Climb the steep slope of Cao Yong’s driveway in La Habra Heights, and the idyllic fruit of his hard-won immigrant success story suddenly appears.
A huge, green, stone Buddha sits benevolent and serene above a trickling artificial stream. Behind the shrine, the hill goes on ruggedly upward. Here, Cao’s house of dark wood and cream-colored stucco seems to be a peaceful way station for a life that has unfolded like an adventure tale, filled with bold gambits, daring escapes and hard new beginnings in foreign lands.
Once an art-rebel who was literally a wanted man in his native China, Cao is now a wealthy painter of romantic visions of California, Hawaii and the Italian coast, having remade himself in three countries by mustering physical endurance, resourcefulness and a classic immigrant’s willingness to adapt.
Cao (pronounced “chow”) first emerged in 1989, the tumultuous and bloody year when freedom of expression flowed briefly in China before being snuffed in the Tiananmen Square massacre. By 1999, he was on his way to success in Southern California, painting tenderly manicured scenes as benevolent and serene as his hillside Buddha. He issues his lush landscapes and inviting city views under his own imprint, Cao Yong Editions, and they hang on thousands of middle-class American walls. Cousins to the critically reviled but vastly popular paintings of Thomas Kinkade, signed, limited-edition prints of Cao’s work are sold in more than 300 galleries, fetching $1,000 to $2,000 each.
Now the rise of a frazzled bourgeoisie in China -- millions of people who might want to flop into an easy chair and gaze on serenity at the end of a hardworking day -- has prompted him to launch his own gallery in the Beijing he fled 19 years ago. The Cao who was forced to run in 1989 was a painter of disturbing, darkly surrealistic visions suffused with spirituality and sexuality and shrouded in death. The one who has returned paints benedictions to the good life he found in the West.
Beijing, Feb. 19, 1989 (Reuters): Chinese police have raided an exhibition of nude paintings influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and shown to a shocked Beijing public. . . . Uniformed policemen confiscated six paintings and questioned artist Cao Yong. . . . One painting shows a heap of naked women below Buddhist monk-like figures and another depicts a woman dragging two men by their genitalia out of a fire.
Fearing imprisonment for obscenity, Cao and his fiancee, Japanese art student Aya Goda, went on the lam for eight months, ducking authorities while trying to jump through Japanese bureaucratic hoops so that Cao could emigrate to Tokyo. In 1995, Goda published her memoir of that time, “Tao: On the Road and on the Run in Outlaw China.” Last summer, a publisher in London issued the first English translation. “A dozen film producers would die to adapt this book,” said the Guardian.
“Tao” is also an account of Cao’s life to age 27. If all its tales are true -- among them an astonishing account of his participation in the Tibetan Buddhist ritual of sky burial -- this stocky, long-maned man with wispy whiskers, furrowed brow and an unguarded manner is a global-era successor to the irrepressible American individualists carved in the pages of Hemingway, Jack London and James Fenimore Cooper. He says Goda’s story is accurate, although, given his limited Japanese and English, he hasn’t read her book.
Treated as an outcast
Cao was born in 1962 in Xinxian, in the mountains of southern Henan province. When the Cultural Revolution erupted four years later, his family was on the wrong side of a dangerous socioeconomic fissure. Tainted as descendants of landowners, the family with five children was scorned and became abjectly poor after the father, Cao Hongshan, was sent off for a year of forced “study group.” Eating chicken was a once-a-year luxury, at New Year’s.
Cao Yong, his hair in a topknot, recalled those times recently while seated cross-leg on a cushion in a large studio that includes the curtained-off cubbyhole where he sleeps. It is no typical rich man’s den; like much of the house, which Cao shares with his younger sister, Qing, her two sons, and her husband, it’s the repository for a haphazard collection of whimsical decorations. A mounted stag’s head oversees the front hallway, with a starlike light fixture hung from a chain around its neck. Textiles covering the walls abound with African and Asian motifs. His own paintings are absent; with his art, he says, he likes to look only forward.
In school, Cao says, he was treated as an outcast, except for a lone geography teacher who praised his drawings and fascinated him with stories from his soldiering days in Tibet. The Cultural Revolution had ended by the time Cao entered Henan University, but when he graduated in 1983 he still wanted to get as far from authority as he could. Tibet beckoned -- a place perhaps remote enough for an artist to skip the tight leash of officialdom. He joined the art faculty of Tibet University in Lhasa but spent much of his time in the mountains, copying the imagery -- some of it erotically themed -- that he found on the walls of ruined temples and in caves where monks had dwelt. He became known as a rebel and, as Goda’s memoir tells it, something of a ruffian.
He was a sharp-shooting hunter who could sustain himself alone in the Tibetan barrens, a smuggler of goods as varied as peacock feathers and guns and ammunition, and an impulsive tough guy willing and able to use his fists. When he came home from one of his long sojourns and caught his first wife, a college sweetheart, in flagrante delicto, he tried to carve her and her paramour with a knife. He drew blood, but they escaped. Goda pieced together this portrait from talks with Cao’s friends in Tibet, and Cao doesn’t deny any of it.
“It’s like the Wild West in America, 200 years ago,” he says in English, switching momentarily from the Chinese he mainly spoke during an interview. “When you live in that place,” he continued in Chinese through an interpreter, “when somebody gets into your territory, you have to make yourself tough.”
In Lhasa, he says, he resisted when rogue police hassled him and his friends on the street, and they zapped him with tasers. “I fell down and peed my pants,” he says, smiling.
Anti-government turmoil broke out in Lhasa in 1988, and John Morrison, a Canadian diplomat, came to investigate. After an official dinner, his minder asked if he’d like to see some art. Morrison was led through dark, deserted walkways at Tibet University to a studio crammed with paintings. There, Cao Yong began showing his portraits of peasants and musicians. Morrison was unimpressed. “It was folkloric, touristy art,” he recalls.
Sensing his boredom, Cao brought out large canvases from a series he would later title “The Split Layer of Earth -- Mount Kailas.” They were forbidding moonscapes, populated with red-robed monks praying and voluptuous female nudes writhing in deathlike tangles -- or standing dramatically alone, like priestesses. They reminded Morrison of Salvador Dali. “I couldn’t believe my eyes, because this was China, and you just didn’t expect to see art which was so modern and so free and, from a government perspective, so subversive.”
Early in 1989, Cao spent most of his money to rent a gallery in Beijing for his first solo show; he also buttonholed the principal curator of a huge, landmark group exhibition, “China/Avant-Garde,” that was about to open in a government museum. “Before that moment, there was nobody in Beijing who knew him,” the curator, Gao Minglu, now a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, recalled by e-mail. “I went to his apartment to look at his work, and immediately I was impressed. His painting was very powerful. I was shocked.” Gao added two of the newcomer’s paintings to the show, one depicting the corpse of a child. Cao says he had witnessed the boy’s killing during anti-government demonstrations in Lhasa.
After the police raid and flight chronicled in “Tao,” Tokyo became Cao’s safe harbor. He struggled, digging graves at one point to support himself. His break came when he was hired to paint a mural on the wall of a Mister Donut shop. He grew rich as a commercial muralist; among his commissions was a gigantic dragon painted on a tower at a samurai-era-themed park. Privately, he continued his surrealistic Tibetan series, the images now sometimes including a dead infant or fetus. In retrospect, he says, he may have been purging feelings he’d suppressed when Aya Goda became pregnant while they were on the run in China and, by her account, submitted reluctantly to an abortion because they couldn’t risk a baby who would slow them down.
In 1993 Cao started visiting America, and in 1996, living in Brooklyn, he secured a green card. Goda wanted to be in Japan, and they divorced. “Wherever he goes, stormy incidents happen, and I just can’t live with that,” said Goda, who remains friendly with Cao. In America, Cao says, he followed the advice of friends, invested his money -- and lost it in gold and silver futures. Again a struggling artist in a strange country, he walked from gallery to gallery in Manhattan, his easel on his back and his canvases under his arm, buttonholing owners in rudimentary English, asking for a show.
“He was the real thing. His life was about art,” recalls John Smith-Amato, director of Synchronicity Space, who in 1994 gave Cao his first exhibition in the United States.
A second gallery exhibited Cao’s Tibetan work, but the owner gave him some advice: These are your past; paint what’s in front of you. The seed was planted for his Western phase.
“Those times for me were so confused,” Cao says in English. Then interpreter Ming Chuong, the artist’s sales manager, picks up the thread as Cao goes on in Mandarin: “It’s like everything you have built and learned is totally destroyed and reborn again. When I look back now, that experience helped me be alive again. But at the time it was very difficult. Everything felt like it was destroyed.”
When he walked into the Village Gallery in Laguna Beach, not long after his 1997 move to Southern California, Cao still was hawking his Tibetan paintings, along with romanticized portraiture that was part of his artistic transition. “They were beautiful, but they weren’t appropriate to the market,” recalls Marty Brown, director of the seven-outlet Village chain. Cao began to study what galleries were showing, picked Brown’s brain a bit and before long was coming in with salable landscape paintings: lushly scenic and romantic, and highlighted by an acute sense of detail. Cao’s images of the Santa Monica Pier, the Avalon waterfront on Santa Catalina Island and a recent picture of the coastline at Vernazza, Italy, are among the leading sellers at Brown’s galleries and others around the country.
The artist won allies with an upbeat, outsize personality that could leap language barriers. Kim Klatt, who helps organize Artexpo, a series of trade shows, ushered him onto the circuit and found himself running out to buy custom lighting for Cao’s booth -- a favor he’d never done for anybody.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Cao, who has since become a U.S. citizen, created a mammoth, collage-like painting, “Freedom,” showing firefighters raising the American flag in the rubble of the World Trade Center.
Donated prints of “Freedom” and “We the People,” a companion piece celebrating the U.S. Constitution, hang in the waiting room outside the Board of Supervisors’ offices in Los Angeles.
“It’s been fun to watch him grow,” Klatt says. “He stepped into a market everyone was trying to get into, and he did it. The guy has a vision of what people will buy, and he’s sold a lot of prints, man.”
Though admiring, the perception by Klatt and others that Cao changed to get ahead is not the authorized version of his artistic transformation, which can be found in his eagerly self-promoting, custom-published coffee-table book, “The Life & Painting of Cao Yong.” The stylistic switch, Cao insists, was a matter of inspiration, not calculation. “It tells the change in my own life experience, from the closest experience of death, to the happiness of living.”
‘A new culture’
The pursuit of happiness has now led him back to China. After a brief stopover five years ago, he had his first extended stay in 2004 when the Wangchen Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist lama based in L.A., invited him to attend the opening of a new temple in Tibet. Cao had been leery of the homeland whose government had seized and destroyed his paintings and sought his arrest. But he realized that China truly had changed: “The past culture is diminished, and a new culture has arrived.”
In the last two years he has lived mainly in China, launching the richly appointed showroom, Cao Yong Beijing International Art Gallery, that sells only his own works, and retreating to a country home outside the metropolis to paint. He also bought a vacation home near the border of Sichuan and Tibet, in a verdant district of mountains and valleys that formerly was known as Zhongdian but has lately changed its name to Shangri-La. When he encounters the Chinese news media, both parties seem to have an understanding that the circumstances that led Cao to flee in 1989 will be glossed over or euphemized as a misunderstanding.
The Beijing Olympics are coming, and Cao’s latest piece, selling for up to $7,000 a print, is “Voice of the East,” which amalgamates an assortment of landmarks and motifs such as the Great Wall, the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) in Beijing, the ancient terra-cotta warriors and, in the distance, the Potala Palace, historic seat of the Dalai Lama.
In China, he says, you’ll find him most days working on a series of paintings of unspoiled Italian fishing villages that he’s calling “Pretty Life.” In a land and a world increasingly given to dizzying change, Cao says, he wants to extol living simply, in balance with nature.
Back in America, gallery operators are getting antsy that Cao’s popularity may be at risk, that his absence prevents the personal appearances that had been a plus in attracting business. But Cao’s mission now is to bridge East and West, to combine the different worlds where he has lived into his art. His realms will meet in an exhibition, “Return of the Traveler,” that opens Tuesday and runs through May 6 at Art Brillant in Beverly Hills, featuring examples of his romantic landscapes as well as his early Tibetan-themed paintings. “It’s like two rivers connecting together,” he says. “I will live where it inspires me to paint.”
Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo bureau and Mark Magnier of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.