Landscape painter Li Huayi talks to Spark about his life as an artist and the different forms of art that have shaped his work over the course of his life — traditional Chinese landscape painting, modern American abstraction and Chinese propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution — in terms of composition, content and style. In his contemporary works, Li Huayi is able to unite aspects of traditional and modern styles and genres to create innovative paintings that are highly regarded throughout the world.
Li Huayi was born in 1948 in Shanghai, a major international port city in the People’s Republic of China. Schooled as a painter from the age of 6, Li Huayi was educated in the techniques and traditions of landscape and flower painting by some of China’s most accomplished artists. As a teenager, he studied Western drawing and painting with a Chinese artist educated at the Royal Academy in Belgium. When he was in his 20s, the Cultural Revolution of the Communist Party was fully under way under the chairmanship of Mao Tse Tung, and Li Huayi was forced into a job as a “worker artist” creating propaganda images for the Socialist Party. Li Huayi finally left China in 1982 at the age of 34, relocating to San Francisco. Once here, Li Huayi was drawn to the powerful Northern California landscape, an inspiration that eventually drew him back to landscape painting after completing his studies at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.
Although Li Huayi’s paintings appear to be classical paintings, they are actually contemporary artworks that are made in the style and tradition of Chinese landscape paintings using traditional materials, subjects and compositions. He has brought his experiences in graphic arts as a creator of propaganda as well as his recent studies of American abstraction and modern art into the tradition of Chinese painting.
Spark visits Li Huayi at work in his studio and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where he discusses the similarities between Chinese painting and abstract expressionism, particularly the energy and spontaneity of the brushstrokes. This energy or “ch’i” (dynamic force), forms the basic compositional direction of Li Huayi’s paintings, defining the direction of verticals and horizontals as well as large areas of light and dark.