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‘Constraint and Transcendence’: La Jolla artist’s new exhibit explores merging versions of herself

La Jolla resident, UC San Diego faculty member and artist Huai Li is preparing a new exhibit in Escondido.
La Jolla resident, UC San Diego faculty member and artist Huai Li is preparing a new exhibit at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido that will invite viewers to compare works completed when Li was based in China with those done after she relocated to the United States.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Huai Li, who grew up in China ‘isolated culturally [and] politically,’ finds herself constantly evolving as she reveals her ‘uniqueness.’

Longtime La Jolla resident, UC San Diego faculty member and artist Huai Li is preparing a new solo exhibit to reveal herself through a midcareer retrospective.

“Huai Li: Constraint and Transcendence” will run Saturday, Oct. 22, through Sunday, Feb. 26, at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido.

The exhibit will include about 100 pieces of Li’s multimedia art produced from 1977 to 2022, inviting viewers to compare works completed when she was based in China with those done after she relocated to the United States.

Li, who teaches an installation class and Chinese calligraphy at UCSD, is formally trained as a filmmaker and multimedia artist. Some of her works belong to the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Li has had solo exhibitions in Italy, Taiwan, France, Hong Kong, United Kingdom and Singapore. Her first large exhibition in San Diego was in 1989 at the Museum of Art.

Response to revolution

Li’s early works were in the years after the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which took place from 1966 to 1976 under the direction of Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong as part of his aim to strengthen communism.

Western arts were taboo, Li said, but after the revolution and her enrollment in the Beijing Film Academy, there was an “incredible awakening” among the Chinese, she said.

Li explored that theme in her early art, with pieces hinting at new hope, rebirth and life after death.

Some of Huai Li's pieces, like this one, are based on classical Chinese landscape paintings.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Other pieces are part of a series based on classical Chinese landscape paintings. Others are Li’s perspectives on Western religious art.

Materials to learn about Western art were scant, however. Li said the first time she saw religious iconography, impressionist works and the “Mona Lisa,” she was breathless and longed to learn more.

“Because we grew up very isolated culturally [and] politically, in many ways as individuals … the more you are controlled, the more you want to know,” she said.

Li said she learned to replicate Renaissance-era art techniques and the self-discipline required to undertake them. The completed pieces are precious to her because of that effort and focus.

Restless kind of transition’

One of Huai Li's early pieces explores Western religious iconography.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Over the years, Li met her now-husband, UCSD faculty member Paul Pickowicz, and moved to California in 1988. She mixed media and employed various techniques to demonstrate the merging of rigorous Chinese fundamental training with American critical thinking.

The critical-thinking component was “severely limited” in China, Li said. “In China, you just follow the rules.”

She became appreciative of “one’s mind and the power you have as an individual” once she began the master of fine arts program at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

Artistry “is all about the uniqueness,” Li said. “It’s all about how I see the world, how I relate to the world.”

Her California arts education was an “exciting, confusing [and] restless kind of transition,” she said.

Li reconciled her confusion at her sudden liberation from Chinese censorship of self by creating pieces containing “personal residue,” she said.

‘Where is my voice?’

Walking around her in-home art studio, which Li calls “the lab,” she said, “This is the place I do a lot of thinking, experimentations, discovery and failure.”

Just as much of Li’s work is continuous, often undergoing alterations until “it completely transforms,” so, too, is the artist constantly evolving, translating her “exotic” background into American culture through the manipulation of her artistic media.

Art education in China is passed down from authority to student, resulting in the production of similar works, Li said. “It’s very hard to see the artists behind the work.”

With her art, Li tries to uncloak herself in every piece, asking, “Where is my voice?”

She hopes to entice the viewer to respond in kind.

“We’re all different, with a different cultural history, memory, background, all those things,” Li said.

That elicits varying reactions to artistic works and “makes your work even more interesting,” she said.

“That’s … why I love contemporary art. You see it, you make connections.”

A reception for “Huai Li: Constraint and Transcendence” will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2, including food, drink and music.

The California Center for the Arts is at 340 N. Escondido Blvd. For more information, visit artcenter.org.