Today’s art, on the surface, looks so different from the past. But the content is still the same.
From the age of six, Ning Hou showed an affinity for painting. But it wasn’t until he was taken to visit an exhibition during his teen years that he first witnessed art in the flesh. Having only encountered paintings in textbooks up to that point, the boy was enthralled by the layering and texture of the paint. “I wanted to touch them,” he remembers. He spent his visit ricocheting between masterpieces and lobbing questions at anyone who might have the answers to them. What’s that technique called? What was this artist’s intention? What makes that piece significant?
But there was one question that fascinated Ning Hou above all the rest: What was it about these featured works that spanned the generations? “Today’s art, on the surface, looks so different from the past,” he remarks. “But the content is still the same. There’s still one subject.” He realized life was that unifying theme, linking people across neighborhoods, across oceans, even across decades. “Not many people can live over a hundred years old,” Ning Hou says. “In human civilization, that seems like a long time…but it’s still very short when compared with the universe.”
Ning Hou’s next step was instilling life (or soul) into his work. “I learned that soul is not myself,” he says. “It’s not my Chinese culture either.” Instead, he finds “soul” by channeling what he calls chi (or life force). It’s a discipline he hones through practiced concentration. “You can’t think of something else while you’re painting,” he explains. For instance, while painting city scenes during his years in San Francisco, Ning Hou carried only his supplies because public transportation necessitated traveling light. Without a chair, he was forced to kneel on the uneven ground of San Francisco’s infamous sloped hills while capturing the city on canvas one color at a time. Despite a great deal of back pain, Ning Hou was delighted to find that these experiences heightened his ability to stay attentive to his work.
But how is an intangible concept like life portrayed on canvas? Ning Hou enjoys exploring the subject of life in all its forms, portraying people as well as animals (which might explain why he owns five dogs and nine cats). Even his landscapes discuss life. “I would say any green leaf or pink color represents a freshness,” he explains. He also reflects on the fact that there’s an element of the natural world that is required to achieve life: “Earth is just like other stars in the galaxy…but the difference is water.” Humans, animals, and plants are all completely reliant on this source.
When Ning Hou isn’t painting, he’s teaching. Over the years, he’s lectured on a number of subjects, including art history, abstract painting, finger painting, and, perhaps most surprisingly, anatomy. Although his expertise in the field of anatomy is not completely unexpected, considering his fascination with life and the fact that both his parents were prestigious doctors. “The best part is teaching people to deliberate—to find their own feelings toward their subject. Not my feelings. Not the style.”
He also enjoys coaching his pupils in how to regard their paintbrushes from a new perspective. He does this by pointing out that these tools are each comprised of “250 hairs bonding together as one brush.” This unity, he explains, is a network just like the nervous system which connects the nerves in his students’ fingers that are sensing the brush with the rest of their bodies—even with their hearts.
With his zeal for life, Ning Hou has weighty ambitions for the future. Someday, his goal is to present a painting to the White House. “It will be 187 feet long, 10 feet high,” Ning Hou describes. “You’ll see 365 events that have happened in the last 90 years in 187 countries. It’ll be so detailed you’ll have to use a magnifying glass to find my brushstrokes.” With such a mindset, what can hinder this confident soul from achieving his vision?
Ning Hou’s oil paintings will be on view at the Silicon Valley Asian Art Center & Narx Gallery from February 24 to March 21, 2018.
Written by Johanna Hickle
Photography by Daniel Garcia