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Artist Kai Liu integrates printmaking into paintings with Chinese and western touches

Kai Liu
Kai Liu's exploration of hybridity is on display in The Show at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

Vancouver artist Kai Liu describes his more recent pieces as “painted prints”. That’s because he pairs techniques of printmaking with painting. In addition, the Beijing-born artist integrates principles of western and Chinese painting into his pieces, furthering his exploration of hybridity.

“In the printing shop, I’m a printmaker,” Liu tells Pancouver over Zoom. “There’s a lot of print language that I can borrow into my painting.”

One of his favourite printmaking techniques is called collagraphy.

“It’s similar to etching, but not using copper or zinc.” Liu explains. “We use carboard, plastic, and recycled packages.”

In his 2024 series Mountains and Clouds, Liu attaches these recycled materials to acrylic paintings on wood and Xuan paper, reflecting his desire to reconnect with and preserve the natural world. He created these works as part of his master of fine arts thesis project at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. This spring, he was thrilled to receive his MFA.

Liu tells Pancouver that he likes working on Xuan paper, which originated in China. In ancient times, this form of rice paper was used for writing and painting. But Liu has discovered that it also works exceptionally well with collagraphy.

“For the first time, I married these two materials together,” Liu says. “It’s very successful; it’s beautiful; it’s soft; and it’s very easy to lodge it on a panel.”

Two pieces from Mountains and Clouds are featured in The Show, which is Emily Carr University of Art + Design’s annual exhibition. It includes works by more than 300 other graduates at the school’s campus (520 East 1st Avenue) in East Vancouver until May 23. Admission is free.

Kai Liu
A Long Long Time Alone, 2024 is part of Kai Liu’s Mountains and Clouds series. (1.9 x 3.5 meters; mixed-media: Xuan paper collagraph prints and acrylic on wood panels)

Liu moves elements around

Liu notes that there are many interesting concepts in Chinese painting, some of which he applies to his own works. According to Liu, what’s most important in a Chinese artist’s mind might appear far larger in the art than other elements.

“We have a linear perspective in western paintings or western art, but we don’t have that in Chinese paintings,” Liu says.

He likes moving elements around. For example, he says, mountains may appear in different places, like at the bottom of a piece. It all depends on the artist’s perspective, which might even be from a bird’s-eye view.

“It’s all about my satisfaction,” the artist declares. “If I am satisfied with the work, I will let it stay—even just one brushstroke. Sometimes it happens in Chinese paintings, like with black ink: only one stroke and it’s finished.”

Liu has taken a long artistic journey to reach this point where he’s able to integrate multiple elements into his work. He began in middle school in China, learning impressionist painting and traditional western drawing. In addition, he spent two years honing his skill in Chinese painting, including calligraphy.

However, the western and Chinese artforms didn’t overlap in those years. Then he became interested in architectural design in college and he later applied some of this knowledge—as well as his artistic skills—in the booming business of computer games.

Liu felt that he wanted to pursue a different form of art—one that wasn’t so linked to manufacturing products. So, in 2009, Liu and his partner moved from Beijing to Hamilton, Ontario, where he enrolled in graphic design production at Mohawk College.

Kai Liu
Kai Liu’s Water Lilies series was inspired by a visit to the Audain Art Museum in Whistler.

Moving to Vancouver

He earned a diploma and worked for five years as an in-house graphic designer at the college. However, over time, he wondered if graphic design was his true calling. Liu wanted to be an artist but he was spending a lot of time creating designs in response to the clients’ specifications.

“You are a designer, but you don’t really design anything for yourself,” Liu says, adding that he liked the people he worked with.

Eventually, he decided to move with his partner to Vancouver so that he could enroll at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. But he missed the deadline for the undergraduate program. Fortunately, Langara College has an agreement with the university, so he could do two years there in 2018 and 2019 and have his credits transferred toward a degree.

It turned out to be very helpful in his artistic practice.

“I was in Langara College learning advanced intaglio and relief printmaking, like etching and linocut,” Liu says.

After graduating from Langara, he enrolled in Emily Carr as an undergraduate. Then, the pandemic struck, leading to another artistic U-turn.

All of Liu’s classes were on Zoom and he couldn’t visit studios on campus, so he started painting landscapes at home. He drew on his experience in China, where he learned impressionism. Liu was living near Granville Street and West 57th Avenue, and was able to look out his window or walk around the neighbourhood to seek inspiration.

“The view was beautiful, winter to the fall,” he says.

Kai Liu posted this time lapse on YouTube of his <i>Ogden Point</i> oil painting.

Liu affected by Diebenkorn and Matisse

As he continued with his oil paintings, he wove in expressionist elements, reflecting how he felt about what he was seeing. Liu acknowledges that his painting often now falls in between impressionism and expressionism. In this regard, he draws inspiration from American artist Richard Diebenkorn, who was influenced by French artist Henri Matisse,

Not coincidentally, Liu titled one of his major series Water Lilies, which was also the name of Matisse’s most famous series. Liu’s large pieces, created in 2023, came about as a result of a trip he and his partner took to the Audain Art Museum in Whistler. There, Liu saw Vancouver artist Gordon Smith’s work. Liu also learned that Smith was inspired by a trip to the home of Matisse.

“I wanted to respond to both artists—the two masters,” Liu reveals.

One of his career highlights came when Art Rental & Sales at the Vancouver Art Gallery chose him as a featured artist. Liu’s Untitled Vancouver Sceneries was presented in the Showroom from June 12 to August 25, 2023.

Meanwhile, as a graduate student at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, he began exploring how the various art forms that he had studied could come together in single pieces.

“That’s why I integrate western abstraction with Chinese painting,” Liu says.

To learn more about Kai Liu, visit his website and follow him on Instagram @kai.liu. Emily Carr University of Art + Design will present The Show at its campus in East Vancouver until May 23. Follow Pancouver on X (formerly Twitter) @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.