Liqing Liang has a soft demeanor, a haphazard workspace, and an apparent tendency to gift venti Starbucks lattes to visitors. His work frequently combines ink, acrylic, and even collage to create beautiful, often visually jarring images that are at once reminiscent of the misty scenery of a Chinese landscape and the violent motion of a Jackson Pollock. For nearly two decades, Liang has lived in San Jose, moving here soon after immigrating to the United States from China. He works and teaches out of his garage-turned-studio in West San Jose.
How did you get into painting?
In middle school, in the summer, I saw a poster. It was an old artist that came from France, and on the poster there was a picture of Venus. I felt it was very special, unusual, so I started to learn painting from this old painter. After basic training, I started to learn painting by myself. Then came the cultural revolution in 1966…I had to help to make posters and all kinds of [propaganda] for the revolution.
How’d you go from painting in the cultural revolution to painting in San Jose?
After I did the posters, I started to paint a lot of Chairman Mao portraits. The birthday of Chairman Mao was December 26 so the pictures had to be 12 meters and 26 centimeters tall…Every town had to put the portraits at the cross-sections of the streets. Because the box had four sides, every side needed a portrait of Chairman Mao…The city government wanted me to estimate how much materials would cost and [they ended up filling] a ton-and-a-half truck… After several years, I could go to the university without any tests because I did a lot of great contributions to Chairman Mao…
My father was a fighter pilot for the KMT and went to Taiwan after the war… My parents immigrated to the United States and I came to Los Angeles to live with them because they were American citizens. [I was there] two or three months then I moved up here because I liked San Jose. I decided that I loved the temperature here. So I moved here, rented a house, and ran my own studio.
How did you know about San Jose?
I had a cousin who lived here so I had come here before.
And by then had you developed the style you have now of mixed media?
Yes, I moved up here and started to try a new style, not just realistic like before.
What motivated that?
Because I went to New York to visit the MOMA and Metropolitan Museum and then Washington DC, I fell in love with the modern style.
Were there any particular artists or art styles that you remember?
Picasso, Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh.
Had you been exposed to those artists in China?
Only in photos.
What was the process of developing your current style?
I experimented on a lot of small paintings, combining calligraphy [with other media]…In the process, sometimes I would use my left hand, I would write backwards…Sometimes I would write the calligraphy on rice paper then tear it. The idea came from the cultural revolution because the cultural revolution tore up the whole society. At the time, some people used calligraphy to put posters on walls as advertisements, but another group of people might not agree with you so they would rip them up and tear them into pieces then put their own posters there. This was kind of an inspiration for my art of creation. They would put the poster there,
then the other group would tear it up, then they would put it again, and then they would come out and tear it up. Back and forth. It was a creation. There were no websites, no TV, so all the information other than newspapers [was] on the walls.
Who was tearing down posters?
There were two groups, two entirely different kinds of ideas. They were fighting with each other. Both were red guards…One was conservative that supported the present government and the other group, they wanted to take down the current leadership. At the time, the Chinese president was Liu Shaoqi and the other group supported Chairman Mao…That’s why this is called Wall Energy. The red guards, the energy, the movement. Everything came out of the posters.
What characters do you use?
For the characters, I do not really look at the meaning…All the Chinese characters have different styles…The different characters aren’t important, it’s more the style that I use. I practice this kind of calligraphy every day…In some, it looks like Chinese characters, but you cannot read it. It’s just abstract.
And how did you start doing the texture and color that you now mix in behind the characters?
When I write the calligraphy, before it’s dry, I use ink and pigments and paint to create the texture.
Did you come up with those techniques on your own?
Yes, I tried to create my own techniques. I did some testing in small paintings. It was not successful every time.
What were some of the unsuccessful experiments?
[Leaves and returns with a large stack of paintings.] There’s so many, too many.
What have reactions to your work been like?
In my 2013 solo exhibition [at the Silicon Valley Asian Arts Center] the reactions were not very good. Maybe because it was my first time showing there. Most of the visitors did not know of me…It was better when I was part of a show in San Francisco [in 2012].
Have you gotten any reactions from people back in China to your art?
No, I haven’t had a show in China. I don’t know.
Interview by Justin Sun
Translation by Arthur Kao
Photos by Daniel Garcia