'Echoes' From a Daughter's Life : Deng Lin's Tapestries Weave Family History, Chinese Art


If Deng Lin, the daughter of Chinese elder statesman Deng Xiaoping, could recreate her life she would be born a boy. As a Chinese male, she would have had an easier time fulfilling her natural proclivities for a life of action and an art of bold innovation. And she wouldn't have spent so many years perfecting delicate flower paintings before creating "Distant Echoes," a strikingly expressionistic series of silk tapestries, part of which is on view at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena.

At the weekend opening of the Pasadena show--the first American exhibition of her imposing, black-and-white tapestries--Deng appeared to have traveled a long way from Chinese ladies' art circles. Her tapestries, measuring up to 6 by 10 feet, loom large and rather spookily. Based on abstractions and embellishments of neolithic Chinese pottery, the massive artworks portray mask-like faces and powerful spiritual forces in dense forests of foliage. More than the daughter of a ruler who was banished during the Cultural Revolution, became the senior leader of the People's Republic of China and later came under fire for presiding over the repression of a student uprising in Tian An Men Square, she appeared to be an international celebrity in the presence of distinctly modern art.

That is an accurate image but not a complete picture, according to the 51-year-old artist. If she seems to have risen above the burden of her country's history and her family's prominence, she has not separated these facts of life from her artwork.

"My tapestries represent the true Deng Lin, but they are deeply rooted in historical Chinese art," she said, speaking through an interpreter.

Indeed, the "Distant Echoes" series is the culmination of Deng's search to integrate the spirit of international contemporary art with her personal interpretation and experience of Chinese culture, she said.

Deng's quest for her own aesthetic voice began more than 30 years ago, as a girl of 18 who began her art training with a Chinese master of ink painting. Her career was interrupted for 10 years by the Cultural Revolution, but apart from possessing an aesthetic sensibility that she thinks is better suited to a man, she expresses no regrets.

As the eldest of Deng Xiaoping's five children, she was subjected to "a period of hardship" in the late 1960s and '70s when the family was required to work on farms and in factories, but the experience "broadened my horizons and shaped my personality and character," she said. "If I had been kept in a greenhouse and lived a comfortable life, I could not have grown to the present stage of my work." Calling herself a "born optimist," Deng said that her primary life lesson has been learning to "turn every negative into a positive."

She was born in 1941, when China was at war with Japan and her parents were involved in the conflict. A week after her birth, Deng was entrusted to a poor peasant family's home where she endured scurvy and malnutrition. She was sent to the communist revolutionary base of Yuan at the age of 2 and reunited with her family when she was 4.

A frail child, Deng said she wasn't up to the rigorous sports and activities that captured her imagination, but she indulged her interest in the arts and eventually concentrated on painting. She was graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1967, a year after the Cultural Revolution began to sweep through the country, so her professional aspirations were put on hold. She was assigned to work at the Beijing Art Academy in 1973, the same year her father was reinstated and made deputy premier by Premier Chou En-lai, but she could not resume her career in earnest until 1977, after the death of Mao Tse-tung, the fall of the Gang of Four and her father's final return to power.

A short, stocky woman who talks eagerly about her art, Deng said she was always attracted to bold designs and subjects but devoted her early years to the rigors of traditional plum blossom paintings.

A trip to the United States in 1985 awakened her interest in Western contemporary art and revolutionized her own work. Drawing inspiration from American and European abstraction as well as the vigor of Chinese art during the Qin and Han dynasties, she began to turn her familiar flowers into vigorous abstractions.

Searching Chinese art history for the same excitement she had discovered on her travels, she discovered a corollary to international modernism in China's neolithic pottery. That led to a series of ink paintings based on neolithic motifs, which pleased her but lacked the strong visual impact she wanted to achieve. The answer, she said, was to translate the paintings into tapestries, so she took her idea to the Ru Gao Silk Tapestry Workshop in Jiangsu province.

Working with Deng for nearly two years, professional weavers made a limited edition of five tapestries for each of the 23 paintings. Made with 120 knots per square inch, the luxurious tapestries contain a rich variety of shades and patterns that emulate ink washes and brush strokes.

David Kamansky, director of the Pacific Asia Museum, said he has followed Deng's progress since she first visited the museum in 1985 and that he became interested in exhibiting her work when she began to exert her own personality. When a friend showed him photographs of the tapestries during a recent trip to Hong Kong, he promptly requested an exhibition. The Hanart T Z Gallery in Hong Kong on May 7 opened a show of Deng's tapestries and published a catalogue on the series, but Kamansky said he got first choice of the works for the Pasadena exhibition, which continues through July 5. The Pacific Asia Museum is showing 11 of the 23 tapestries from the "Distant Echoes" series.

The children of China's high-ranking leaders sometimes face criticism for leading relatively luxurious lifestyles far beyond the means of ordinary citizens, and Deng is no exception. A recent article in a Hong Kong newspaper made much of the fact that an Australian hair stylist had given her a $175 cut, color and perm in a Shanghai salon and that the shop had to be cleared of other customers before she would enter.

The black stretch limo that transported her around Southern California didn't attract much attention in Pasadena, however, and Deng has long since become accustomed to international travel. She has exhibited her paintings during the past decade all around the world, including New York, Paris, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Tokyo, Bangkok, Singapore and Beijing.

Her current show is her California debut, but she first exhibited her tapestries last fall at the China Art Museum in Beijing. And how did her hometown critics receive this radically new art?

"I don't care about their response," Deng said. "I don't pay attention to the critics, so I don't know what they thought."

Times staff writer David Holley contributed to this report in Beijing.

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