INTERVIEW BY ANDREW COHEN(ArtAsiaPacific) FROM MAR/APR 2011
Mao Xuhui, the idealistic leader of the mid-1980s Southwest Art Group, which included Zhang Xiaogang and Pan Dehai, has never strayed far from Kunming and Gui Mountain in Yunnan province, the wellspring of his creativity. ArtAsiaPacific contributor Andrew Cohen spoke with the artist about his life and work in a series of conversations that took place in Mao’s studio in Kunming’s Chuang Ku (“creative loft”) quarter and also over dinner at the Yuan Sheng Studio’s café, which is run by Mao’s wife, Liu Xiaojin.
How do you choose the subjects for your paintings?
I paint primarily from my daily life—my feelings are my source of creativity. Painting from emotions and sentiment as opposed to concepts is something that is particularly applicable to painters and artists from the southwestern region, including Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.
Over your career your style has moved from the tormented brushstrokes in your earlier paintings to the thinner layers and more serene renderings in your later canvases. What is the correlation between this stylistic change and your personal emotions?
I think of myself as a fragmented person with many styles. As a younger man I was more extroverted, but recently I’ve became more introverted. Also, from 1982 to 1993 I drank a lot. I had health problems, so I stopped. As my lifestyle changed, my painting style changed as well. This is the price we all paid for the dynamic and passionate 1980s. [He smiles as he pours a round of Pu-erh tea.] If we had met in the 1980s, I would definitely have offered you alcohol instead of tea!
What were you like in the dynamic and passionate 1980s?
I had long hair, wore jeans, drank a lot and was a rebellious youth who debated philosophical issues. I read a lot of Western philosophy and literature because it was a period when China was opening up, making a lot of translations available. I read various Hermann Hesse novels, Proust, Kafka and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926)—books about existentialism, the search for the self. I was listening to a lot of Stravinsky. We couldn’t access most rock. We got a lot of folk music, like the Carpenters. And for some reason we got to listen to Pink Floyd—my favorite album of theirs was The Wall (1979).
Zhang Xiaogang and I often hung out listening to the same music. We first met in 1976 [at the end of the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76], when I was “sent down” to do labor in the countryside. Zhang had also been sent down to the same village. We clicked intellectually.
What art were you exposed to in the 1980s?
In 1982 a German Expressionist exhibit was held at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities in Beijing. My classmates and I took a train to Beijing for three days and three nights. We were such eager students that we noted down the colors of each painting in the margins of the black-and-white catalog.
I consider myself a student of German Expressionism. That exhibition liberated me. In the academy we were always taught to paint technically, and in particular styles. When I saw the garish use of thick paint and heavy shapes in that work, I realized that I could paint how I felt. In 1983 there was also an Edvard Munch exhibition that came to Kunming—this also had a big effect on me.