One of the great things about being here is catching up with former students. And one of the great things about having taught for over twenty-five years is that some of those former students lead marvelously creative lives. A great example is Miguel Payano whom I visited last night.
I met Miguel in about 2002, when he was a student in one of my classes at Williams. He stood out then because his Chinese was already very good. During high school he started studying the language and spent time in China before he went to Williams and every summer while he was there.
Miguel also painted at Williams, and when he graduated in 2003, he came to Beijing and, in 2004, enrolled in the Central Art Academy, attaining an MFA in painting.
All that while and since then, he has made his life in Beijing, and his art has been his central pursuit. As is the case with many artists, he has had to find paying work beyond painting to support himself, and he's done that in a variety of ways, most notably now doing architectural design work for restaurants and offices. He got married not too long ago to a Chinese woman, a fashion designer, who started an interior decorating business. Their lives and their art flow effortlessly one into the other.
Miguel's work is, as might be expected, is a natural merging of Chinese and Western themes and techniques. Among his most popular paintings are his peacock/fish compositions (my own photos are below the fold), or "koicocks". As he explains on his website:
Koicocks / 孔鱼
Koicock is the name of an incredible creature, which is a compound of a peacock and koi carp, two very popular Chinese symbols of prestige and fortune. Like sugar on sugar, these doubly auspicious creatures are obsessively edited and diligently painted in a manner that is reminiscent of Chinese gong-bi paintings.
Although the symbols are Chinese, the paintings are precise oils, more Western in their technical qualities than Chinese. The combined effect is extraordinary.
He has also worked more abstractly, painting human figures in ink, reaching for the most minimalist, sometimes single line, interpretations. The outcome is reminiscent of calligraphy. Indeed, the first of these figures I saw I mistook for an extremely cursive Chinese calligraphy that I could not read. It even had a small red "chop," the traditional sign of ownership of Chinese scrolls. But the he pointed out to me that it was actually a female nude figure. The "chop" was a red thumb print. I was struck, again, by the easy yet inescapable combination of Chinese and American sensibilities.
A third project is more studied in its combination of China and the "West". He is doing a series of portraits of world leaders - Obama, Xi Jinping, other G-20 Prime Ministers, Muammar Gaddafi - and then superimposing on them designs from Beijing Opera masks. He calls these Lian-pu Leaders / 脸谱领导. There is a level of subtly in some of these that few will recognize: each Beijing Opera mask is associated with a particular character or character type; so, Miguel can calibrate specific political messages, if he wants to, with each portrait. This is a work in progress, and he has not yet settled on precisely how he will represent the politics. But even for those not knowledgeable in the specific semiotics of Beijing Opera masks, the paintings are remarkable.
And the good news is, Miguel may be bringing this latter project to the Williams College Museum of Art this Fall!. All those in and around Williamstown should definitely keep an eye out for what will certainly be a stunning show. I know I'll be there.
The artist in his studio (more photos below the page break)
The figure in the middle is what I mistook for calligrpahy. It is a female nude. Obama as the Monkey King. Note: the Monkey King is a major and positive protagonist in various Chinese stories, most importantly Journey to the West. How many leaders can you name? Fantastic!
Another Obama interpretation