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from the April 2008 issue

Feminine Spirit, Unreconstructed

I first got to know Wang Jianan and Cai Xiaoli when I was in England. Wang Jianan can't stop talking, life in his mouth becomes a joke. Cai Xiaoli, on the other hand, hardly speaks at all, and doesn't spend much time contemplating life. She comes from an artist family and the only thing she cares about is her art; in dealing with people, she is totally straightforward. They graduated from the Fine Arts Academy at the same time, got married, and had a child. It is said that when Xiaoli got pregnant, some professor at the Academy sighed and said that now there is one fewer natural beauty in the world. I've also heard that the apartment they shared on campus was so messy that even their cat couldn't find a spot to sleep and took off.

Xiaoli is more forgiving than the cat. When I first got to London, I often saw Jianan riding off on a motorcycle, with Xiaoli on the backseat carrying a painting. The passenger had a much harder time than the driver. Once they were trying to get their paintings into a competition held at the British Museum, and as usual, Jianan rode the motorcycle with Xiaoli at the back, carrying the paintings. The paintings were quite large, and if she didn't want the wind to carry her and the paintings off, she had to hold onto them with all her might. By the time they arrived, the museum had already closed. It took a lot of convincing before they were allowed in to deliver the works for the competition. They then had to leave by the back door, as the front gate had long closed. In the backyard, Jianan saw several huge planks of wood and thought they would be great as backing for their extra-large works. He picked up one for Xiaoli to carry. Now this plank was even larger than the paintings before, and better yet at catching the wind. I can't picture how Xiaoli managed it on the backseat of the motorcycle. In any case, the plank made it home and is still being used as of now.

Some time later, they managed to get their son to join them in England. The two of them still worked at night and slept during the day. First, Xiaoli got the kid to go to bed, then she'd work until daybreak. In the morning when their son opened his eyes, he'd go wake her up so that she could take him to the kindergarten. Young mothers in Britain were keen about their appearance, even their jeans were pressed. Xiaoli, on the other hand, would go with her son to the kindergarten with her hair uncombed, her face unwashed. She dropped him off with half-closed eyes and went right back to bed. By noon, she'd remember it was time to get him back from the kindergarten and get up.

The two of them are quite different in the ways they paint, and their works have distinctly different styles. It usually takes Xiaoli months to finish one piece. Every year she is under pressure to complete her commissions. Oftentimes she needs Jianan as assistant. Once she's done with her lotus leaves, she'd bark a command: "Wang Jianan, go eat out a few wormholes!"

Jianan then goes and paints a few wormholes on her leaves. I wrote a short story in England called "In the Crowd," in which the artist couple is modeled after them. I also wrote a sketch of Jianan, mostly about how he likes to compose his painting while sitting on the toilet. Jianan is on the whole careless about details, and his paintings are like his person. But I'm not going to be talking about him here. Xiaoli does not demand much of Jianan. I asked her what her criterion was for choosing a mate; she said, Marry whomever, it doesn't much matter.

They bought a four-story house in England. When they first got it, everywhere you turned there was so much room. They were very excited and made lots of plans for refurbishing it, like having a table-tennis table set up in the living room for playing the game as well as for dining. When I visited them five years later, their place had become a live-in warehouse: when you open the door to any room, stuff poured out from inside. To find a spot for sleeping, you have to "dig in" quite literally. All the refurbishing jobs were unfinished: around the bathtub there were no supporting bricks; to take a bath, you sort of rock back and forth in the tub. The only neat place is the studio. But you have to climb all the way to the attic in order to see some daylight. The rooms got smaller and smaller as more things were crammed in; their paintings, on the other hand, got larger and larger. It was here that Xiaoli made many paintings of huge flowers, each one of them stunningly beautiful.

Not one hair is out of place in her painting. The composition is always magnificent, the colors luxuriant but not aggressive, her techniques strictly following the dictates of tradition. Her flowers, even when they are fully open, are somehow never showy. Every minute detail is hyper real, and yet the final effect is non-realistic but a unique combination of the ancient gongbi tradition and Xiaoli's own take on detail and color. If you look closer, you'd see a hidden wildness and subtle beauty in her work, more seductive than Georgia O'Keefe's paintings. O'Keefe's flowers are well known for being sexy, their fully exposed stamens resembling exaggerated female sex organs, as if staging a challenge to the whole world. In comparison, Xiaoli's flowers go into full bloom with their legs crossed, the virginal stamens always well hidden inside their petals. Xiaoli's femininity tends toward noncombativeness, her flowers are like her person, sedate and elegant. Although when she hit forty, following the ups and downs of her emotion, her flowers also began to twist and unfurl in brilliant lights and colors; but even then, they are still dancing with crossed legs and did not join in the sexual liberation of O'Keefe's flowers. Xiaoli confers her own emotional searches onto the extraordinary details of her flowers, her creative energy devoted to the depiction of the minute veins on the plants, as if she never had thought of painting their reproductive organs so as to divulge feminine sexual allure. It is as if she transferred her own sensitive pursuits of love unto to the minute changes of the fallen leaves, the veins of new foliage, and the details of the dry and old leaves. In the exaggerated colors and luminous lights, they become more sensitive than the Impressionists, more brilliant than traditional Chinese gongbi. Through her flowers, Xiaoli presents to the world a spirit in deep slumber but on the verge of awakening.

Once when she had recently finished a batch of new paintings with dazzling light, she came to ask my opinion. I picked up her newly published album, The Glow of Antiquity, and was rendered speechless by the crimson flowers that looked as if they were newly excavated out of the ground. It is indeed a rare beauty emerging from antiquity! The flowers looked as if they had been sleeping soundly underground for some thousands of years, and yet time had not robbed them of their colors and beauty. They had been blooming and waiting to be discovered. If the long wait had dried out some of the blossoms, those layers of crimson red had become all the more mysterious for that. Would they liquify when touched by outside air? The silence and purity of the Sleeping Beauty made all the men of the world go all crazy for her. A fully clothed body is still more attractive than the nude, enticing people with her mystery. And even more subtly than Sleeping Beauty, The Glow of Antiquity displays feminine charm–time and waiting having produced inimitable layers of mystery, where light and darkness, clarity and murkiness, aridity and luminosity, all are beautiful in so many different ways. By the stroke of genius or genie, these flowers morph into being under Xiaoli's brush. Gazing at them, even the artist herself exclaimed: "How come my flowers have changed?" Words are not her medium for self-expression, but the speech of the flowers is more eloquent than any novelistic outpouring of feminine psychology.

By now, Xiaoli has spent more than a decade on her flowers. Thumbing through her albums, you'd be quickly drawn in by the flowers of her different phases. They are like so many beautiful women, some breaking into a dance in the breeze, some pausing as if in contemplation. Their beauty is unadorned, their passions are held within, their shapes airy and ephemeral, like a feminine spirit in its purist state, not bent on seduction, yet alluring in infinite ways.

In 2001, Wang and Cai came from London to New York and spent a few days at my place. They said that they came this time specifically for grabbing some "old trees" by the L.A. shoreline; they said that Jianan last year saw some bleached old trees lying on the beach, recently dug out from under the ocean. They were unbelievably odd in shape and incredibly beautiful. So he talked Xiaoli into coming together to make some sketches, and also perhaps to get some of the branches. They then flew to Los Angeles. After a few days, when they didn't return as planned, I got a bit worried. Perhaps there was a plane crash. A couple of mornings I thought I heard their voices and thought they were back. But when I got outside, they were not there. I was certain something had happened, the voices were a sign. Just as I was consulting friends in New York on how to report missing persons, they showed up, each carrying a giant bag, evidently "old trees" that they brought from L.A. Xiaoli said that as soon as they got to Los Angeles, they took a cab to the beach to look for the "old trees," and for several days, nothing could be found. After considerable hunting, they learned that the "old trees" had been moved to a shop for sale. They finally found the shop and there they did see the "old trees," but couldn't very well sit down and do their sketches then and there, which is why they brought them back. But the tree was too big and they weren't able to take the whole thing. So they ended up with one root each.

They were both sunburned to a purple-black, and Xiaoli had also caught a nasty cough from the cold. The bags they brought with them from London were mainly stuffed with the roots. As Xiaoli was packing, she said to me, her voice still hoarse: "Sola, it was really worth it–one root costs only $10!"

1The gongbi style of Chinese painting requires meticulous brush technique that delimits details very precisely. The effect is usually highly decorative.

Translation of "Cong wei bei kaifa de nuxing linghun: Xia Xiaoli de huahui." Copyright Liu Sola. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Hu Ying. All rights reserved.

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