East Meets The West as Chinese Painters Embrace a Region and an Idea
Mian Situ and Z. S. Liang came to the United States from mainland China as art students and already successful painters seeking new influences. And although each of these participants in the Autry’s Masters of the American West show has his own style, both feel a singular attraction for Western vistas and people.
The two have contributed significant works to the Masters of the American West Fine Art Exhibition and Sale, on view in the George C.
Montgomery gallery until March 18.
“Everybody asks me how this started, why Western, why Indians,” Liang said in an interview at his Agoura Hills home just before the show opened Feb. 5. “What do Chinese know about Indians? I say, ‘Well, it’s a long story.’”
He arrived in Boston in 1982, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree at the Massachusetts College of Arts and a master’s degree at Boston University. At the time, Liang was interested in contemporary art but painted commissioned portraits, similar to the work he had done in China.
In the late nineties, he visited Plimoth Plantation, the outdoor historic museum that tells the story of the English colonists of the 1600s and the Wampanoag people they encountered. It also features a reconstruction of a Wampanoag homesite, with Native American staffers who tell tourists stories of both their history and current issues.
“The Indians, they talk about their culture, and their history, and what’s happening today, and how they feel and everything,” he said. “I made some friends there and that’s how I got the inspiration. I started to paint the Indians …. I found it more interesting.”
Liang says he found it easy to relate to Native Americans, because the China he had grown up in was rural and revolved around traditional lifeways.
“When I went to elementary school, I was in my bare feet,” he said. “We raised the chickens on the roof of the building, in a cage, because that’s the best way to get eggs.”
He could appreciate the fact that, for example, when Native Americans had hunted buffalo, they used every single part of the animal — even the dung, for fuel and fertilizer.
“Every piece from the inside out, nothing’s wasted,” he said.
It reminded him of scavenging in construction sites in his village for bent nails to straighten and use for chicken coops.
“When I went to the reservation and I met them, and especially when I learned the history, I just found it was so easy to relate to these people,” he said.
Situ’s was a slightly different journey. He was educated at the Guangzhou Institute of Fine Art,
where he earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. In 1987, he spent a year in the United States as a student, then moved to Canada and lived there 10 years before emigrating for good to the United States. At the time, it was the easiest way to get here.
“It was easy to just go to Canada and then stay there,” he said. “That was the time of the Tiananmen Square event, and the Canadian government granted all the Chinese students permenent resident status there.”
In early June 1989, Chinese students in Beijing gathered at Tiananmen Square in a demonstration that began as mourning for a beloved official but quickly turned into a call for democracy. Early on June 4, the Chinese government brutally put down the protest, killing hundreds.
Living in Vancouver, Situ tried his hand at construction work for about a year.
“It didn’t work out,” he said. “I was not strong enough and I didn’t have knowledge.”
Situ decided to go back to what he knew. He painted in the open, as one of the street artists in Stanley Park in Vancouver.
“When you had luck you might have ten or more people having their portrait done,” he said. “But sometimes you were sitting there; you spent the whole day earning nothing. It happened a lot.”
For himself, he painted what he remembered from his life in China, scenes of rural life there; but they did not earn him a living.
Situ eventually became a Canadian citizen, then arrived with a green card to the United States in 1998. Two years ago, he earned his U.S. citizenship. He said life in the West has involved decisions, and lots of them, many of which he never even conceived of in China.
“The first year I was in America, I didn’t even think about going into the gallery to sell my paintings,” Situ said. “Because it seems impossible. I did try, but you walk into the gallery and they just turn you down. Your work is so different than theirs.”
So he tried painting what other painters were doing: flowers, landscapes, Americans in nice clothes. Those pieces sold, but they didn’t seem to have the spark of his Chinese scenes. Slowly, he gained enough confidence to show those to the gallery owners.
“People said, ‘Wow, you have more soul here in your painting, because that is what you know,’” Situ said. “‘The beautiful painting, the beautiful flower, they are beautiful, but it doesn’t show your soul. But when you do the Chinese countryside scenes, it shows where your love is.’”
Situ met John Geraghty, the originator of the Masters show, after 2000, and almost immediately they struck up a friendship. It wasn’t long before Situ was invited to participate. There was just one caveat. Because the show is about the West, Situ should maybe explore the idea of painting the stories of the Chinese who had gone away to Gold Mountain — that was the name he had heard as a child when people talked about the United States.
“In my village, there were a lot of people that had relatives in America,” Situ said. “We said they were from Gold Mountain because they were rich, compared to what we were.”
But in doing the research for the paintings, Situ found a different story from the tales he heard as a child.
“It was not as easy (for them) as I had thought it was,” he said. “Not many people could get rich by digging for the gold. They had family laundries, or railroad building, or other jobs, instead of just digging the gold.”
Situ believes those other stories he found, the ones he didn’t expect, made for better paintings.
“Beauty is good,” Situ said. “But with some meaning behind the beauty, that will be a better idea for art.”