Last Thursday night, Tranquility descended upon DeBruyne Fine Art in Naples. In addition to a state of inner peace and serenity, Tranquility is a collection of new realist work by Chinese-now-American painter Zhen-Huan Lu.
Lu’s work is not site specific, meaning that his compositions do not reflect an actual motif. Rather, they are a composite of many motifs that Lu has imprinted upon his mind’s eye through years of careful and quiet observation.
“For example,” Lu explained, warming quickly to the subject, “the boat in [Sunset Beach] could be found anywhere in Nantucket, but I was not standing on the beach looking at it when I did this painting. In fact, it is difficult to find wooden boats in Nantucket any more.”
In an age where many artists project images onto the canvas in an effort to achieve maximum accuracy, it may seem inconceivable that Lu can achieve such hyper-photographic realism seemingly out of his head. But this is a key difference between western and eastern realists.
Few Oriental artists labor in front of their subject or employ photography as a tool to wring greater depth and dimensionality out of their motifs. Instead, they often spend hours contemplating their subjects in a near meditative state, making copious but carefully wrought studies to assist them later recall specific details as they blend their observations into paintings containing bits and pieces of hundreds, sometimes thousands of subjects digested over the course of years, even decades of analytical study.
Because his work centers around architectural themes that include seaside homes and cottages, romantic porches and similar settings culled from locations from Georgia to Maine, Lu’s work has frequently been compared to that of Andrew Wyeth. But Wyeth, a product of the Brandywine tradition, pioneered the realm of magical realism, a genre that taps into the viewer’s emotional reservoirs by hiding unsuspected or suggestive content in what might otherwise seem like a common, ordinary scene as he did in his masterpiece, Christina’s World. That painting seems to depict a young, dark-haired girl gazing at a distant farmhouse from a field of brown grass. But in reality, the painting portrays a middle-aged disabled woman who is using her thin, deformed arms to drag herself toward home. Suddenly, what appears to be a peaceful, idyllic scene takes on a sad, even horrific tenor.
Although flattered, Lu politely distinguishes his work from Wyeth’s in two important ways. First, his paintings are first and foremost tranquil, peaceful, serene. True, there is a lonely, melancholy character to his compositions, but that is a direct and proximate function of time of day (such as sunset) and Lu’s trademark absence of people in his compositions.
Unlike Wyeth’s, Lu’s paintings are exactly what they seem. There’s no allegory, no metaphor, no hidden messages. Just a solitary blue boat on a deserted beach as day melts into night. Or a calico cat enjoying a late afternoon nap in a back bedroom as light pours in from an out-of-frame window. A wide wood porch with three empty Adirondack chairs overlooking an empty ocean as lonely cumulus clouds scurry by.
That’s not to say that Lu’s compositions are devoid of intellectual content. To the contrary. “To hang a painting in my home,” acknowledged Jean Rothert during Lu’s reception at DeBruyne Fine Art, “I have to constantly be rewarded by it.”
Jean and her husband, John, found just such a painting during the exhibition, a composition that contains a classic sack-back Windsor armchair sitting at the foot of a narrow staircase in the light of an open door. “I like the mood Lu creates,” Jean said expansively. “But even more, I’m intrigued by all the unanswered questions the painting raises. There’s a hat on the chair. Where did its owner go? Upstairs? If so, why did she leave the door open? If not, why did she go back out into the sun without her hat?”
The second reason Lu resists the comparison to Wyeth is even more rudimentary. “I cannot paint like Wyeth because I’m half Chinese. I use a Chinese eye to paint American scenes. One-half realism and one-half imagination.”
Lu traces this dichotomy to the schizophrenia that is Chinese artistic training. “Most Chinese art is heavily influenced by Russian style, which is very strong.” Very parochial. “I went to a design school for theater, which was much more open and liberal.” What evolved was Lu’s distinctive style of circumscribing soft textures within hard architectural lines.
It’s a bit hard to detect from a photograph of one of Lu’s paintings, but in the flesh, it is striking to note the almost impressionist suggestion of peeling, weathered paint separated and delineated by the sharp, parallel lines he employs to form the wood siding, storm shutters, balustrades, deck planking, floor boards, wainscoting and other architectural features that populate his compositions.
From a distance, the strong, orderly [Russian] architectural lines dominate, which undoubtedly appeals to a collector like Jean Rothert, whose grandfather was dean of the school or architecture at the University of Virginia. But up close, the rigorous, seemingly uncompromising geometry of Lu’s compositions is lovingly ameliorated by the rich, unexpected texture applied between all those parallel lines.
Hard and soft. Yin and yang. Western and Eastern. This is the essence of Lu’s depiction of the American landscape and the defining characteristic that makes his art distinctive from any American painter, whether his name is Andrew Wyeth or something else.
Work by Zhen-Huan Lu can be viewed at DeBruyne Fine Art on Gallery Row in the Third Street South shopping district of Olde Naples. For more information about the artist, the exhibit or the gallery, please visit www.debruynefineart.com or telephone 239-262-4051.