Everything You Need to Know About Honolulu Museum of Art’s Newest Exhibit

“Contemporary Landscapes: Li Huayi” features a revival of the traditional.
Autumn Mountain/At the Edge of the Sky, 2007. Ink and color on paper. Yiqingzhai Collection. (L2016-67.01). Photo: Courtesy of Honolulu Museum of Art


Li Huayi blasts classical music through his San Francisco studio while he paints his wall-sized landscape masterpieces—he’s a fan of Wagner and Schubert. Li also loves opera and contemporary art, and for the past few years, when he’s wanted to discuss either, he’s called Shawn Eichman, a curator for Honolulu Museum of Art.


Li and Eichman have become close. They’ve been busy envisioning HoMA’s newest exhibition, Contemporary Landscapes: Li Huayi, which opened Aug. 24. It displays 33 works from the past 30 years, some of which have never been shown before. While his paintings emulate Chinese ink landscapes, Li considers his work a freestyle revitalizing of the traditional form.


“The thing about Huayi’s paintings is that they have such a strong presence that it’s very hard to realize just how powerful they are until you’re standing in front of them,” Eichman says. “You have to see them in order to get what’s going on, and the minute you see them you’re transfixed. They take your breath away.”


Here are six things you probably didn’t know about the show:


Photo: Shinae Lee


1. The show has been in the works for eight years. In 2011, HoMA established a strategic plan to showcase contemporary art from around the Pacific Rim, and Eichman immediately suggested Li’s work as a perfect example. Getting him to agree was the easy part. Eichman then spent years negotiating with private collectors across the globe to bring Li’s paintings to O‘ahu.


“We’re so happy to have worked hard for this,” Li says. “When I saw this installation which is way beyond my imagination … It’s my dream.”


2. Li immigrated to the U.S. from China in 1982 when he was 34 years old. He got his master’s degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and has lived there since.


3. Li’s current style of work could have gotten him into serious trouble during China’s Cultural Revolution starting in 1949. Government leaders sought to suppress traditional Chinese culture and encouraged Soviet social realism. “I’m lucky,” he says. As a teen, he worked as an artist for the state painting propaganda murals, but wasn’t allowed to express himself through art. “I’ve gone through so many styles of drawing, but they didn’t change me,” he says. He identifies with Chinese landscape painting and works to keep the form alive.


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Sound of Waterfalls, 2014. Ink and color on silk. Collection of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang. (L2016-65.02). Photo: Courtesy of Honolulu Museum of Art


4. This exhibition is already inspiring future paintings for Li. On a nature walk up Tantalus—an opening event HoMA hosted for the show—Li had HoMA’s photographer snap some pics of an old ‘ōhi‘a tree that intrigued him. He keeps pictures of mountains, rivers, trees and rocks and uses them as inspiration.


5. Fine details are the easy part. Li spends hours contemplating the overall shapes of trees and mountains. Once he starts on the intricate and minute strokes, he says it’s hard for him to stop.


Endless Life, 2017. Six-panel screen; ink on paper with gold foil. Private Asian Collection. (L2018-32.01). Photo: Courtesy of Honolulu Museum of Art


6. The gold foil screens holding some of Li’s newest works are antique. He keeps his eye out for quality screens he can use because he says many techniques used today don’t apply the foil well. The massive paintings bounce light around the room and reflect onto the floor.


Some of my favorites include Fuchun Mountain—three detailed vertical scrolls hanging over a wide strip of hazy mountains. The scrolls give a zoomed-in effect to the panels in the background, which draw you in. Pine Trees and Spring make you feel like you’re standing near the edge of a cliff. All the lines in the painting seem to point to the pool at the bottom of the tall waterfall. Also be sure to check out the rare works from Li’s early career in the ’90s on display toward the front of the exhibition.


Contemporary Landscapes: Li Huayi will be on display through Jan. 5, 2020 at the Honolulu Museum of Art, 900 S. Beretania St. Engage with the exhibition at one of HoMA’s upcoming events listed below:


Atmosphere in Sound: Gallery Drawing and Music for Li Huayi

First Sundays through January | 10:30 a.m.–noon

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From the Vault: Hokusai’s Mt Fuji and Beyond—Innovations in Asian Landscape Art

Thursday, Oct. 17 | 10:30 a.m.–noon

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Mystic Photography Workshop

Sunday, Oct. 27 and Sunday, Nov. 3 | 8 a.m.–noon

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