I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of Philadelphia’s rising artists, Enzhao Liu, in his colorful studio in West Philly. Liu creates large, exciting works that focus on nature, but his predominant passion is, literally, for the birds. Utilizing a wide variety of materials and a natural sense of color harmony and pattern, his works play between the natural and artificial, poking at the despair of our natural environments with the colorful, surreal realities he creates on canvas. His traditional academic training amongst two cultures playfully informs his whimsical touch.
The results are thoughtful, passionate pieces that both speak of his concerns and pique our sense of innocent wonder.
Suji: So, can you tell me a little bit about your background?
Enzhao: I went to the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) in Hong Kong, which is a very good art school in China. I also completed an MFA at CAFA before finishing my MFA here [at PAFA in Philadelphia].
S: What led you to the United States?
E: It started in my graduate program in China…I had a lot of time to think about my future. I read a lot of news about the arts and was constantly reading articles about successful international artists, such as Takashi Murakami and Cai Guo-Qiang—very influential artists that traveled from Asia to the US to start their art careers. I felt like I also needed to go abroad. I felt I needed to get outside of Beijing.
After my first year of the program (2014), I applied to be a sort of exchange student within the US. I proposed that I wanted to see the many museums along the east coast to inspire my art. I was approved and got to see many different shows and museums for two months, spanning from D.C. to Boston. It was that visit that made me definitely want to come here.
S: How did that trip influence your work?
E: My trip exposed me to some works by David Hockney. After returning to China, I read A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, a book that addressed many important topics in painting, including personal style. I then wanted to try something new. I painted a swimming pool from my friend’s house, where I spent some time during the remaining summer break. The idea was inspired by Hockney. I took many different pictures at different angles of my friend’s pool and used them as the reference to paint one large artwork made up of nine canvases each painted in a different perspective.
S: I can see the Hockney influence now, especially on your use of color. I also notice you have a series of these stylized New York Times paintings…were these also inspired by your visit to the States?
E: Yes. I wanted to visually express my journey across the east coast, so I painted a series of newspapers as a travel journal. I first painted a self-portrait and my personal stories on the New York Times. I made another mixed-media drawing where I filled a homemade wooden box with all of my travel tickets and passes from the States.
S: These pieces are very charming…they really encompass a sense of nostalgia. And were these at all for your program or only personal works?
E: Thank you. They were just personal works. I wanted to document every material I saved from the States—small toys, metro passes, brochures, show tickets—like a memory diary.
S: The fact that they were your personal works is what adds to their genuine charm. What about the New York Times appealed to you?
E: It’s a major newspaper here, but also a well-known symbol internationally. I felt using the New York Times was a strong vehicle to express my feelings in China about my memories in the States. It was a very exciting time for me.
S: Why did you decide to pursue a 2nd MFA in the States?
E: I could have just gotten a studio here, but I think it’s easier to learn in school. Just coming from another country, I felt I’d lose out on opportunities such as meeting other artists and gallery owners.
S: I can understand that. Was it during your graduate study at PAFA you developed a passion for painting birds?
E: No, actually, it began during my life drawing sessions at CFA. The setups would always include human models, plants, and birds. This is considered very classic in China, to paint birds and flowers.
S: So, you realized your connection with birds during your undergraduate studies. When did your work become focused on them?
E: In 2015, the last semester of my MFA in China, I did one painting of hundreds of birds for my exit show. In China, calling “a hundred” of something means “a lot”. Ever since that painting, they are the only thing I work from. I really enjoyed it.
The idea came from a real experience. While visiting an art museum renovated from an old temple in Beijing, I saw this huge tree in the backyard with hundreds of a single type of bird. This work started with me just painting one species, but realized it didn’t look how I wanted and had the idea to paint many different birds coexisting in one tree. From there, my concept developed. I became more interested in nature and habitat destruction. I am creating an ideal, surreal world for these birds.
S: That’s beautiful. It’s a common concept for artists to “create a space” in their paintings, usually for themselves, but in your case, you’re creating a space for these wonderful creatures…what do you want viewers to take away from your works?
E: I would like for people to care more about animals and nature. I want to remind people that this is not a completely human civilization. We need to care about the beautiful animals out there that we are taking space away from.
S: A noble feat for an artist. What’s next for you?
E: After my upcoming show at Bryn Mawr, I really want to push my concept deeper. I want to paint a peacock made up of birds, glass, crystals; and trees made of metal and junk materials to show the artifice of what nature is becoming. I want to show the evolution that is happening and how animals are adapting to today’s pollution.
I also want to get into product design and collaborate with graphic designers. I have an owl character in mind that I want to bring to life, give it a name and personality, and develop it as a brand for merchandise.
S: We are definitely looking forward to it!