Saturday, December 6, 2008

Other Perspectives of Tu-2 from friends


I met Tu-2 in a drawing class at UCLA. His enthusiasm for drawing was clear.  In fact the pose he struck while sketching inspired me more than the models, so I turned around and drew him instead!

So began a friendship that has lasted 20 years and counting. Over the course of many drawing sessions and excellent Taiwanese meals cooked at his home studio, I got to know him more. His name, Tu-2, is his own spelling of a nickname given to him by his buddies back in Taipei. From his formal name of Ying Ming Tu, the referenced "Tu Tu Tu", a character in popular Taiwanese entertainment.  I'll let you ask him what "Tu Tu Tu" means!

I slowly learned that here was a man with an extraordinary history.  As a skinny kid growing up in Taiwan, Tu-2 decided to train himself in the martial art of judo.  Diligently practicing exercises from a book.  By the age of 18 he had won the lightweight judo championship of Taiwan!

For his excellence, Tu (as I call him) was awarded a non-too-favorable job, but one that at the time carried much honor and historical import:  at 21, he was selected to join a group of elite bodyguards for the Taiwanese ruler Chiang Kai-shek.  It was an incredibly stressful vocation, requiring constant vigilance and little rest.  His group was responsible for casing areas for bombs.  Often the authorities would hide dummy bombs as a training aid, and severely punish Tu-2's group if the decoys remained undiscovered.  Tu-2 was on duty when Chiang Kai-shek passed away in 1975.

This seems like strange soil for an artist to grow out of, but Tu has always rooted his work in his life experiences.  He had excelled in calligraphic ink drawing as a child, but set it aside to pursue photography and video reportage.  A longtime friend of noted Taiwanese photographer Chao-tung, Tu-2's photos explored a similar vein.  His perfect compositions of fleeting moments helped inflame my own love of photography.  Tu-2 was happy to encourage my own artistic development by freely lending me his valuable cameras and equipment.

During a visit to Nepal and Tibet, Tu made a powerful series of color photos which to me were a direct link to is paintings.  When I first met Tu, he was throwing himself headlong into a life long commitment to to be a fine artist.  He was very aware that he was starting late (at the time he was 34), but he quickly made up for lost time by producing one astoundingly colorful work after another.  Working both in oil pastel and paint, he soon began creating paintings of  very monumental size.

The first, and perhaps, largest, is a portrait of his family surreally seated in the middle of a hydraulic power plant that his father managed in Taiwan before his untimely death sent Tu-2's family spiraling off on another course.  It is a ghostly and powerful work, heavy with the portent.  Other portraits of family members followed.

Always seeing connections and combinations, Tu works in series, and as his next subject he chose Mao Ze-Dong.  As is fitting the Chairman, the paintings are grand vertical portraits, following Mao from golden youth to bloated despot.  Tu gleefully took his representation one step further, portraying him as a woman, a cat, and even Mickey Mouse.  His "Mickey Mao" is where China and America meet.  There is still a great amount of reverence for Mao in China, and Tu-2 tells me that even in Taiwan, there is a level of fear prohibiting most artists from freely "defacing" Mao's image.

His distance from his home country is what gave Tu-2 the breathing room to express himself in such a way.  In California "Mickey Mao" is perhaps seen as cute and clever, but in China this image has teeth.

Always active, always incredibly physically fit, Tu-2 has applied the meditative focus that served him so well in learning judo and painting to other activities as well.  He consistently trains with local Mexican soccer teams (where he is known as "El Chino"!), and has recently turned his attention to tennis.  At the age of 49, his dedication and artful approach to such demanding sports is an inspiration to everyone who knows him.  His drawings of tennis and soccer players say a lot about his personal love for the games, and in particular, what it means mentally and physically to be in harmony with a ball in motion.  At 55, he is just beginning to realize that he can let go of the form and fully move into the energy.

Lately, Tu-2 has been developing a series of drawings of friends and neighbors.  Drawn in silver pencil on a blue background, they seem to glow with the very life substance of the subjects.  Most of them have their eyes closed.  This is to me, a reminder of death, but the images are very much alive.  It is as if he is gently holding their spirits in his cupped hands, inviting us to appreciate the fleeting bliss of being.  This subject is fitting, since Tu-2 has recently become involved in Zen meditation, and has made several pilgrimages to a Zen temple in Hawaii.

I've had the privilege of seeing Tu-2's gallery openings in several countries, from LA to Taipei to Belgium, and have even had the privilege of being the subject of some of his artworks.  But the greatest privilege of all for me, is being his friend and brother.  (October 26, 2007)

Scott Alberts, Storyboard Artist ("the Simpsons")
Barcelona, Spain

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Golden Mao

Growing up in a Patriarchal society, this image of Mao represents the quintessential ideal of a "young man" who has been deeply cultivated by the values and traditions of then-China. We have seen this archetype before in Sun Yixian and Chiang Kai-Shek. Here, Mao Zedong is depicted as young revolutionary, a scholar, and a soldier -- all images that can be found in Chinese history books, magazines and newspapers.