Joseph Kipp Trader, "Missouri River" | 1879 | 44 x 68 | Oil on Canvas 2013

Tribal Influence

IF IT WEREN'T FOR THE GIANT CANVASES and easel in Z.S. Liang’s studio, one might mistake it for a small natural history museum. The stuff of Native American people and their long-ago lives is everywhere. Badger and skunk skins hang on the wall below the beaded shirt of a tribal chief. A quiver (full of feather-tipped arrows) wrapped in mountain lion fur, its tail still attached, quietly inhabits a far corner. And that’s just a start. Liang uses every one of the items, and many more, to breathe realism and life into narratives that are visually luscious and historically true.

Many of the moments captured in Liang’s paintings are taken from actual recorded events — some famous, others little known — that the artist has dredged up through research and close listening to Crow, Lakota, Blackfeet and Arapaho tribesmen who trust and respect him. Through painstaking attention to detail, he recreates encounters — some highly complex and evocative of cultural differences — by visiting the actual sites where meetings have occurred, arranging for models to stand in for long-gone participants and photographing them for use in his studio. 

Take his work Lakota Warriors, Little Bighorn, June 25th 1876, which now hangs above the living room mantel of avid Western art collector Bob Sandroni. A Lakota warrior on horseback is charging across the battlefield holding one of Custer’s guidons in his right hand; in his left hand are the reins and a rifle. In full headdress, his expression is triumphant, defiant and intense; his mouth open, one imagines a war cry containing the unmistakable sound of victory. The battle was one of the most decisive Native American victories of the Great Sioux Wars and its story is captured in the painting. Sandroni loves it not just for its masterful mix of hues and expert composition, but also because of its historic accuracy down to the rips in the guidon that Liang photographed before embarking on the opening pencil sketches. 

Liang is rising to the top of his profession probably faster than any other artist devoted to this subject matter, says John Geraghty, a trustee at the Autry National Center and a longtime collector of Liang’s work. His works are collected and sought after by those who understand and appreciate the genre most — including fellow painter of Native American life, Howard Terpning — and are in the permanent collections at both the Autry National Center and the West Point Museum of the United States Military Academy. His awards include the 2011 Masters of the American West Purchase Award, the David P. Usher Patrons’ Choice at the 2009 Masters of the American West and the 2005 Oil Painters of America President’s Choice award. 

Liang’s ability to paint vivid, historically accurate, multilayered narratives is fueled in large part by his passion for the subject matter. “The more I learn, the more I get involved and interested [in this subject matter.] In a way, I feel it’s my mission to [bring] these vanishing stories back to life on my canvas and eventually in my book,” says Liang.

Considering how far he has come and the depth of his commitment, the fact that Liang’s interest in the subject was triggered by an encounter at a highway rest stop is ironic. He was living in Boston, painting portraits on commission after receiving a bachelor of arts from the Massachusetts College of Fine Arts and a master of fine arts from Boston University. One day, after pulling off the highway, Liang noticed a poster for a Wampanoag outdoor museum. Half the poster depicted a young Wampanoag Indian of yesteryear, the other half showed a pilgrim. It drew him in. When he visited the plantation, exhibits of 17th-century Wampanoag life evoked memories of Liang’s childhood in rural Guangzhou, China: tending animals, farming, gathering and making use of every resource.

“I grew up very poor. We raised chickens, [there was] basically a shortage of everything. Nothing was wasted. … It was pretty easy for me to relate to [the Wampanoag people].”

Liang painted Deer Hunter, his first of the Native American experience, after spending time with a Wampanoag tribesman (actually the same man photographed for the poster) who took him to the woods and taught him exactly how early Wampanoag stalked and shot deer, kneeling down afterwards to touch and prayerfully release its soul back to the spirit world. More canvases followed and, within a short time, Liang’s colleague and friend, Mian Situ, introduced him to Trailside Gallery owner Maryvonne Leshe. 

“I think Z.S. takes the time that it requires to do better paintings, not just a pretty painting. It has to be historically accurate,” says Leshe, who represents him exclusively. “He has always stressed more than money, more than quantity, it’s quality.” 

Liang’s paintings are sold before they even arrive at the gallery and when he has a show, collectors vie for them through a draw. 

“When you first look at his paintings, what catches you is the beauty of the subjects,” says Situ, who happens to be from Guangzhou as well and knew Liang when they both studied at the fine art college there. “He’s very sensitive to the beauty of the people, the subjects, the landscape, the lighting.” The well-known Situ is highly respected for his paintings of the Chinese immigrant experience in San Francisco.

After talking and sipping black tea in his studio, Liang pulled out a digital image of a painting that is now part of the Autry Center’s permanent collection, Rejecting the Metal Shield, a 46-by 72-inch work the artist modestly refers to as “successful.” In it, a white fur trader holds a pipe while leaning in and gesturing to a seated Blackfeet chief. The chief is examining a plain, silver metal shield. Beside the chief are a medicine man and other Blackfeet tribesmen, some holding items gained in a just-completed trade. In the background is the hum and bustle of the busy Fort McKenzie, located in northern Montana in the mid-1800s. (Liang visited the site and studied the floorplan of the fort before beginning the painting.) As you gaze, the story unfolds before you —the chief, examining the shield, is expressionless; a more elaborate shield is carried by a second white man in the background; the American flag is raised. The details are everywhere, bringing the story to life. 

“For the Indian, the spiritual protection is more than the physical protection,” says Liang. “If you need a shield, you have to ask the medicine man and do a lot of the ceremonial things and paint it and decorate it with feathers and then it becomes effective for you. So it means the two cultures are clashing. Different thinking. Totally different,” the artist explains. 

Amy Scott, Ph.D., the Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross curator of visual arts at the Autry, said that in the last few years Liang has really come into his own, and Rejecting the Metal Shield represents a new level. 

“Each year [Liang] sends us something that is a little more sophisticated, more agile and more ambitious. There is a lot of [work] based on interaction between figures and that’s a hard thing to paint. You have to capture gesture and the reaction, and he’s getting better and better at that every year.”

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