Artist Linling Lu, who left China in 2006 to study painting at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, now lives and works in a townhouse a short walk from MICA. On a balmy fall morning, she cheerfully ushered a visitor into her studio. There, the foundations of her pulsating paintings and other colorful arts are arrayed in orderly rows. Small containers hold color samples from recent paintings; rice-paper notebooks record hues applied in earlier paintings; and fragments from vintage Chinese embroideries lie in a tidy queue ready for use in the composite pieces she calls “fabric paintings.” On the floor, sculptures-in-progress are arranged according to the number of wooden blocks in each. “Working with different materials keeps me grounded, aware of where I am and where I came from,” notes Lu. The artist answered questions about her work, on exhibit through December 16 at Hemphill Fine Arts (hemphillfinearts.com) in Washington.
Your painting appears straightforward—concentric circles of color radiating from a bull’s-eye. But it’s not so simple. Please explain.
Colors are instruments with their own sounds. When I assemble colors into a complex circular instrument, they choose their vibration frequency and make outstanding symphony.
What compels you about the circle?
The circle is a symbol of something complete and perfect, balanced and everlasting. Every ring is an endless path. Following each path with layers of paint is an everyday practice of listening to intuitive voices located in the inner center.
One piece in the gallery exhibition combines a painting and an arrangement of smaller wooden blocks. What is the place of sculpture in your work?
Each piece in the installation is independent. They gather just for this moment.
What’s involved when you sit down to start a painting?
I make color and composition studies before starting. Most of the time I stretch my own canvases, prime and sand them. It takes a few simple tools and steps: a compass to draw, several brushes for applying prepared paints and days of free-hand painting and color adjustments. It’s a very systematic process.
Your vibrant pieces have been linked to the Washington Color School movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, known for large color fields of paint. Do you see your art as descended from that movement?
I came with a different background and became aware of the Washington Color School movement and color-field painting during my five years at MICA, where I earned a master’s in fine art. These inspirations together with roots from another culture have developed my work as a hybrid of different cultures and art traditions.
The hand of the artist and brushwork—characteristic of Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting—are absent from your work. Why? My strong interests in geometry, math and order started when I was a child. With professional training in landscape architecture at Beijing Forestry University, I learned techniques to draw complicated things in a mathematical way. I like viewers to see themselves in a painting before seeing me.
Did growing up in southwest China’s rural Guizhou province influence your art?
I grew up in a mountainous city where industrial factories were developing, and more than 30 tribal minorities were scattered. I have beautiful memories of the colors of the mountains, rivers, sky, people’s laughter and colorful clothing.
How do public and private commissions fit into your work?
I see commissions as stages for groups of individual paintings to gather and interact in a theatrical setting. Some public collections—including one at CityCenterDC that contains my largest circle (108 inches in diameter) and one at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing—have given me tremendous freedom to create different characters and relations.
Your name sounds poetic, balanced and alliterative—all in three syllables. Does it have special meaning in Chinese? How has it affected your direction in art or in life?
Lin is a character representing Qi Lin, a magical animal. It brings luck and good energy to places it travels. Ling means flying above the clouds. Lu is an ancient Chinese family name; its character combines two mouths and has a relation to music and instruments. All together, it is a meaningful and beautiful name to me, and it has taught me many wonderful things. It suggests to me to be curious and imaginative, and it links my experiences to music. I was trained as a classical pianist since age four, and I find that music and painting are inseparable and resonate to each other. The combination of these three characters is unique. I googled it and so far haven’t found a second person using this Chinese name. It sets a high standard for me to follow—work hard, be respectful and bring good things to the world.