Finding Direction: An Interview with Painter Huo Dongze

Neither satisfied nor happy with the over-emphasis on realistic painting techniques at China’s traditional art academies, Huo Dongze (霍东泽), like many young Chinese artists, left the comfort of China for a new place far away across the Pacific Ocean for the sake of artistic freedom.  Yet, when he first arrived at Academy of Art University in San Francisco in 2011, the conflict between his educational environment and his art practices did not disappear.  Overwhelmed by language barriers and cultural shock, he struggled to embrace the profound conceptual art education at his new school.  Turning uncertainties and conflicts into motivation, Huo was encouraged to experiment with new media and themes.

After his graduation in 2014, Huo made the decision to move to New York City for better opportunities.  Leaving warm weather and close friends behind, he settled in another unfamiliar metropolis to start from the beginning again. Fortunately, he found a full time job at a decoration craft studio that helped him cope with the city’s high living costs.  His attention to detail and hard-working spirit was highly valued by the company; however, to everyone’s surprise, Huo decided to quit the job. “I did not have time to make art in the studio at all,” the artist explained, “and that is the most important thing in my life.”

Now, Huo Dongze is an Associate Member at Phoenix Gallery, a prestigious artist cooperative turned community-oriented arts center, where he recently participated in a member group.  We interviewed Huo Dongze to know more about his artistic journey.

Audience looking at Huo Dongze's work at Phenix Gallery

Audience at Phoenix Gallery. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Beyond Chinatown (BC): Your father is an art businessman; so, you grew up with an art background.  What kind of art were you familiar with when you were young, and how did your family background influence your decision to become an artist?

Huo Dongze (HD): My father does Chinese traditional arts and ancient arts.  He is also a Chinese arts collector; so, I am familiar with the aesthetics of Chinese arts, such as Ming and Qing dynasty furniture, Chinese antiques, jade, porcelain, and bronzeware. Because of my family background, I have always had a lot of chances to appreciate Chinese arts and to know about the patterns and the compositions of all the Chinese arts I have seen.  It totally brought me a strong feeling to pursue fine arts and became an engine of my passion to become an artist.

Chumminess 1(orange), Etching print on BFK, 5.5”X7”, 2013

Chumminess 1(orange), Etching print on BFK, 5.5  x 7″, 2013

BC: There was a three-year gap between your undergraduate studies in China and your graduate program in the States.  What did you do after college, and what made you come to the States?

HD: After college, I lost my direction and became impatient about everything I was facing during those three years in China.  I failed the exam that would have allowed me to continue graduate studies at my school in China.  I worked for a company, but it was boring for me to work there; so, I quit that job after half a year.

My longtime struggle did not end until I got in touch with contemporary art, where I found my direction and motivation.  Undoubtedly, the United States is the center of contemporary art, with countless avant-garde artists, refreshing atmosphere, and endless resources for artistic creation.  That is why I am drawn to this country to pursue my graduate studies.

Escape, Silk-Screen on BFK, 21”x15”, 2014

Escape, Silk-Screen on BFK, 21 x 15 in., 2014

BC: Tell us about your very first artistic experience after you came to the States.

HD: When I came to States and started my MFA, I felt the art atmosphere in the US was extremely different from what I experienced in China. I felt art everywhere in San Francisco ­­­­— on beautiful buildings and streets. My university also gave me a lot of freedom to expand my possibilities; that was why I could do a lot of experimental art practices.  My instructors led me to improve my concept.  All of these gave me the strength to be successful and improve.

Relationship & Existence #4,Oil and oil pastel on canvas, 14”x18”, 2012

Relationship & Existence #4, Oil and oil pastel on canvas, 14 x 18 in., 2012

BC: We see references of Zen, Taoism and other oriental philosophy when you talk about your abstract works.  Where do you get these influences?

HD: These influences are connected with my experience in the States.  The longer I stay here, the more I realize the oriental philosophy in my mind.  For instance, uncertainty and conflict always come to me when I live in such a different culture and language environment.  If I want to be comfortable staying here, I should acclimatize to differences in cultures and thoughts.  Thus, I try to abandon and lose what I already hold or expect in my conceived structure, and just frankly face and follow what goes on naturally.  All the conflict, trouble and frustration will be gradually solved or disappear through meditation myself.  In the Taoist words, this is “letting things take their own course.”  This makes me face my life and art in a leisurely way.

I hope that people can be touched by my work so that they can face the difficulties and uncertainties in their lives with a more positive attitude.  I have the same attitude towards my own works.  I think less about the consequences; for me, the uncontrollables in the process of creating art is more of a wonderful “accident.”  I no longer limit myself with certain principles and standards.  In order to find valuable and creative perspectives, I have given up the idea of controlling.

Escape #14, Mixed Media on canvas, 40”X30”, 2014

Escape #14, Mixed Media on canvas, 40 x 30 in., 2014

BC: Your works are very abstract, and it seems that you are not trying to incorporate typical Chinese elements into your art.  How do you perceive yourself as a Chinese artist living aboard, and the “Chineseness” in your work, if there is any?

HD: Actually, I am searching for my identity during my whole life experience in the States and in the process of exploring my art languages.  As a young Chinese artist living abroad in a different background, I feel that I stand in a marginal position.  I try not to incorporate typical Chinese elements into my art; however, every time I finish my creation, my audience and I can always feel the “Chineseness” through my works.  I think that probably is the sub-consciousness of my Chinese identity.

Forbidden Colors #8, Oil,acrylic,ink and ball pen on canvas, 40”X30”, 2013

Forbidden Colors #8, Oil,acrylic,ink and ball pen on canvas, 40 x 30 in., 2013

BC: Now you are based in New York.  What do you love and hate the most about the city?

HD: I love this city because of its variety and freedom. As an artist, I am enjoying the atmosphere and resources New York brings to me.  Great people I have met here, lots of interesting galleries I have visited, nice stores and places I could discover forever.  I can do what I want to do directly without any judgment and distraction.  The thing I hate is here the high living expense.  I need money for everything!

See more of his work on his artist page. The interview was edited for clarity.

Lead image: Blue and Orange, Oil Paint and ball point pen on paper, 8.5 x 11 in., 2013.  Photos courtesy of the artist.