Pinchuan (Larry) Huang

Interview by James Harris


I was really lucky to see your fantastic paintings in person. I noticed that they were full of energy because of your subject matter, which is stuffed animals. One painting shows a retail setting with the animals cascading over shelves [What are they doing?], and the other is an arcade game [What are they doing? No. 2] . You certainly have this amazing technical skill to bring these to life. When we were talking earlier, you said you love the idea of the absurdity of realism and how absurdity and realism can intersect. Tell me a bit more about this and your desire to communicate that to the viewer.

Realism is a big part of my painting life because I experienced long training in classical realism when I was in my country [China], well before I came here. The magical realistic absurdity in my art started to develop just a few years ago. China has changed drastically in recent decades; we were exposed to many ideologies over a relatively short time. A lot of this happened when I was a child, and it planted a seed in my mind even though I wasn’t an artist then. These ideologies sometimes conflicted with each other but also sometimes co-existed in our minds. People outside of China might know that more happened than just a cultural collision. To me, the truth usually exists in the conflict. I love realism because it looks normal, but when you look at it longer and closer you will see the absurdity.

You talk about truth. I would say photorealism tries to capture an exactitude in the subject, but you are also staging the subject in a way to help the viewer towards interpreting your paintings. The subject could take place in America, China, Japan, or elsewhere in the world, but it really is about consumerism and abundance because they’re so full of information and toys and explosions of color and pattern. Are you trying to guide the viewer?

Yes. I have my version of interpretation and try to guide the viewer in that direction. But I don’t want to put limitations on interpretation.

When you’re looking for subject matter, do you take photographs yourself or are you looking for images on the web for inspiration? Do these subjects remind you of something you saw growing up in China, or is it something you experienced here in the USA?

These two paintings are based on my experiences in America. I don’t consider these magical realistic work. They are images that stuck with me. Probably unlike most Americans, I use the supermarket as a place to think. I go there to buy supplies and food, but it’s also a place where I can think about my ideas.

These stuffed toys are all commodities, but they’re geared towards innocence or play — pleasure in a way — and you communicate their softness and personality. Is it correct that you’re painting from photographs?

Yes, I do take some photographs for things I want to paint. But more important are the studies that allow me to capture things I can’t with the camera. It’s like I’m translating the photograph or on-site observations to painting language. I make up at least part of the paintings. Sometimes I faithfully paint something but it doesn’t look right, maybe it’s too rigid, so I change the texture or another part of how it looks. The painting might look like a faithful copy, but it is actually modified and sometimes simplified.

So the studies or drawings help you with the composition before you start the painting? And it’s when you start thinking about the composition that it begins to evolve?

Yeah. Exactly.

In the painting with all the animals on the shelf in the store, a viewer really sees your painted mark. The other work showing the arcade game has a lot of light and reflections. The windows are letting us look towards the outside world. That painting has complicated layering, but you almost remove the brushwork. It’s more like a photograph and less painterly than the other work. In one you see the beautiful hand in the painting, but you’re removing the hand in the other one.

It depends on the subject matter and the effect I want to make. The one with all the reflections required a flatter surface and brush stroke. I used a stronger brush stroke in the other painting because it needed more texture.

The painting of the arcade game with the joystick is very complicated with the layering of space and a lot of light reflecting on multiple surfaces. Was that one made from one photograph or a combination of photos.

I used multiple photographs to make that composition. About 60% is from one photo, but the details were helped by other photos and studies.

In emails we exchanged, I told you I thought there was a sense of eroticism or sexuality in the joystick. I think it’s a very male centric thing. And all the figures are looking at the person who might pick them up with a desire to be chosen. You say you choose subjects that interest you, but desire is part of picking something to paint. Talk to me a bit about desire and making a choice.

I had not thought about eroticism. Since you bring up the question of desire, I think you’re right. I intentionally chose to have most of the stuffed animals looking at the audience. It’s like an unconscious dialogue with the viewers, partly because of the title, What are they doing? No. 2. It also feeds the indirect visual effects of that painting. The eroticism aspect is very interesting. I didn’t intentionally introduce that, but the desire consumerism creates is physiological. They don’t want you to have strong reasoning or make a rational choice, they just want you to get involved. There is some similarity to the stimulation of sex.

Stuffed animals are appealing because of their material, their big eyes, and their smiles. There’s an aspect of pleasure to them. You choosing them as a subject is interesting. You want people to like your paintings, so there is the underlying sense of your desire in them. Stuffed animals are also impermanent and represent disposable culture. You love them for a while and then discard them. But your paintings won’t go away, they are more permanent. So there’s a dialogue on want and permanence. There may also be a comment on culture and gender. Do you see this as a comment on American culture?

Yeah. You can see that as a commentary on the American culture, but I’m not the kind of person that would really emphasize cultural identity. I see myself or others like citizens of the earth firstly. I’m not intentionally emphasizing America’s part, but American culture has a very deep influence on global culture. So it can be a commentary on global culture as well.

Are these the two largest paintings you’ve made, or do you tend to work at this big scale? Because of their size, the viewer is enveloped by all the information you’re communicating like the reflections, the color, the figures tumbling over one another. Your choice of scale seems very purposeful.

I think the scale is indeed very important. I’ve done a few large paintings before but it was not a major part of my practice before I came here. These are an experiment, and they are larger than life. My intention is to let viewers get involved and to show the density of attraction. Maybe it can be a comment on or criticism of culture or society. Supermarkets are a venue where you cannot find a blank area to escape consumerism.

Did your previous work have the same sort of density of attraction? You talk about absurdity and magical realism in your statement, and that can be communicated in a more pared down way. But some painters prefer more complicated compositions. Are these two works typical for you?

In my past practice, I would focus on details but make it a clean conversation. There was a kind of classicism. Not back to 19th century classicism but classicism mixed with minimalism. The subjects had a lot of details but the backgrounds were very clean. My thesis paintings are a new direction for my practice. I think I will continue on this path in my future work.

It is interesting that both of your thesis paintings work with light and shadow. The one with the arcade game has multiple light sources and reflective surfaces, but there are also shadows between the animals and in the background. You’re dealing with shadow in a different way in the other painting. I would say you’re more focused on detailing the shelving and the piling up of the animals, but there are very complex shadows, too. I imagine these are ideas that you’re going to explore coming out of graduate school. Is that correct?


One thing I always try to encourage graduate students to do is — after having this intense couple of years working in your studio and developing your practice, which is such an amazing and rewarding experience — to get back to work as soon as you can after graduation and getting settled somewhere. If you take too much time away, it takes a while to get back into the rhythm of it. With all the energy from finishing your thesis work, it’s better to continue that. You want to keep your ideas moving forward.

Yes, I want to do that. This is a precious part of my life, but it’s only a tiny part and I have a much longer way to go.

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