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Strokes of Genius

Line by line, Liang Wei's paintings have earned him artist of the year.

Each of Liang Wei’s paintings begin as a single line of ink on blank rice paper. Liang, the Torpedo Factory’s 2005 Artist of the Year, lays on that line and all that follow with a small brush, reevaluating the entire composition with each stroke. Steadily, his paintings blossom into networks of delicate lines, heavy lines, long lines, short lines, branching and twisted and curving and straight lines. “If only a blank piece of paper, he knows what to do,” said his wife May Liu, who also translated for him. “The picture is always in his head.”

As the brushstrokes proliferate, the work is endangered. If the outline of a twig that belongs three layers into the background “cuts,” as Liang said, a line destined to be a twig in the foreground the painting is finished. Liang demonstrates this with one of the enthusiastic gestures he employs when describing his art and its creation, throwing an invisible canvas into the trash. He said each of his paintings required him to toss out five or more canvasses before getting every element right. He acknowledged that as a developing artist, unable to trust his hand, he used to sketch the design onto the paper with a pencil before brushing on ink. Now, decades of painting have given him the dexterity he needs to make each of his lines a record of the action that created it. “Without pencil he just follows the point of the brush,” May said. She mimicked the free sweep of an inspired brushstroke on blank paper in contrast to the scrunched effort of following a pencil-mark. “You can tell the feelings, the emotions, when you draw the lines.”

Trying to illustrate the complexity of a line, Liang said lines painted by the young tend to float naively on the surface of the paper. Lines painted by the old are often wobbly and infirm. But he is quick to add that this is a “superficial” evaluation of a line, a judgment “only from appearance.” For the discerning appreciator of line, the final analysis must be based “from the inside.” He gestured to a painting covered with pine needles, each an identical, single stroke, beginning heavy at the base and converging at the sharpest of points. “For every needle he has to control the brush,” May said, “make sure the strength of it.”

LIANG’S LINES usually become trees and their component parts. In his landscapes, the bleak trees spread their bows above rivers and below overhanging cliffs, contrasting with the creeping mist that is the whiteness of a lack – paper left blank. Liang used one of his black and white landscapes to demonstrate his relationship to the canon of Chinese painting. The empty landscape is traditional in all respects. But the flock of white birds that pours across the trees like milk from a jug is a contemporary design. The pigment in the birds’ wings rests on the surface of the paper, not absorbed like the black ink, creating a liquid white that shines in rhythm atop the melancholy grayscale.

It’s tempting to savor the delicious sadness provoked by the landscape and the contrast of the small, bright wings. But Liang gestures towards a painting on another wall. Turning one’s head produces a saturating, pre-conscious impression of color so strong it makes the stomach drop and floods the brain with endorphins. The painting is red petals, cascades of them, identical, streaming; petal upon petal upon petal, each perfect. Amongst them a bird sings.

Gong-bi, bird and flower, paintings have existed in China for more than a thousand years. Most of the works in Liang’s exhibition are in this genre: a bird nestled in a yellow spray of gingko leaves, another on an engulfing green lotus leaf that swells across the paper, birds singing among leaves of hallucinogenic blue and red. Liang goes out into the world to search for images that imprint a precise emotion, then he returns to his studio and uses a combination of hand-ground traditional pigments and modern India inks to build his intricate, flowing depictions. He will typically paint each leaf over at least five times, careful never to touch the black lines with the colored ink. “This type of painting, it’s from the inside of his heart,” his wife explained, “a combination of his environment and his dreams.”

LIANG BEGAN his formal education in art at age 11, by studying calligraphy. As an adult in China, he spent years professionally expressing his sympathy for line, color and pattern by designing the lay-outs of trade-shows that became increasingly large, frequent and frenetic as his country transitioned towards the free-market. Only at night could he make art for himself. Finally, unable to stand seeing his day’s work taken down at the end of a week or a weekend, he moved to America with the help of a friend, and became a professional painter of emotion.

Most of Liang’s landscapes date from his time living in Connecticut. He and his wife and two children would take long driving trips through Vermont and New Hampshire. They searched out the grand vistas and the quiet corners of the forest, “the mountains and the small streams.” But after moving to his current home in Springfield, Liang found he was unable to summon his all-encompassing visions of the natural world.

When asked about the harvest moons that fill the background of many of the gong-bi paintings in his show, he replied with a smile that in Springfield he looked for the moon because it was all he could see. Springfield inspired Liang’s intimate paintings of birds and branches. Old Town, he said, has inspired him to paint its old buildings. But it will take years for him to transform this inspiration into a painting. “First of all he has to go out and get feeling of them,” May said. “Then he has to capture all their individuality in detail and in character.” But technically perfect painting is not enough. “[If] there’s no connection between the real thing and the painting,” May translated, “that’s a failure.” Both Liang and his wife struggle to define this connection. “The spirit,” May said, then tried again, “the personality.”

Later, Liang gave a succinct update on his progress towards painting Old Town. “Feel coming, but no paint. I don’t know why.”

Abandoning a familiar genre for the unknown is a commitment to immense frustration. But Liang made clear throughout the interview that his desire to push past barriers in his art drives his painting. “This is very hard,” he said of his vigil in Old Town, “But once you reach that level, you can be very happy.”

The levels he is striving for are ultimately emotional. Looking at a painting of ridges covered by trees with red autumn leaves, Liang said he would like to paint these mountains (inspired by Utah’s national parks ) in every emotional range. He would do this by painting them in different seasons. “Its just like the west, and the mountains, gave him a feeling of greatness,” said his wife. But Liang interjected in his halting English. “Still you have to deal with the color and the control and the composition.”