Li Jiaduo, a visiting artist from Beijing, spent weeks touring national parks and painting icons of the American West in a traditional Chinese style.
Delicate Arch towers over its surroundings in rugged southern Utah, standing out for its majesty even in an area where everywhere one looks, red rocks, sheer cliffs and craggy, million-year-old formations stand.
Yet it is tiny compared to the skyscrapers in Beijing.
About 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, strapping on backpacks and hiking boots to climb down into the ever-changing national treasure that, at 277 miles long and 1,902 square miles, each with stories told in its layers, earns its name at every step.
It also is tiny compared to China's superlative. The Great Wall of China is 5,500 miles long and gets more than 10 million visitors a year.
Still, a Chinese artist who lives in Beijing found himself drawn to the natural wonders of the United States and spent time not only hiking but also painting the traditional scenes of America in the traditional Chinese landscape style. Those paintings, which seem foreign yet familiar at the same time, are on display at the International Cultural Center (ICC) at Texas Tech University through Oct. 18, with a lecture and reception with the artist on Oct. 13.
About the artist and his art
Li Jiaduo, a visiting artist in the School of Art at Texas Tech University and assistant professor at Beijing Normal University, focuses on Chinese landscape painting. At home, he teaches and researches landscape painting, Chinese flower-and-bird painting techniques and painting from nature.
When he came to the United States, he found a vastly different landscape and nature experience than what he left behind, and he wondered how these images would look in his style of painting.
To that end, he traveled the western United States, spending a few days in 11 national parks, recreation areas and monuments. He drove and hiked through the parks, checking out the various attractions, and the sights and experiences for which each park is best known. Like any tourist, he captured the views in pictures.
Li, however, took photos with his paintings in mind. He had a rough idea of the images he wanted to create, but he wanted to be faithful to the landscape in front of him, which meant letting go of some preconceived ideas both of his painting style and the subjects of his paintings.
"I did not do much to change the scenery," he said. "I think my painting should respect the objects; otherwise we lose the meaning of on-site painting. I still used traditional Chinese painting techniques simply to describe what I saw."
His mode of painting focuses on the use of black ink. He used various sizes of Chinese paintbrushes, layers of ink and different shades of black to recreate the mountains, waters, rock and plants from each place.
Chinese landscape painting goes deeper than the image on the paper as well. It uses cavalier perspective, which allows him to paint several different scenes in one composition. This gives his images a three-dimensional aspect that brought scenes like the Grand Canyon, the cliffs of Yosemite and the cave dwellings of Bandelier to life.
Finally, Chinese landscape painting allows the artist to emphasize the classical Chinese philosophy of the poetic meaning, illustrating the historical and individual significance of these landmarks outside of the rocks and trees of which they are composed.
When he wasn't painting, Li shared his techniques with students, including those in art professor Tina Fuentes' classes. Fuentes said Li helped her students make strong, dramatic works with only black ink and a bamboo brush by changing the swiftness of his strokes, the pressure on his brush and the ink washes.
"Students were most fascinated with the manner in which a simple mark can reveal so much within the composition," she said. "This helped them progress and transfer into additional watercolor painting."
It was interesting for her as well; she uses acrylic and oil paints, which typically creates a more textured surface and bolder colors and often makes for a more aggressive approach to painting.
About the exhibition
The paintings of West x East are as diverse as the various landscapes they represent. It was not an easy task, the artist said.
"It's a very challenging experience, and at the same time it brings me a fresh point of view to Chinese landscape painting as well," Li said. "I hope the exhibition will bring American audiences a different artistic experience."
Engaging with the art is challenging in its own way, said Jane Bell, senior director of outreach and operations at the ICC. Viewers are able to experience these familiar landscapes in new ways.
"It is really quite amazing to see the iconic canyons of the American West painted in the classical Chinese landscape style," she said. "Li Jiaduo forces the viewer to look deeply, with fresh vision, at these vast landscapes we thought we knew. By applying classical Chinese landscape painting techniques, painting on rice paper and mounting on silk, Li Jiaduo has transformed these beloved spaces into something altogether different – familiar, yet unfamiliar – and beautiful in an entirely unexpected way."