Duoling Huang was born in China in 1950. “For my life journey, I feel like I come from another age—from one world to another,” she says. “I still love the traditional world, and I love things in the modern world, too.”
For Huang, the Cultural Revolution was not a chapter in a world history textbook. At 16, as her country’s social and cultural fabric was shredded, she was old enough to understand the loss. She can vividly recall her teenage self—separated from her parents, scared, struggling, and through it all, captivated by painting. She went to live with a sister who was studying fine art in Beijing. Schools were closed, but a few students met and continued to paint. “Students started to teach themselves. When they painted, I always stood behind them,” she says. “I was watching them—who is painting this, who is doing that.” Some of those students would become her lifelong friends. Her husband, fellow artist George Xiong, was one of them.
Those early sessions left an indelible impression on Huang. Even as she was sent away to Inner Mongolia to be “reeducated” in the late 1960s, she maintained her determination to keep painting. “I kept teaching myself as much as I could,” she explains. “I was living in a small village. It was very rough—basic paintings and drawings, but I didn’t stop.”
And she still hasn’t. She and Xiong moved to the US in the late 1980s. Between her life in China and the United States, she has had careers as both a teacher and an artist. Her recent body of paintings, entitled “Cultural Landscape,” is a collection of visual manifestations of her sense of displacement—not just from the move from China to America, but also from the disconnect between her traditional past and her own modern sensibilities. “People ask me, ‘why is your hand so western?’ I don’t know, it is the natural me,” she says with a laugh.
With fractured forms and compositions, her pieces are like broken mirrors. The paintings are sometimes collections of objects—a late 19th-century American upholstered armchair, a bouquet of tulips, an antique hand-painted Chinese screen. Perspective is twisted. Space is flattened, as if Huang is literally layering one cultural reference onto another. “For several years, I felt very confused—who am I and what can I do? And little by little, I decided I’d just paint out what I am and what I thought,” she explains. “I can build a bridge between my eastern career to the western, from the past to the present.” Huang plays with the ways in which color evokes a time and a culture. “I think color is human civilization. When you see the colors, you can feel the different histories and times,” she says. “High-quality color is good-quality life!”
Huang’s life has been a journey in the truest sense. She has traveled great distances. She has lived through much. But optimism and joy have allowed her to successfully paint her path from one culture to its essential opposite.