“Winning the freedom, joy and high spirits of the soul”
March 21st – March 30th
By MARK BLOCH, March 2019
Twenty years ago, Mao Li began “Winning the freedom, joy and high spirits of the soul,” the exhibition of her series of “100 Chinese Dolls” as a vision of what she now calls “a spiritual project.” She says she “sat like a Buddha” for 13 years, going back to her time in China, contemplating the idea one hundred paintings and doing research. Then, in 2004, she moved from Beijing to Puerto Rico, where her husband already lived. Before she moved, she began to paint the 100 doll paintings and the project then continued in San Juan, Puerto Rico and finally in New York City where she moved less than a year ago.
She has now completed 100 numbered oil paintings. Each work is a separate “doll,” an image of a female child that possesses “an immortal spirit.” To her, each Chinese doll “is a spiritual body symbol that transcends time and space.” Most of the paintings are small and squarish- 20 x 24 inches. A few much larger ones, five feet by 50 inches, stare out from the back wall of this Hackensack gallery where Mao’s complete vision of all 100 paintings are being seen for the first time.
It is a bit overwhelming to see them all as each one tells a powerful story by itself. But seeing the entire project together also pieces together the mosaic of Mao’s fascinating story.
Mao Li was born in Beijing in 1963 and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in literature from Beijing Normal University in 1989. She went on to advanced studies in oil painting at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts from 1992 to 1995. She left Beijing in 2004 for Puerto Rico where she remained until Hurricane Maria hit in 2017. She suffered some damage to her paintings and other projects and decided to leave what she calls “the mysterious, isolated island of the Caribbean.” But she still speaks lovingly of Old San Juan, which she considered “the second hometown of my life.”
She tried Miami and Orlando but was not happy until she found New York, which she now sees as “an international gathering place for the world.” Mao participated this month in Export 2019: A Joint Exhibition of International Artists curated by Xuewu Zheng and Emilie Houssart in Poughkeepsie in which over 50 visiting Chinese artists were joined by 21 local American artists from the Hudson Valley to create a cultural dialogue through the arts.
According to SJ Yoon, the owner of the Riverside Gallery, this exhibit of the 100 Dolls project is Mao’s first one person show in the United States.
The dolls each project a serious, thoughtful, but mystical air that Mao calls “a sensible spirit.” The deliberately decorative color scheme of the project as a whole is very much resonant with Puerto Rican and Latin American traditions while Mao’s subject matter feels closer to those of China. Her goal was to combine traditional and the modern of both cultures.
“Art is a visual experience. It should deliver the most visual impact,” she explains. “So l strengthen the colors. Just like Van Gogh, I give all my attention to my passion.”
While Mao studied oil painting but never traditional Chinese brush painting, she enthusiastically cites Kua Fu, a mythological giant who wished to capture the sun and Nüwa, the mother goddess of Chinese mythology, who is credited with creating mankind and rejuvenating the Pillar of Heaven when Heaven and Earth were in disarray. “Kua Fu chases the sun while Nüwa patches the sky,” she tells me when I inquire why many of the figures seem to hover, float or fly over landscapes.
The deep oranges, yellows, pinks and blues of her street scenes, reminscent of De Chirico, and the lush greens of her background vistas, combine with the quality of her workmanship to recall the art of many different indigenous cultures that inhabit the Americas, with reverence to beloved forms of folk art and Puerto Rican art in particular, that evolved partly from the Spanish church's use of art to convert natives to Christianity.
Even the religious and spiritual concerns of Pre-Columbian art before European colonization is evoked by elements in Mao’s scenes which range from carnival-like street celebrations to Chinese traffic jams and isolated, detached soaring figures. Just as the blending of Native American, African and European cultures has resulted in a unique mestizo tradition that applies to any Hispanic person of mixed racial origins in Latin America as well as in Spain and the Philippines, Mao’s pilgrimage from Beijing to a strange new land has resulted in a hybrid experience of two colliding cultures that seem strangely integrated.
While the doll faces have the popular appeal of Asian anime characters on one hand, they can also resemble the dignified sculpted stone representations of the Olmec “colossal heads” of south-central Mexico.
Mao turns masked papier-mâché Caribbean figures with horns and antlers into joyful, surrealistic images and makes them her own. She carefully transforms into spiritual symbols, ancient aggressive images that the Spanish once used to frighten lapsed Christians to return to the church or used by tribal Africans to ward off evil spirits.
Mao “did a lot of research about the clothes, scenery and other details” that populate the works. She is proud of the unique fabrics and textures that are part of each doll. She points out details like “pleats” and “doors.” These represent life to her. “Like a flaming flower,” she says.
Finally perhaps the most contemporary looking piece in the show is the slightly crazed doll that lingers above a packed motorcade with tiny cars backed up for miles. In addition to the doll, one tiny lone figure can be spotted in the distance on each side of the traffic jam. “They are unable to connect,” she tells me. Meanwhile the sky contains faint mysterious waves of an electrical field that she tells me represents “gathering storms.”
I ask her if the dolls are self-portraits. She replies that “other artists pay attention to science, design, form.” She, by contrast, is concerned with “internal source, nature and feeling.” So I ask again if they are autobiographical and she tells me “What is important is to cultivate the mind, like planting a seed.” After a pause she admits elusively, “My paintings are very close to my life, portrayals of my life. The doll is a symbol of a spiritual body. And every background is full of my life story.” WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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