Artist MAO LIZI with his work Ambiguous Flower Series No. 1, 2015, oil on canvas, 114 × 195 cm. Courtesy Pékin Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

Jun 24 2016

Embracing Many Talents: In Conversation with Mao Lizi

by Denise Tsui

Characterized by the aesthetics of simplicity and the spirit of Zen, Chinese painter Mao Lizi’s latest body of abstract ink-on-canvas paintings emanate serenity. The same cannot be said for the artist’s beginnings, however. A teenager during China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966–76), Mao was a founding member of the avant-garde Stars Group in the early 1980s and a pioneer of Chinese contemporary art. Over the ensuing decades, the 66-year-old artist became recognized for his photorealist paintings, which led him to spend the late 1980s in New York and the 1990s living and working in Paris, before finally returning to China in 2000. A man of many vocations, Mao also spends his time dabbling as a designer and had previously worked full-time as an architect.

These days, Mao leads a relatively relaxed life, spending his time dining with friends and painting in his studio. An avid swimmer and early riser, his daily routine includes an impressive 1,000-meter morning swim. During his short visit to Hong Kong for his first solo exhibition at Pékin Fine Arts, Mao sat down with ArtAsiaPacific and shared just some of the many stories and experiences he has accumulated over 50 odd years of painting.

Why did you start painting?

I have always enjoyed painting since I was a small child. I never actually considered other professions, but I also didn’t expect to be where I am today with my career as a painter. When I was young, I visited the Palace Museum near the Forbidden City [in Beijing]. It was there that I saw Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) painter Xu Wei’s ink painting Grapes. I felt like the ink was just dropped randomly on the painting. It had a simplicity that was beautiful. The experience left a great impact on me. Throughout my career in painting I have always strived to achieve the same spirit as what is captured in Grapes.

During the Cultural Revolution, we had to spend at least an hour everyday learning Mao Zedong’s theories and ideologies in addition to working at the farm. I preferred spending my time reading about art, so, using Mao’s books as a cover, I would secretly read Zhu Guangqian’s A History of Western Aesthetics (1963), which is a very comprehensive book on Western art history [dating] from ancient Greece to the 19th century. For about a year I was reading this book daily, making very detailed notes, until I was finally caught one day. I was punished after the incident and they opened and searched all my belongings. It was rather troublesome.

Before turning to abstract painting, you worked in the genre of photorealism in the 1980s. What led you to change styles?

One of the reasons I chose this type of painting in the 1980s was its immense popularity in China at the time. But slowly it turned into a custom-made business. People would visit my studio and commission me to paint for them. I disliked this idea of [art] being custom-made, so that’s why I moved away from this genre.

I still remember the time when a client came to my studio and ordered 10 paintings. When I was onto the third or fourth painting, I couldn’t do it anymore and asked the client to take his money back, but the client was willing to wait however long it would take me to complete the job, so I tried again. After several years I insisted the client take his money back. This style of production had become too painful for me.

In the future, I may return to this genre of painting. I dislike the idea of staying in the same style forever, so it’s unlikely that I will always paint in the abstract style you see now. I’m sure I will change my style again.

Installation view of “Mao Lizi: A Dream of Idleness” at Pékin Fine Arts, Hong Kong, 2016. Courtesy Pékin Fine Arts. 

Do you have a painting philosophy?

It’s nothing complicated: just to pursue beauty. Although it’s not my intention to pursue Zen, my work just so happens to have elements of Zen. I don’t like to over complicate things. I enjoy and appreciate avant-garde ideology, but I wouldn’t practice it myself. The main purpose of my painting is to pursue happiness.

In the 1990s you relocated to France for a decade before returning to China. Can you share with me a bit about your time in France and how that chapter of your life began?

It started in 1987 when I signed up with Hefner Gallery in New York to hold a solo exhibition. In 1989, I traveled to New York to prepare for the show and the gallery persuaded me to immigrate to the United States, so I applied. However, the following year the events of Tiananmen Square took place. I returned to China in May that year as I didn’t want to miss the historical moment of my home country. This was just days before the June 4 massacre. Afterwards, Hefner Gallery felt it was too troublesome to be involved with a Chinese artist, so I didn’t end up moving to New York.

Shortly after, I decided to travel abroad and explore different countries. My expatriate friends helped me attain foreign visas for five countries including the United States, Italy and France. The French government offered me a lot of benefits; that’s why I moved there in 1990 and spent the following ten years in Paris.

During that period, I never learned French beyond an elementary level, because I wasn’t very interested in the language. I was more interested in making paintings. I applied to be a student at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts de Paris, but after they saw my paintings, they said I was too good to be a student and invited me to be a visiting professor instead and was given a big studio in downtown Paris for a year.

When I think back now, if I hadn’t had that big studio, I might have actually spent more time learning French. Not speaking the language had a big impact on my career in Paris. I used to join the national art competitions there and, although the jury loved my work and in the beginning I won prizes, the fact that we were unable to converse left them embarrassed, and members of the juries began to avoid me. So, in 2000, I decided to return home to China.

What was life like when you first returned to China?

When I first moved back to China, I was given the opportunity to go into the architectural field. It was an impulsive decision and, while I occasionally continued to paint, during those first years I spent most of my time on architectural projects.

How did the opportunity come about?

At the time I felt my house was ugly, and I wanted to make some alterations, so I drew up some designs. One day I visited the house of Feng Xiaogang, the famous film director, and fell in love with the design of his house, so asked for his architect, hoping I could ask him to redesign my house. When I met the architect and showed him my drawings, the architect loved my drawings and instead proposed to start a firm with me. So, I became a partner. I actually thought it was a scam at first, because he didn’t ask me to pay anything and yet I was given 50-50 ownership. However, I eventually came to see that one of the biggest problems of the profession is the loss of freedom and autonomy, because you have to keep the client happy. That’s something I didn’t like. I spent a lot of time trying to convince the developers to take up my design. That’s the worst part of it. But I suppose this problem is true in the rest of the world too, not just mainland China. Anyhow, that’s how I ended up working 10 years in the field before I eventually gave that up and turned back to painting instead.


Mao Lizi: A Dream of Idleness” is on view at Pékin Fine Arts, Hong Kong, until August 10, 2016.

Denise Tsui is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific. 

MAO LIZI, Reconstructed Landscape Series No.4, 2015, oil on canvas, 195 x 97 cm. Courtesy Pékin Fine Arts, Hong Kong.