Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.
For me, chatting with Chinese artist Xi Hou in Monterey Park about her paintings was the perfect way to begun the Chinese Lunar New Year. According to Chinese astrologists, 2014 -- the Year of the Wood Horse -- will be full of energy and dramatic change, with the potential for violence, since the element of wood can be ignited by the fiery nature of the horse. Xi Hou's paintings have little to do with Chinese astrological or even artistic traditions, but on this auspicious afternoon our conversation was focused almost entirely on the explosive energy and change expressed in her work.
At first glance, Xi Hou's paintings appear to be works of abstract expression. Flat areas of vivid colors interact dynamically with slender, irregular lines of dripped paint; sometimes the colors are framed by the lines, but often they refuse to be contained and spread themselves over the surface of the canvas. In "Disappear," as in many of her recent paintings, one assumes that the splattering of pigments on the canvas is caused by a Pollock-esque explosion of emotion and paint. Indeed, the paintings are expressions of Hou's emotions and exude energy, but they are neither entirely abstract nor spontaneous. "I don't know if I'm painting an abstract painting," she explains. "I'm just painting my feelings." Once we look deeply into the colors and outlines, we can see swaying figures of people, water, landscapes. In these canvases, powerful emotions are expressed, but very carefully and deliberately. The lines and colors of each image are mapped out first on a computer, then projected onto her canvas. She then draws over each line with colored pencil, applies the blocks of color and then at the very end adds lines of dripped pigment to complete the work. "I couldn't do paintings like Jackson Pollock," admits Hou. "I would be lost."
In her paintings, Hou is far from lost and her emotions are palpable. Through her meticulous placement of line and thoughtful choice of color, she manages to convey joy, anxiety, calm and impatience. In works like "Drifting Clouds and Flowing Water," her combination of irregular, almost erratic shapes with hard relief lines allows her to explore the tension between the static and dynamic. Here, she expresses exuberance as shadowy figures appear to leap across bodies of still water with vigor and grace. Their journey seems to parallel her own cultural journey. Hou is originally from Sichuan in southwestern China. She studied art at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, going on to teach art and exhibit her work in galleries in Chengdu, Shanghai and Hong Kong. In 2010 she met Tom Mai, a customer in a gallery in Shanghai who admired her work and wanted to discuss it further with the artist. Their talks went beyond art and they married shortly after. She returned with him to his home in Monterey Park.
Hou explains that the paintings she made in China express very different emotions from those she has painted since moving to California. "In those paintings, I tried to show my feelings of being in a crowded city and living in a country where I wasn't free to express myself." The work, "Vanishing - Door," with its tightly compacted rows of architectural lines and a single door that appears permanently shut, clearly reflects the sense of physical and emotional oppression and the suppression of energy she experienced living in China. Even the acrylic colors she employed were often muted, as if they too were prevented from revealing their potential. The title of the series it belongs to, "Vanishing," also hints at the impotence an individual can feel in such a vast, populous and controlled state.
After she arrived in Southern California, she felt herself opening up emotionally and transforming artistically, focusing less on depictions of her own life and more on philosophical explorations of energy and change, tranquility and dynamism. Her approach to color also shifted. Vivid reds, blues and yellows, applied in flat, irregular blocks, began to feature more in her work and lines grew and spread beyond the edge of a single canvas, often creating a need for multiple canvases. This evolution is exemplified by the series of six panels entitled "8am-6pm," which appears to track the movement of the sun across the California sky during a day. The work, with its minimal lines and large expanses of color, celebrates room to breathe, live and express.
Now a Los Angeles artist, Hou's work was the subject of a solo show at LAAA's Gallery 825 in 2013, in which she was described as having "an uncommon mastery of surface." Since the exhibition, she has been going deeper in her exploration of her painting surface, quite literally. In her newest works, she follows some of the lines she mapped out onto the canvas and cuts through the surface to open up sections of the painting and provides more room for her energy to expand. This three-dimensional blend of painting and sculpture also questions our assumptions about both art forms. In one new work, "Truth or Lying," a large section of the painted surface has been removed. The work, says Hou, alludes to traditional Sichuan theater, in which actors changes masks mid-performance to represent different emotions. The cut-out section of the work symbolizes the pause between the two masks, when the actor's true face is revealed. As Xi Hou enters into a new year carving through her paintings into the space beneath the canvas, it seems likely that powerful emotional and artistic truths will be revealed.
More of Xi Hou's work can be seen on the artist's website.