classical approaches to painting were abandoned for abstraction being taught in the art schools, the club floundered. Today, it has bounced back to 3,000 members, about a quarter of whom are Chinese. They include Jason Situ, Shuqiao Zhou, and Jove Wang. Adams says Liu’s most obvious strength is his ability to confidently paint any subject, from still lifes to landscapes to portraits. This is in marked contrast to most American painters his age, who have specialized in single approaches.

Liu explains his approach this way: “You try to figure out what the problem is for a given painting, and the reward is solving it. Technically, I feel as if I’m still learning. I love to get out and constantly explore but I am also being constantly humbled. I’m never worried about what to paint but how to do each painting with honesty and beauty.”

Liu’s appeal isn’t limited to the West. Although Charleston, SC, is known as one of the most traditional art markets on the East Coast, Liu’s work has attracted a wide following, says Joe Sylvan, owner of Sylvan Gallery in the heart of historic old Charleston. “We had a painting of Huihan’s that portrayed Nepalese ballet dancers, and you could have sworn it was a work by Degas,” Sylvan says. “When I say the state of the art community in the American West is stronger than in the East, my friends here think that I’ve lost my mind. But then they see works by artists like Huihan Liu, and they become true believers.”

Liu is represented by Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson Hole, WY; Total Arts Gallery, Taos, NM; Morseburg Galleries, Los Angeles, CA; Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; and Sylvan Gallery, Charleston, SC.

Featured in October 2003