I paint from historical photographs, usually those taken of Chinese subjects by foreigners. These have included 19th century images of Chinese female “types,” prostitutes, child street acrobats, war refugees, and women laboring at such tasks as pulling a boat upriver, operating an industrial-scale loom, and walking in circles (like mules) behind the handle of a millstone grinder.
As a painter, I am interested in subjecting the documentary authority of historical photographs to the more reflective process of painting; I want to both preserve and destroy the image. Much of the meaning of my painting comes from the way the washes and drips dissolve the photo-based images, opening them to a slower kind of looking, suggesting perhaps the cultural and personal narratives fixed in the photographic instant.
I also introduce traditional Chinese painting motifs into the photo-based field, hoping to enliven and stir up its surface. These include images of birds, flowers, stamps, and landscapes, among others, all borrowed from Chinese art history and suspended in the paintings. The traditional motifs evoke a sense of the cultural memory underlying the surfaces of history. In particular, the stylized Chinese birds - some from paintings as old as one thousand years - seem like witnesses from China’s past, overlooking and commenting upon events from its modern era. Thus, two layers of historical representation – from traditional painting and modern photography – co-exist in my paintings. The result of this overlay is a liberation of the rigid methodology of socialist realism – the style in which I was trained in China – as an improvisational painting style in which the photo-realism used in the service of propaganda dissolves into a fresh kind of history painting. In other words, I convert socialist realism into social realism.
Altogether, I hope to wash my subjects of their exotic “otherness” and reveal them as dignified, even mythic figures on the grander scale of history painting. I am looking for the mythic pose beneath the historical figure - and the painting beneath the photograph.