There is no question that these are frightening, anxiety-laden times. We are all afraid, all potentially susceptible to either becoming ill or passing along this devastating virus to others who are weaker or older or already infirm. Every single person on this planet is at risk. We are on edge. We walk down deserted streets looking at others askance, wondering if they carry this viral demon in their pockets, their hair, or in aerosol droplets from their breath. We are instructed on social distancing. Keep away from others. Stay inside your home. Don’t gather in groups. Work from home. It’s all in the name of “flattening the curve,” preventing the further exponential growth of this pandemic. We can’t sleep from anxiety and fear. It’s like a sci-fi horror flick, and yet this is real. This has become our reality, at least for the near future. Until? Until this monster of a life form, an organism that is barely quantifiable as life, burns itself out, or millions get sick or die, or we come up with a vaccine. The questions abound. We quarantine ourselves to prevent transmission to others. We’re stuck at home, communicating with others through the dry curtain of technology. No hugs, no sloppy, loud, boisterous family reunions. No drunken happy hours, the kind where you’re crammed in tight spaces, laughing and joking, enjoying the moment. No movie theatres or concerts, where you have the comfort of crowds around you. We’re all on our own here. We’re all stuck with our own nightmares and panic. Perhaps, just perhaps, this is where art can boldly step in, if not to save us then only to soothe us. It can remind us that there is still a beautiful world out there, a world bursting with creatures and florae and color and light. Art reminds us that we are not only social creatures, prone to communicate through any means possible (including the wordlessly visual), but it also showcases our very human inextinguishable spirit, a fierce will to survive and to triumph.
As we cocoon in our homes, like caterpillars dreaming of flight, we could all use a reminder of the joyous, vibrant, connected world around us; this wondrous world is so elegantly portrayed by Enzhao Liu, a Chinese artist now living in Philadelphia. Each of Liu’s paintings are filled with luminous, unexpected, dazzling colors. They are crowded with fragments of both the living and the celestial worlds, from the animals of the jungle to all manner of birds to the stars above them. They each glitter like gemstones embedded in the rich rock of earth. These paintings are teeming with life, all in close quarters, on top and next to and underneath each other. These creatures are squashed and flattened, situated precariously, implausibly perched in odd places, and yet they are all living harmoniously. No quarantining or social distancing here. Just a glorious riot of color and life, flying and sitting on trees and prancing through a diaphanous background and peeking through tall grasses.
Nocturne No.9, an oil and photo transfer on linen, is of huge size, 60 x 60; its large size, as is the case in many of his works, invite the viewer to enter this artist’s phantasmagorical world, so filled with wonder and joy and life. We could certainly use a shot of that joyous abandon right now, don’t you think? The technique of using photos together with oil paints seems to place many creatures in stark relief, sharply demarcating their presence, as they exist in the crowded wild, separately doing their thing, yet together in one roiling melodious tangle. There is even a barely noticeable sepia-colored person, seemingly cut from an old magazine, standing unobtrusively next to birds and monkeys and lizards. She is floating contentedly above a tree branch. The contrast between the drab person and the brilliance of nature’s colors evokes some questions and observations. Perhaps even though we think we are kings, we pale in comparison to the majesty of the natural world. We are fallible and susceptible. Perhaps nature is protecting this small cut-out of a human being, a colorless non-entity amidst this jungle of flamboyant creatures. And the inevitable question: is nature trying to protect us from ourselves? Such poignant questions are made all the more urgent given the climate crisis as well as the current pandemic which showcases our own powerlessness in the face of a natural threat. Regardless, these shimmering, gorgeous colors of the wild, all living in harmony, is truly a sight for sore, quarantined, shelter-in-place eyes.
Other paintings by Liu display similar themes of creatures living in close quarters in harmony, in a surreal dreamlike world. There is even a nod to Rosseau, whose dense jungle scenes filled with animals captured the imagination of early twentieth-century France. One painting, aptly titled Rousseau’s Garden-Proud King seems reminiscent of Rousseau’s The Dream (1910), in both colors and dreamy jungle scene, though Rousseau highlights a woman’s nakedness juxtaposed to the beauty of the natural world. Liu almost seems to be making a comic statement by substituting a fully fanned peacock for that naked woman, set in a similarly surreal jungle. Ironically, the male peacocks are the ones with the iridescent blue and green feathers. (What does that say about women? Not sure, but maybe we can leave that one alone.) Another brilliantly colored painting, entitled Nocturne No.10, showcases beautifully detailed butterflies and flying creatures against a midnight sky. They are all parked in trees or doing their own thing, yet part of a larger, patterned, wild whole. These paintings enlist our sense of wonder and imagination and titillate our sense of vision. It’s a much-needed salve in the midst of our currently upended world. We can only imagine such a beautiful world as we sit inside our homes, practicing social distancing and shelter-in-place. These paintings remind us that out there is a world full of closeness and harmony and love and connection. It’s the world that we come from, and before long, with good luck and planning, the world to which we will return. We were born to prance and dream and metaphorically float among the trees, as we commingle with the birds, the creatures, and most of all with each other.