Hsin-Yao Tseng draws on ancient and modern aesthetics to portray the world around him
By Gussie Fauntleroy
It cannot have been easy for an urban teen, born and raised in the city of Taipei, Taiwan, to find himself living in a rural Wisconsin community seemingly populated with “nothing but deer, trees, and snow,” as he remembers it now. Hsin-Yao Tseng, who was 18 years old when he came to this country, struggled with a new language and culture, missed the foods he’d grown up with, and was an ocean plus half a continent away from everyone he knew.
But his father had been wise in sending him there. It was an immersion education in a place with no other Mandarin speakers and very few other Asians, where Hsin-Yao (pronounced Shin-Yow) might stretch his potential and gain an edge in preparing himself for life in the global future. As it turned out, his personal future took an auspicious turn after he had been in Wisconsin about a year. Taking an art class to continue with his childhood love of drawing and painting, he met a classmate who told him about the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. In 2005 he moved there and enrolled.
Today Tseng has a bachelor of fine arts in painting and drawing, a command of the English language, and a busy life in an urban setting that not only feels comfortable but also provides unlimited subject matter to paint. Even as he works toward a master’s degree, the 25-year-old artist is finding a growing number of galleries and collectors drawn to the exceptional talent and broad stylistic range reflected in his work. His paintings—cityscapes, landscapes, portraits, trompe l’oeil still lifes, and figurative work—have earned national and international awards in the past three years alone. “Hsin-Yao is a talented young artist with a mastery of technique well beyond his years,” notes David Wilkinson, director of Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ, which represents Tseng. “His use of light and deliberate brush strokes brings the viewer into his paintings for a visual journey.”
Looking back on his own life’s journey so far, Tseng describes himself as “born to be an artist.” But that could not have been predicted from the circumstances into which he was born. A quiet boy and the only child of a Taiwanese engineer and a homemaker, he took no art classes in school. He had no role model for an art career and lived in a city in which the fine-art market was not especially strong. As a result, he might have taken another path altogether if it weren’t for a cousin who was studying art. One day when Tseng was 10, his cousin came for a visit and began showing him how to draw. “When my cousin came over, I was so impressed and jealous,” he remembers. “I thought, Oh! One day I want to do that!” He also thought he might like to teach art some day—but first he had to learn.
Tseng’s mother noticed his interest and signed him up for an after-school art class. His parents, while not artistic themselves, bought him art supplies and offered encouragement and support, despite the apparent lack of opportunity for a career in fine art. “That’s part of the reason I came here,” he says of his move to the United States. With initiative and determination, he not only dove into a new culture and tongue but also set off on a disciplined journey into various approaches to working with paint. And he has no plans at this point to stop exploring and settle on just one.
“To me an artist is always seeking their own personal voice, their own style—but I always ask my teachers, how do I find my style?” he relates. “They all say to keep painting and eventually a style comes out for you.” For now, Tseng moves easily between a finely controlled, realistic approach in portraits and figurative work, where the touch of the artist’s hand seems to disappear, and much looser, more expressively spontaneous brushwork in his cityscapes. His tranquil pastoral landscapes fall somewhere in between, while in trompe l’oeil still-life imagery he returns to exquisitely rendered detail with everyday objects arranged in intriguing, gravity-defying poise.
With his master’s thesis focused on the visual depiction of relationships, Tseng has turned his attention in large part to figurative works in settings that often suggest a narrative. In planning and creating NEW BEGINNING, for example, he recruited a couple of friends to pose in an emotionally evocative scene. A melancholy looking young woman sits alone at an outdoor café table with a single coffee cup whose handle and spoon point toward an empty chair, hinting that someone has gotten up and left. Through the open café window, facing the woman but not looking at her, we glimpse a solitary man. “It’s the idea of change and new relationships,” the artist observes, adding, “The cloudy day fits the mood.”
A warmer look at relationships appears in NOSTALGIA, in which three young girls idly dip their fingers in a fountain on a lazy summer afternoon. The painting suggested itself to Tseng while he was at a party near Napa, CA, he recalls. “I love photography, so I always have my camera with me. I saw these kids playing at a fountain, and it made me think of when I was little and always playing with my best friends.” The image conveys a sense of comfortable intimacy in which the timeless setting is simply an excuse for friends to be together, sharing quiet thoughts. In WAITING TO LEAVE, a considerably less comfortable pair sits spiritlessly on an art-museum couch, oblivious to the great artworks suggested along the painting’s upper edge. “It reminded me of kids always waiting for their parents to finish enjoying art, but they’re so bored,” the artist says with a smile.
Back home in San Francisco, Tseng makes the daily half-hour walk from his downtown apartment to the small on-campus studio he was assigned as a graduate student at the Academy of Art University, in the city’s North Beach area. His pedestrian commute takes him across grassy hills and near photogenic wharfs, and he often gathers painting ideas as he goes. On his studio walls is further inspiration: prints by artists he admires, including John Singer Sargent, Italian painter Antonio Mancini, and Spanish artist Ramon Casas i Carbó. The work of living representational artists, such as Richard Schmid, Morgan Weistling, and Jeremy Lipking, also keeps him striving to excel; Tseng frequently attends openings and spends time in galleries that carry the genres he loves. At the academy, the artist’s present-day mentors include Fine Art Department Director Craig Nelson, whom Tseng credits with guiding him in the business side of art, and portrait and figure painting instructor Zhaoming Wu.
While his studio space is limited, Tseng almost always has two or three paintings in process at once. When he’s ready for a break from the demanding control required with figurative and portrait painting, he turns to the collection of photos he has taken of city scenes. The frenetic energy of lights, traffic, and movement is translated on canvas in the excitement of freer, more impressionistic strokes.
Even in quiet architectural images, such as OUT, Tseng sometimes employs thicker paint with highly expressive brushwork to convey the textures of time and memory. The painting captures the feeling of a worn building with an equally weathered green door, which opened into a courtyard at his grandmother’s house outside Taipei. As a boy Tseng visited his grandmother often, passing through the green door. As the title suggests, the door now represents an imagined boundary separating the bygone world of childhood reveries and Old China—within his grandmother’s courtyard and house—from the modern world outside. “I chose that door to paint because everything is changing, moving, and time goes so fast. But every time I go back, that door is the same,” he explains.
Ancient China offers Tseng another source of inspiration as well, one that paradoxically is reflected in some of his most contemporary work. In his Composition series, the artist creates fully realized cityscapes, brimming with activity and depth, whose uneven borders are produced by energetic black brush strokes that flare off into white. The effect borrows from the aesthetic of Chinese brush-and-ink paintings while also reflecting such modernist considerations as experimentation, radical shifts in perspective, and a focus on the surface qualities of canvas and paint.
Yet even in more conventional works, Tseng is drawn to the underlying rhythms of color and composition that make up any painting’s essentially abstract core. As he walks through the city with his camera or sifts through photos of people and places, or as he explores the range of human emotions in his series on relationships, any subject can catch his eye. “As long as it has beautiful light and shadows, patterns, or people doing ordinary things,” he affirms. “The world has become unpredictable, so I want to remind people of simple, ordinary situations.”
But one thing Tseng does not want becoming predictable is his art. He has no desire, just yet, to narrow his creative explorations to any single approach. “In the future, my figures might get looser, maybe,” he ventures, and then smiles. “Or maybe not.”
Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; The Garden Gallery, Half Moon Bay, CA; Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; www.hsinyaotseng.mosaicglobe.com.
Featured in December 2011.