Retrospective Exhibition of Professor Hu Li, Oct 28 - Nov 13, 2014

Retrospective Exhibition of Professor Hu Li 胡溧教授回顾展图片7 / 展览现场
Interview with Hu Li
.Hu Li: Idealist in a Postmodern Era


This exhibition of paintings by Professor Hu Li ( 胡溧 ) presents us with a remarkable body of work. It evidences the struggles faced not just by him personally, but by all those dedicated to rising above the mundane, foolish and violent. His work is particularly evocative of the cultural, social, and intellectual challenges of the postmodern era in East - and West. It evidences an optimism and idealism often thwarted by experience.

It is a foundational assumption of his art that reality and life are properly grounded in the civilized and humanistic pursuit of a compassionate harmony. His idealism is informed by an imagination that dares to engage in a realistic and non-violent pursuit of perfection. That compassionate imagination is not m ,erely the expression of his personal subjective response to events. It is more than merely emotivist. It is grounded in the foundational assumption that it is realistic and right to do so.

He is an advocate of being civilized and cultured. Nonetheless, it is an assumption that is often disappointed by events. As his art makes clear, it is an assumption that is often ignored by postmodernity. Nonetheless, it remains universally and perennially inspirational.

As such, his work reflects the central critical cultural concerns of our time, and uniquely contributes to their resolution. His sufferings therefore reflect our sufferings, his triumphs inspire our triumphs. Those triumphs center on his attempt to help humanity rise out of barbarism and become cultured. A benevolent humanism deeply informs his work.

Hu Li’s paintings reflect the interaction of biography, intellectual and experiential history, and mythology. That interaction centers within the realm of the imagination. By discussing each of these important strands evidenced by the art in this exhibition, we can better understand Hu Li’s art, and thus better understand our own dilemmas, hopes, and dreams.


Hu Li was born in 1950 in Shanghai , China. His family was artistic; his father was a designer, and his uncle produced popular illustrated books centering and historical stories and traditional Chinese myths. Within this family environment, he was exposed to many artistic sources of inspiration, not all of which were Chinese. For example, as a child he encountered illustrations of the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo. Its combination of historical narrative, myth, and idealism, painted via the Grand Manner resonated within his youthful imagination. Deeply grounded in Chinese tradition, that imagination early evidenced a cosmopolitan capacity.

This propitious beginning was however subject to the vagaries of fate. The millennial myths of Chinese civilization were historically accompanied by the deeply rational and moral traditions of Confucianism. However, both developed within a lingering feudalism. Escaping that feudalism became the major concern of twentieth century China. The intention to do so was admirable, but the results that followed can today be viewed as flawed. During Hu Li’s adolescence the Cultural Revolution attempted to radically escape the bonds of that feudalism by eradicating traditional cultural models. The excesses of that attempt to deconstruct traditional Chinese culture are now widely recognized.

Hu Li and his family personally suffered as a result of the Cultural Revolution. His father was dismissed from his designer position, and sent to labor camp, separated from his family. Hu Li subsequently stayed home to avoid harassment by hostile schoolmates. Consequently, he received no high school diploma; instead he later passed the General Education Development test. Nonetheless, this difficult time was put to good use. It provided Hu Li with the time to think and dream, the time to further develop his already fertile imagination. Hu Li recalls gazing at the clouds in the sky and imagining historical and mythological stories. Those imaginative stories were not reflective of escapism or fantasy. The stories were a means by which to come to terms with the often harsh contingencies of life.

By the time he became a young adult, he returned from the countryside (in 1974) to Shanghai, and studied art with his uncle. That uncle was clearly a successful artist, but not of the elite. Nonetheless, his lessons were helpful to his nephew. In 1984 Hu Li entered Shanghai University Fine Arts College. During this period students were encouraged to do field work by visiting various locations. Hu Li chose to visit Tibet, making his way there by hitchhiking from Sining , Qinghai province.

In retrospect, the decision to visit Tibet is clearly linked with the concerns simmering within Hu Li’s artistic conscience. As a land of myth, religion, and tradition, it provided a living laboratory for his cultural contemplations. He spent time visiting the temple/residence of the Panchen Lamas located in Shigatse, Tibet. He recalls that he found the Tibetans to be extraordinarily kind, and deeply contented even though commonly poor. It provocatively occurred to him, that to destroy Tibetan religion is to destroy their culture.

As a result of those travels and experiences he painted “Sound of Horn from Temple” in 1986. With consummate skill and vision a procession of Tibetan monks is depicted. But as Hu Li comments, it is tinged with a sense of nostalgia. The dilemma for us all is that no great culture or art can be nostalgic and remain vital. The spirituality of feudalism cannot be sustained within a postmodernist era.

The painting evidences great skill in painting technique and intellectual insight. Those abilities were affirmed by Hu Li’s appointment to Shanghai University as a n art professor in 19 88. That year was memorable as well as the year in which his wife Ping became pregnant.

Teaching at Shanghai University for four years, Hu Li made the significant step of coming to study painting in the United States. At the University of South Dakota, Professor Jeff Freeman introduced him to modernist/contemporary issues. At the same time, he also developed his artistic repertoire by producing a hundred paintings done in various Western painting styles. Hu Li’s cosmopolitan proclivities are here evident: although this task introduced him to various intellectual and artistic modes of Western art, it also resonated with the traditional Chinese methodology of learning first to paint in the style of past masters.

Hu Li is then a Chinese artist, and also a cosmopolitan one. A cosmopolitan search for a humanistic ideal is intrinsically universal. His pursuit of that ideal is reflected his biography, facilitated by his intellect, but is ultimately grounded in his imagination. His outlook became mythic in the sense of myth as the representation of universal concepts addressing the human condition. That outlook is visualized via his art.

This is particularly evidenced by one of his monumental paintings. In 1995 Hu Li received a grant from the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh resulting in the work titled: Birds of Nu Who. A monumental work measuring 16 by 42 feet, the work serves as a comprehensive presentation of the major themes informing his work. Its story centers on a contemporary assessment of the human condition presented via traditional Chinese mythology.

There are multiple issues facing the viewer of this monumental work. If understood merely aesthetically, we can marvel at the technical ability of the artist. What then of its content? Is myth merely a representation of the artist’s imagination? If so, then what does that mean? Does the imagination merely service as an expression of personal fantasy which we can choose to enjoy or reject at whim? Does it merely serve ideological or political purposes, thus descending to the mere level of propaganda? Or can the mythic imagination actually teach us something significant about reality and life? Are myth and intellect compatible?

Intellectual History

Myth and the imagination have been primary concerns of culture since the rise of Romanticism in the 19 th century. Romanticism marks one response to the sterile imagination of the modernist Enlightenment. That enlightenment embraced scientism, the reduction of scientific knowledge of reality to material and sociological fact. Accordingly, the facts of nature and the facts of human behavior are considered to constitute knowledge of reality.

The problems with this fact-based worldview are several: factual knowledge is merely descriptive of phenomena and is thus substantively superficial; such a factual worldview is blind and indeed hostile to qualitative concerns; the facts of nature and of human nature are often substantively brutal, and to affirm the often brutal facts of nature and life is to legitimatize violence; and in a world of facts, human freedom, justice and dignity are denied.

Scientism prompts two responses: the romantic imagination, and the revolutionary imagination. Hu Li’s art is associated with the former. As a counterbalance to the cold factual rationality of modernity, the romantic centers on the experiential realm of feeling. When feeling occurs alone, a mere aesthetic emotivism occurs, but when feelings are combined with actual experience, a newly subjective yet authentic type of knowledge is claimed. That experiential knowledge is referred to as the realm of the existential imagination.

Romanticism accepts the limitation of science to knowledge of material facts, but attempts to resuscitate culture and values via an existential imagination. By that is meant that the meaning of life is grounded in our authentic experiences, but those experiences are affected by how we choose to live. Science provides factual knowledge, but the experiential, the existential, imagination provides meaning.

Concurrent with this trend is the assumption that the experiential feelings of artists are more significant than those of the common person. It is the inner life of the artist that is deemed key to the attempt to make sense of the human condition. Empirical science is then accompanied by the distinct spiritual realm of the artistic imagination.So in East and West the idea that paintings should present an analogical vision of nature and life is replaced by a concern for the artists’ subjective response to phenomena. This paradigm leaves many issues unresolved. The crux of the matter is how the artistic imagination can – or should – be viewed.

Modes of Artistic Imagination

The imagination can variously be understood as penetrative (attempting to glimpse into human psychology), transformative (the attempt to construct new social and political realities), or realizing (the attempt to present a vision of reality as it rightly ought to be).

The penetrative and transformative modes of imagination inform the postmodern mind. But in contrast, the realizing mode of imagination centers on the non-violent realization of perfection or the Ideal. As such, it departs from the postmodern mind, finding thepenetrative and transformative modes of imagination trivial and violent.

To the point: from a postmodern perspective culture is understood as the product of the penetrative and transformative imagination; psychological and or revolutionary concerns are primary. In contrast, for the seeker of a realizing imagination an ideal perfection grounded in benevolence and harmony is the goal. We seek to escape a personal and social violence via the realization of the ontological ideal.

If knowledge of reality is grounded in scientific facts, then the meaning of reality and life is the product of the imagination. But when meaning is the product of the imagination, it is grounded in subjectivism and thus devolves to an assertion of the will. It is this type of imagination which informs much of the postmodern imagination, particularly within the contemporary artistic/academic community. This is problematic, since culture as the willful product of the imagination concludes in an anti-intellectual and anti-cultural terror.

The anti-intellectual and anti-cultural excesses of the willful imagination are addressed by Hu Li’s art. Pervasive and deeply rooted in East and West, those excesses were personally experienced by him during the Cultural Revolution; they were also evident in the brutalities afflicted upon China by the Japanese invasion during World War Two. But beyond the personal and the historical, the willful imagination constitutes a perennial and universal danger to civilization and culture. It is this universal and anti-humanistic danger that grounds the art of Hu Li.

Hu Li’s Mythic Imagination

Our understanding of the imagination parallels our understanding of myth. Myth can be viewed as mere fiction; or it can be viewed as penetrative, providing a glimpse into human psychology. Myth can also be viewed as transformative, dedicated to our constructing new social and political realities.

But from the traditional Chinese perspective myth offers a means of realizing a benevolent harmony. It offers an explanation of how we might rise out of the violent facts of reality and life to restore a state of non-violent perfection. It offers a solution to ontological violence.

As discussed later in reference to the painting The Birds of Nu Who, Hu Li stands as a rare and welcome advocate of a realizing imagination , and thus non-violent mythic imagination. He is a non-violent idealist contemplating the human condition within a factually and experientially violent world. It is for that reason that his body of work is of particular importance. There is an analogical element to his paintings which optimistically hopes to realize a qualitative vision of reality and life.

Hu Li is then an Idealist who believes in the conscientious pursuit of the Ideal, of Perfection, which transcends personal, social, or political categories. His paintings are filled with symbolism that is neither subjective nor ideological, neither merely personal nor political. They attempt to make a statement about the tragic in life and the redemptive power of compassion and virtue. This is evidenced by his monumental painting, The Birds of Nu Who. As introduced earlier, the work serves as a comprehensive presentation of the major themes informing his work. Its story centers on a contemporary assessment of the human condition presented via traditional Chinese mythology.

The details of that particular myth vary in detail, but common is the essential idea of Nu Who operating at the beginning of time in the capacity of restoring a once perfect world. According to one account of that myth, there occurs a rift in the sky, by which evil enters the world. Nu Who miraculously mends the tear in the cosmic fabric, reestablishing the world as a peaceable kingdom. That act is therefore not just factual; it is qualitative as well. It establishes a qualitative ontology; good is not just an expression of feeling or the realization of equality or authenticity. It is the condition of being realistically grounded in a state of perfection. It is then realistic to be an optimist in pursuit of a compassionate harmony.

In his painting Hu Li depicts various elements of this myth. The rift in the sky is contemporized as a terrible atomic bomb blast; boat-like birds provide sanctuary for those attempting to survive catastrophe. Amidst the terror and anguish displayed, humans are nonetheless depicted as making sacrifices to help each other. The difficulty in doing so is represented by a self-portrait of the artistdepicted as attempting to fly while possessing one wing. The desire to repair the rifts in the world continues, but the ability to do so remains difficult and often elusive. The optimistic task of restoring a peaceful harmony makes possible this tragic vision of struggle. Hope is brutalized – but by recognizing this, hope is affirmed.

Contemporary Imaginative Myths

Other paintings by Hu Li present us with the vision of hope within historical and contemporary apocalyptic scenarios. His triptych titled The Rape of Nanking ( 2003) is a stunning evocation of the human capacity to act inhumanely. In the name of realizing its transformative imagination, the Japanese commit horrible atrocities on a massive scale. Hope is maintained – scarcely – by our capacity for outrage at such atrocities.

His Table Series ( 1993-1998) paintings center on haunting images of an iconic table, which provokes contemplation of the human condition. The artist informs us that the table is symbolic not of community realized (via familial or communal meals and civility), but thwarted. These paintings present us with a variety of specific historical associations: the atrocities committed upon China by the Japanese army, the attempted indoctrination of Tibetans (who ironically, do not use tables in their daily lives), the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and the specter of nuclear war.

It also rises to a universal level of reference: Red Rope ( 1997) contemplates the human condition as paradoxical: the ropes which bind us also connect us. The tension between social need and social conflict is visualized. Similarly, Journey of Silence [date?] is universal in context, engaging us in a contemplation of the rift still present in the fabric of the universe – despite Nu Who’s efforts.

In all of these paintings, there is little presence of harmony. Instead, the painted figures exhibit either a discordant cacophony of persons committing communal mayhem in the name of ignorance, folly, or in the service of transformative attempts to violently realize visions of perfection. The effects of the penetrative and transformative imagination are lamented, and as such, a realizing imagination dedicated to a benevolent harmony beckons.


Hu Li’s art is biographical, historical, cosmopolitan and mythic. It is a combination which historically indicates universal significance. Like Dante’s Divine Comedy in the West, or Ts’ao Chih’s Lo-shen fu in the East, the personal, historical, and universal combine to produce a universal and profoundly humanistic statement.

Such art enters the realm of myth, but not of fiction. It reveals an imagination which believes in civility and culture despite the often sordid facts of life. His paintings are not subject to mere aesthetics, nor to ideological or political propagandizing. They offer us the opportunity of civilized – and thus civilizing – contemplation. This exhibition is life affirming despite so much of the evidence around us; it calls for us to do better than we have, better than we have yet imagined. Hu Li’s artistic imagination is a gift to help us do so.

Art Pontynen

Professor of Art History

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh


We Live with Art


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