Conversations: Interview with Li Huai

Sparks Gallery sat down for an in-depth interview with Li Huai to discuss the artist’s solo show You Fascinate Me! – on view at Sparks Gallery in San Diego through June 11thWatch this short interview filmed in the artist’s studio in La Jolla, and read on for in-depth thoughts direct from the artist on each of the three unique collections that comprise the exhibition – ALL THAT GRANDEUR, ALL THAT ROMANCE and ALL THAT RADIANCE.

Li Huai will be leading an artist talk at the gallery on June 1st, from 6:30pm – 8pm called “Artist as Producer” – the event is free and open to the public, no RSVP required.


The title of a show is something I choose once everything becomes tangible and has physical presence. The title is not meant to function as a repetition of the works, but instead it adds a dimension – intellectually, conceptually, and artistically.

You Fascinate Me! has to do with duality. We/they. Us/the others. When I’m out walking, going to the theater, a restaurant, or when I’m teaching, I’m very much aware of each individual’s unique contributions. I’m curious about food, music, books, and I love to engage with people. It doesn’t matter where I go – at home or overseas – I learn so much, get so much pleasure, and am stimulated by my interactions with other people. On many levels, You Fascinate Me! is about my personal, intimate relationships with other places, other people, and different cultures. And there’s another level of You Fascinate Me! – communication between my work and its viewers. These works function as a point of departure to a different world, a different dimension, and different interpretations.

Every single collection – there are three in this exhibition – is a condensed version of a much larger body of work.

“ALL THAT GRANDEUR” by artist Li Huai

The works in the first collection – ALL THAT GRANDEUR – are aesthetically stimulating, even alienating. On one level they’re exotic, like a traditional Chinese or Japanese landscape painting, but at the same time they’re universal. As a viewer, you emotionally or intellectually read into the work.  It’s as if you’re walking through the landscape – traveling into, out of, and within the space. You may feel as if you’re walking somewhere familiar, like your hometown or a park, but simultaneously you feel lost, disoriented, confused. It’s intriguing but there is a sense of risk and distance. My work is always about the ambiguity that distinguishes two places, and when you’re involved in that process there’s messy stuff all around, including alienation and distortion. But there’s also understanding and connection – the work becomes a part of who you are. My work is always trying to charge my connection with viewers, and traveling has been a major way for me as an artist to create a one-on-one where we/others can communicate.

“ALL THAT ROMANCE” by artist Li Huai

The second collection – ALL THAT ROMANCE – is emotionally charged and abstract. It’s about the internal reflection you experience when you go to a different place or experience something foreign. Romance with yourself, romance with your ideas. As the saying goes, “You see what you want to see,” and these works are about that retreat into your own internal world, falling in love with your own interpretations, understandings, and revelations – all that beautiful, confused turmoil. The eight panels function as four pairs; taken as a whole they deal with emotion – sexy, turbulent, and very dense – something you can’t quite articulate but you can feel. This collection echoes with the first collection, ALL THAT GRANDEUR, in terms of light and vision. The light seems concrete and can be many different things – inspiration, bravery, stimulation. Light, to me, conceptually, is very fluid. It chases away the darkness, lights up the truth, generates romance – like candlelight. At the same time light reveals and exposes things. It offers an intense, emotionally charged moment to reflect on how you feel during and after your travels through the landscape featured in the first collection.

Then you get to the third collection – ALL THAT RADIANCE – which also echoes the first collection and closes the circle of the exhibition.

“ALL THAT RADIANCE” by artist Li Huai

This collection is all about me as a Chinese-American international artist. Growing up in China, especially during my artistic education, the Western world was unknown, exotic, and mysterious. This was because my environment was very isolated and controlled. My experience of Western art was narrow and indirect, mediated through slides, faded magazine reproductions, and secondary images. This collection is a condensed version of my own history and relates back to the first time I saw faded, unrecognizable slides of different artists’ work. The first time I had exposure to Western art I remember thinking “I want to learn, I want to know about the Western world” – Italian art, Greek art, the works at the heart and soul of Western art. I didn’t merely want to read or go to museums, I wanted physically to go through the process of creation to gain an understanding as an artist of the dedication required to make these works.

These “religious icon” altarpieces are historically accurate with respect to scale, the egg tempera paint and rabbit glue, the construction of the panels, and even the finish with 24 karat gold leafing. It took me six months to construct the panels and I learned a lot during the process. It was a meditative experience that engaged me physically as well as intellectually. Every time I touch these pieces, I still feel the emotional vibrations of creation. I can remember the outdoor breeze I felt when I was sanding and the temperature of the studio and stillness of my hands when I applied the gold leaf. The process of creation gives me the opportunity to reflect on the intellectual, artistic, and cultural intentions behind my work. I gave this collection the title ALL THAT RADIANCE because it’s about internal radiance, revelations, and a sense of dedication. Every single detail is packed, dense, and meaningful to me. This collection, like the act of creation, mirrors my experiences traveling around the world and I continue to be fascinated by the complexities of the human condition.

-Li Huai