Huang Liyan (artist)
Huang Liyan: I have an unwittingly wicked sense of humor
Interview completed on September 29, 2022
Editor: Emma Lee Images: provided by interviewee and Leo Gallery
Feng Boyi, who has always been a target-oriented curator, chose Shanghai as the location for Huang Liyan’s exhibition, which is called “Not Knowing Any Better”.
I was a little anxious before flying to Shanghai, after all, the 80-day lockdown of the city from March really made each and every one of us tremble. Before flying, I carried out a “zero policy” on my Shenzhen tracks, to eliminate Shenzhen from my “travel code” as it keeps imposing mandatory PCR tests and turning out new cases of COVID-19. When I got off the plane, prepared to be herded into a maze of fences to do the test – but unexpectedly Hongqiao Airport did not turn itself into a battlefield like the train stations in Shenzhen – there wasn’t even a PCR test checkpoint! I felt like a criminal when I just walked out. Hotel check-in was also unexpectedly smooth – no interrogation into past travel records, where exactly I came from, why I didn’t have a local PCR test report yet...
When I arrived at the area where Leo Gallery is located, the security guard asked me to show my Guangdong PCR test report, and I was prepared to have a fight because of the PTSD caused by Shenzhen, but the guard greeted me politely and welcomed me into the area. In Shanghai, the city generally deemed to be the closest to modern civilization, I seemed as if I didn’t know any better…
Exhibition opening forum
Curator Feng Boyi
Wang Xiaosong, Executive Director of Powerlong Museum of Art
From right to left: Hu Bin, Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts; poet Huang Lihai; and artist Huang Liyan
When Feng Bo Yi asked me what I had in mind, I stressed that I would not write inside the framework of art, and that history and the present are the coordinates I most often use. Huang Liyan was born in the 70s. Compared with people born in the 60s, who carry a heavy sense of history, and those born in the 80s, who herald the beginning of the Internet generation, Huang Liyan’s generation, who are caught in the middle, inevitably fail to stand out. They form the backbone of social units – institutions, enterprises, and families – and accomplish their social mission peacefully, without making any fuss, and are the raw force that constitutes the most stable social structure in China. So, is there any value in discussing the artistic creations of this generation? How can artistic life resist the erosion of mediocrity in the midst of the bread-and-butter earning of raising a family? In the face of the rapid progress of the new generation of artists, how can they avoid falling into the psychological trap of anxiety and stick to their own artistic expression with ease?
When I met with Huang Liyan after returning to Guangzhou from Shanghai, he sent me a location in an urban village on the edge of Tianhe district in advance. When I stepped out of the shiny subway station, everything was the most familiar scene in my 13 years of working in art: the curved and dimly-lit lanes, the wildly growing urban villages and residents, the open-air stall for dinner, the dark stairs to the bright and clean studio, the introverted and reticent artist who spoke with a strong accent. It was as if I had stepped into the time tunnel of my career.
Huang Liyan followed a couple of friends to learn painting when he was in junior high school, and since then he has been fond of this profession. He studied at the Guangdong University of Education as an undergraduate, and then went to the oil painting department of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts for his master’s degree, staying in Guangzhou after graduation. In 2013, he moved to Beijing, where he especially liked the four distinctly separate seasons. He returned to Guangzhou at the end of last year to put his children in school. He and his wife divide the work: he takes care of the children during the day, and the nights belong to him.
He believes that human nature is more or less the same at any stage of human history and likes to think about nihilism and animism/mysticism. For a man who cares about history and the present, but cannot speak out in the arena of public opinion, painting provides a Limbo for catharsis. Quite often one has to believe in the role of Chinese names for personality construction – “Li Yan”, literally “to establish a language”, to insist on the redemption of self in a society where most people are devoted to either looking after his own hide, silly sentiments, self-pity, or precise avoidance of political topics, is rare, and undoubtedly “contemporary”.
Christ in Limbo (c. 1575) by an anonymous follower of Hieronymus Bosch
Limbo is a neutral state in which a soul that was neither good nor evil awaits Judgment Day, and is described as an eternal state of natural joy. It is this state that I read from Huang Liyan's works. His people, objects and scenes are all suspended, pointing neither to reality alone nor to absurdity alone, but to bliss – eternal suspension, eternal stillness, eternal joy. This seems to be in line with our present, and even the spirituality of the whole nation. I said in the midst of today’s extremely depressing reality and historical legacies, the artist was lucky to be able to walk into a parallel universe and gain some strength, and Huang Liyan smiled at that.
At the opening forum in Shanghai, a girl who called herself “an artist born in the 90s” provided a typical sample of the generation: she said that the division of generations is too simple, and admitted that there is a lack of communication between generations, both individually and as a group. People of her generation and later ones enjoy the privileges of their time, but are not aware of how hard it is to get there – but when you think about it, they really don't need to be informed either, as each generation carries the cross that belongs to that time.
The root of many of China's problems can be traced back to its civilizational tradition, which lacks the nurture of the Western religions rooted in “love and tolerance”. This is also the cause of the silence and amnesia of the whole nation: as long as the disaster does not happen to me, it is none of my business. If you have no sense of your own roots, of yourself, of the reality around you, then I can only wish you a long life.
Rooted in reality, Huang Liyan's paintings focus on the dilemmas of individuals in real situations. Through his work, he perceives and balances the relationship between himself and the world, establishing a unique expressionist style in his continuous reflection on the living conditions of man. He emphasizes the sensibility of creation, focusing on the often-neglected moving moments in life. Through a spectator's perspective, he extracts, edits and reconstructs scenes and images that are often bizarre yet profound, giving his works a sense of magical realism balancing between documentation and fiction. His art constructs mysterious and twisted contexts that are born between the conflicts of time and space, people and animals, self and non-self.
Huang Liyan's major solo exhibitions include: “Man, Creature, Wandering Immortal” (Tokyo Gallery + Beijing Tokyo Art Projects, 2019); “Disguise” (Kui Yuan Gallery, 2018); “Light – Huang Liyan’s Solo Exhibition” (MoShang Experiment Space, 2017); “The White Moon” (MoShang Gallery, 2017); and “Huang Liyan: The Incubus Illuminates the Reality” (White Box Art Center, 2014). His works have also been included in exhibitions held by the Guangdong Museum of Art, Hubei Museum of Art, ACC Creative Center (Gwangju, South Korea), S.E Gallery (Bergen, Norway), and Times Art Museum Beijing.