Portraiture captures culture

Hao Luo’s “The Face of the City” exhibit is on display at the Clay Studio, located on 2nd and Quarry streets, until March 29.

Chinese artist Hao Luo created portraits of every United States President for his exhibit at The Clay Studio as part of “The Face of The City” exhibit. | Allan Barnes TTN
Chinese artist Hao Luo created portraits of every United States President for his exhibit at The Clay Studio as part of “The Face of The City” exhibit. | Allan Barnes TTN

Chinese artist, journalist and documentary filmmaker Hao Luo heats his paintings three times at 1472 degrees.

The resulting art is a smattering of glossy, vibrantly colored faces of icons ranging from Nobel Prize writers to contemporary celebrities.

Luo’s portraits are on display until March 29 at his first Philadelphia exhibit, “The Face of The City” at The Clay Studio on 2nd and Quarry streets. The portraits illustrate Luo’s idea that a city can be represented by the faces of those who live in it.

 “He’s really interested in this idea of the face and portraits being indicative of a person’s essence,” said Jennifer Zwilling, a new curator at The Clay Studio and an adjunct professor and graduate of the Tyler School of Art.

Throughout his art career, Luo aspired to combine the layered technique of oil painting, the precise art of calligraphy and the East Asian art of wash painting, which is comprised of non-erasable ink on a thin paper.

“The work of fire helped him to combine those three things together,” said Yadan Luo, Hao Luo’s son and translator, referring to the traditional Chinese kilning process that his father uses. As a result, the portraits are waterproof, fireproof and guarantee a lifespan of 500 years.

Upon coming to Philadelphia to visit his son, a student pursuing a master’s degree in landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, Hao Luo began familiarizing himself with the city. Through his personal observations of Philadelphia, he created two new colossal portraits at The Clay Studio, composed of smaller tiles.

From afar, the portraits depict the faces of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Up close, the portraits are separated squares, each tile containing an abstract painting representing Luo’s perception of Philadelphia.

“He was talking about how he’s taken his experiences here in Philadelphia – a certain kind of candy that he liked that he found here or something about how the street lights look at night, and he’s incorporated those kinds of feelings and images into each one of these relatively abstract tiles maybe with the feel or the color of each one or the shape that he’s using,” Zwilling said.

A tile on the edge of George Washington’s face is a cobalt blue, speckled with white brush marks. Yadan said Luo based the fragment of the portrait on the snow and ice he observed on the day his son picked him up at the Philadelphia International Airport.

Despite the free-flowing, abstract quality of Luo’s works, he always focuses on reflecting the persona of his subjects. He begins each portrait by painting the eyes.

“My father thinks that eyes are like the spirit – it can help to reflect the spirit of people very strongly,” Yadan Luo said.

Luo’s work is an example of what Zwilling refers to as modern craftsmanship. The skill combines the traditional crafting materials of clay, wood, fiber, metal and glass with innovative, contemporary overtones. Zwilling said the traditional methodology of craftsmanship has not changed significantly, even over thousands of years.

“If you go to a place like Tyler, you are then encouraged to kind of take those traditions and infuse them with your own modern artistic sensibilities. It’s this modern idea combined with traditional making,” Zwilling said.

Like many college students, Zwilling switched her major a couple of times before settling on one.

After darting from the International Relations Department to the History Department at Ursinus College, she studied abroad in Spain and changed her mind one last time.

“It kind of dawned on me that I could be studying history through the lens of art, because you walk through the streets of Sevilla and there’s these beautiful buildings everywhere and it’s kind of like a lightning bolt,” Zwilling said.

She graduated from Ursinus with a bachelor’s degree in history and art history, with an assistantship at Temple. She received her master’s in the same departments. With a passion for architecture and decorative arts in Philadelphia, she began working as an adjunct instructor at Tyler where she teaches a course on modern craft.

“I got enthralled by the fact that this spirit of craftsmanship really still exists here in Philadelphia,” Zwilling said.

After working for 13 years as a curator for American Decorative Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Zwilling moved on to working with The Clay Studio, which she says gives her the opportunity to mentor more artists and have more direct interaction with the exhibits.

“You just get a much more direct of a relationship with all of the parties involved,” she said. “We might not have as big of an audience, but I get to spend more time with all of those different constituencies.”

The different residents of Philadelphia have inspired Luo as well, who is considering creating more portraits of less famous, everyday inhabitants of the city. He has also browsed on the Temple website and read about various alumni – possible subjects in his next portraits.

Angela Gervasi can be reached at angela.gervasi@temple.edu.

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