Li Huayi: Landscapes for Our Time

Nov 5, 2019

Li Huayi. Autumn Mountain/At the Edge of the Sky, 2007 Ink and color on paper Yiqingzhai Collection (L2016-67.01)
Credit honolulu museum of art

Beginning in the Tang dynasty over a thousand years ago, Chinese landscape painting was seen as a way for cultured people to commune with nature. The exhibition now at the Honolulu Museum of Art is solidly a part of that tradition, but, according to the show’s curator, these paintings say more about the present, than the past. Li Huayi’s huge ink paintings plunge you into a non-rational world.

Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Art at the Honolulu Museum of Art, first encountered Li Huayi's work about fifteen years ago. This exhibition was instigated by a gift from collector, Kathy Young, who donated a Li Huayi painting to HoMA.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

“Contemporary Landscapes, Li Huayi” continues at the Honolulu Museum of Art through January 5, 2020. 

Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Art at the Honolulu Museum, has been working on this show by Li Huayi for eight years.

“Over the course of planning this exhibition what I realized was that ideas about what defines contemporary art are really changing and shifting right now. It’s actually quite an exciting time.”

Eichman says over 20% of last year’s art dollars were spent in China, and the art market is shifting from NYC to a more global field. Even international aesthetics, he asserts, are evolving from the post-modern tear down of modernism, seeing the world through sarcasm and irony, to a post post-modern world that includes other concerns.

“A sincere vision of beauty would have been the kiss of death for an artist 20 years ago, if you wanted to have a successful career,” says Eichman.

“As the market forces are shifting, so the tastes are shifting as well. So Huayi, who didn’t fit into the paradigms of what was successful in the art market twenty years ago, now the art market has caught up with him.  He’s very much a leading artist in China.”

Li is a hybrid, trained in Chinese ink painting, he studied classical Western painting, painted propaganda murals for the Cultural Revolution, then absorbed abstract expressionism in San Francisco in the 1970’s.

Eichman says Li’s goal was to take abstaraction and boil down traditional Chinese art down to its ultimate abstract essence.

In classic Pollock style, Li starts with a horizontal painting surface, dropping ink and washes into water, letting materials begin the conversation. He then zooms in on details, ultimately covering yards and yards of surface area with tiny brush strokes.  Like atomic particles, the strokes build on each other until a forest appears, above an echoing chasm, banks of cloud obscure the ridge ahead, and stepping back, a cliff plunges to your right.

“The minute you stand in front of a painting,” says Eichman “Your feet are glued to the floor. It’s an overwhelming experience on a visceral level.”  

These huge ink landscapes may look familiar, but they feel daring.  Li says this about his work: “I think being contemporary means communicating your spirit, being responsible to other people, and being true to yourself and your time.”

“We’ve locked ourselves into this one way of thinking about art that is now losing its relevance,” says Eichman. “What’s exciting about that is, there’s a new way of thinking about art that is emerging that has a new relevance for us.”

Eichman actually used the word, sincerity.

Autumn Mountain/At the Edge of the Sky, 2007 Ink and color on paper Yiqingzhai Collection (L2016-67.01)
Credit honolulu museum of art