Chinese Artists Find Intellectual, but not Economic, Freedom in America

By Evelyn Cheng

"A Sunny Day," an oil painting on canvas, sells for $78,000. The colonnade is from the ruins of the YuanMingYuan (Old Summer Palace) in northwest Beijing that was burned in 1860 by the Europeans during the Second Opium War. (Image courtesy of Zu Sheng Yu)

The large canvas painting depicts an impressive, but chipped, ornate marble colonnade singed by fire. Standing as a solemn reminder of the ravages of war, the painting freezes a dismal memory of the Chinese Qing Dynasty’s magnificent palace. But the luminous pigeons scattered about the top of the colonnade bring life.

To painter Zu Sheng Yu, this life is what makes his art matter.

“This is one of his favorite paintings,” his wife said. “The pigeons signify peace, after the war the palace has been through. It’s hope for peace.”

Deeply thoughtful oil paintings like this one are characteristic of Zu Sheng Yu’s artistry.

“Artists are thinkers,” Yu said. “Without thought there is no art.”

For this reason, Yu, like many other Chinese artists, decided to immigrate to America.

“I like to be independent,” Yu said. “[Chinese artists] like the country China but not its oppression.”

Yu came to America more than 20 years ago and lives in Long Island with his wife and son. Trained as a sculptor at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, Yu now specializes in oil paintings but also embraces different forms of art and design.

Zu Sheng Yu went on a roadtrip to western and midwest America last year to gather photographs to base his paintings on. This horse was one of many Yu found grazing in open, ungated pastures. (Photo by Evelyn Cheng)

Today he is the winner of the Fall 2010 Forbes Magazine Contemporary Art Prize Award given through the biannual Washington Square Park Outdoor Art Exhibit. Yu was the only Chinese at the show to win a prize.

Yu pioneered an art style in which masterpieces of art and famous historical figures are painted on the exteriors of rustic, Midwestern barns. Yu also holds several patents, including patents for color-coded music notation and a vase that expands into a dining set. But a lack of funds has prevented him from acting on his ideas.

The Washington Square Park Outdoor Arts Exhibit runs from noon to 6 pm every Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend and the weekend following. (Photo by Evelyn Cheng)

Although enjoying intellectual prosperity, Yu and other Chinese artists lament the demise in art quality due to economic constraints.

“We need to live, so we paint what sells,” Yu said, watching customers at his booth in the art show.

“You don’t need to work very hard [to be an artist in America],” said another exhibitor, the husband of artist Dr. Wei Hong Liu. “[You’re just] lucky. If no one likes [your art] you have no chance.”

The struggle for survival has been the artist’s dilemma for centuries, but Chinese painters in America face greater difficulties than their American peers.

Yu cites cultural differences as a major factor in the lack of American appreciation of Chinese art.

“Chinese art is a breath of fresh air to Americans, but it is not an artist’s breath,” Yu said. “Americans can only look at Chinese art and enjoy it as something pretty; they can’t accept Chinese culture.”

Chinese artists in America still face some forms of discrimination and tend to remain on the sidelines, Yu added. A few Chinese curators exist in America, but the major playing fields are dominated by Caucasian Americans.

Less than two percent of all Americans are of Chinese descent.

Booths from the art exhibit lined University Place from 3rd to 12th St. (Photo by Evelyn Cheng)

But the greater amount of Chinese artists represented this Memorial Day weekend at the Washington Square Park Outdoor Art Exhibit — 10 percent of 121 artists — illustrates how America’s respect for freedom of expression has attracted intellectuals from oppressive regimes.

This intellect forms the crux of art, Yu said. “A bad painter is not an artist but a craftsman; a worker. Only good painters are artists.“

“Most art today is not really art,” he added.

For all his idealism about good art, Zu Sheng Yu admits that to survive in America most of his recent paintings focus on marketability, not artistry. Like most of the artists at the show, Yu has left his best paintings at home, works which he says have no business value.  Still, Yu said his booth “is the least business-driven of all the other artists.”

For now, Yu’s dream is to sell enough paintings so that he can “get enough money to change the [economic-dependent] situation.”

“The purpose of art is to find beauty,” Yu said. “And beauty is life.”

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Chinese Artists Enjoy Intellectual Freedom in America

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