Forced as a child to flee Chengdu with a single suitcase, Chinese-American painter David Diao spent five years in Hong Kong before moving to the US. His memories of that time include the perfume of a famous film starlet wafting across the corridor, and his grandfather, who had lost everything, chain-smoking in his armchair. Diao eventually settled in New York, and his early work referenced art historical giants such as Clement Greenberg, Kazimir Malevich and Barnett Newman.
More recently, he has returned to his family history — both thematically and literally — for inspiration. We spoke to the artists after the recent opening of in his retrospective at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.
Installation shots of David Diao’s solo exhibition at UCCA. Courtesy of UCCA.
Tell us about your early years starting out as an artist in New York in the 1960s and 70s…
David Diao: As a young college graduate from a liberal arts college I had no idea about what I was going to do next. But I did have a fantasy about being an artist. I ended up getting a job at a major gallery as the boy who did the vacuuming and helped to hang the shows. I think it was Andy Warhol who said if you open one door, you close many others. The first door opens and it already leads you down a particular corridor.
David Diao, Wealth of Nations, 1972. Acrylic on canvas. 216 x 335 cm. Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery
Why did you choose to work in paint?
I’ve always said that if I was born 10 years later maybe I’d only do video. But I started working in the 1960s when painting was considered the most important medium, so I began there. I still love the colour, the material, the industry. But I’m not just trying to make a beautiful composition — the painting almost becomes an excuse for me to throw other things at it.
David Diao, Cardinal Rule: Beware of False Friends, 1988. Acrylic on canvas. 226 x 282 cm. Courtesy M+, Hong Kong
Your early work is full of art historical references. Can you explain the idea behind the work Cardinal Rule — Beware of False Friends?
It comes from the French term ‘les faux amis’. On the left is a remaking of a Franz Kline painting entitled Cardinal, while on the right is a schematised version of one of Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions, entitled No. 50. I looked at the latter as if it were the inner parts of the old standardised version of the Chinese character ‘guo’ (國). It’s already a misreading of a Malevich to liken it to a Chinese character.
In the west, people were often critically relating Franz Kline paintings to Chinese calligraphy. But Chinese calligraphy is so predicated on the idea of ‘breath’. In the park you can see people writing characters with water on the pavement. When they start a character, they finish it, even if they realise it’s not a perfect version. Franz Kline, on the other hand, would collage an area, add a stroke, and continue somewhere else. His paintings are about stop and go. I put both misreadings together.
David Diao, M&M (Malevich & Matisse), 2010. Acrylic on canvas. 173 x 224 cm. Courtesy the artist and Office Baroque, Brussels
Your work touches on experiences that many artists go through, namely rejection and fantasies about holding shows at famous institutions. Why do you choose to confront issues that some prefer not to speak about?
If you look at my work I am fearless about revealing the seamy underbelly of myself. We are so governed by conventions and we want to be polite. To not be polite is in some ways a critical act.
How did you deal with the question of whether or not you were a Chinese artist? You were well into your career when you saw the influx of Taiwanese artists in the 70s and the first Chinese artists exhibiting at the Venice Biennale in the 90s…
Chinese people like to use the concept of naming generations — first generation, second generation and so forth. I don’t know which generation I belong to. Naming something attempts to keep it stable when it is in actually in flux. No artist wants to be labelled.
David Diao, Lying 1, 2000. Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas.201 x 292 cm. Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery
What was the thinking behind your shift to making more autobiographical work, such as the floor plans of your old house in Chengdu and paintings that allude to your life in Hong Kong?
After 30 years, I came back to China in 1979 and saw my family that had been inadvertently left behind — my mother, brother and sister. Seeing their impoverished conditions led me to suffer from survivor’s guilt. Then I knew I would have a solo show in Beijing.
In Hong Kong and Taiwan, the work I normally do, which specifically references Western modernism, fell on blind eyes. I thought I should do work where the audience would at least be familiar with its geographical location.
Everyone has a first home and most of the time they’re not living in it anymore. We’ve all lost our first home. When I was living in Chengdu, it was a far smaller city. I’m somehow not that interested in going to Chengdu right now. It’s almost as if I want to maintain the memories I have.
I’ve only made six works about my five years in Hong Kong and I hope I can do more. I have some ideas about new paintings. I want to make something with the crest of my first school. It’s just the germ of an idea.
David Diao is showing at UCCA, 798 Art District, No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China 100015 from 19 September to 15 November, 2015. Main image at top: Portrait of David Diao. Courtesy of UCCA.
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