Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - July 20, 2007

Keeping it real

Los Altos painter shows careful realism in portraits, images of Tibet

by Rebecca Wallace

The sun is breaking dramatically over snowy Tibetan peaks and a mountain lake, but the focal point of the painting "In Anticipation" is the face of a small boy.

Los Altos artist Ming Jing (Mike) Wang saw the boy during a trip to Tibet last year and was compelled to paint his scarlet robe and the olive branch he was holding. He also captured the subtle blend of emotions on the child's face.

"I saw a group of kids in a village...the occasion was a family sending the boy off to a (Buddhist) monastery," Wang said. "Being a monk is a demanding job; you give up many desires to go into a monastery."

Wang pictured himself being compelled by his parents to join this life of prayer and study, and imagined he'd have a mix of emotions: eagerness, anxiety, and a sense that he was bringing honor to his family. The vivid oil painting is the result.

Wang's careful realism is a hallmark of his work. The details in his art -- facial features and architecture, light and shadow -- can give the oil paintings a sense of immediate reality hanging on a wall. He sometimes paints portraits on commission, but won't do it from photos; subjects must come sit for him in a chair.

"With portraits these days, people want impressions, not long sittings and exact likenesses," Wang says in his living room studio, a quiet space with high ceilings and a creek in the backyard. "But I'm still a realist. I try to paint what I see."

Wang traces his artistic approach to China, where he grew up and lived until the mid-1980s, when he came to this country for medical training. He's now an anesthesiologist at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara, creating art in his spare time.

In China, Wang started painting in middle school but said he and other artists were hampered by societal restrictions. Teachers were not allowed to teach about "Western influences" such as Italian Renaissance artists, and students found their subject matter could be restricted, he said.

Because of these limitations, Wang and other artists had to concentrate on other aspects of their art. Many focused on realism skills, creating "tightly rendered paintings with close representation" of their subjects, Wang said.

Wang ultimately found a private art teacher to quietly work with him outside school. "Despite the reality, there's always a way around it," he said.

Wang came to the United States to do post-graduate work at the University of Kansas, and to the Bay Area about 10 years ago. He began taking art classes at the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto in his non-work time. Being an anesthesiologist allows him more regular hours than other types of doctors, he said.

Wang has had paintings in several juried group shows in recent years, and currently has a solo exhibit at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. "In Anticipation" is prominently displayed, with other images of realism -- including portraits and scenes in Tibet -- abounding.

A rare exception is "Telegraph Hill," a San Francisco vista dominated by heavy fog. Here, thick dabs of paint are less precise, giving the painting a faraway, Impressionist feel. It's as though the city is sleeping under the gray sky.

In the many paintings from Tibet on exhibit, Wang often explores how traditional culture is impacted by "modern intrusions." The theme is perhaps most evident in "Tibetans," in which a woman in a pink head scarf and burly coat carries a child on her back -- along with a can of Coke.

Wang had a longtime fascination with Tibet before going there last year. He had learned in China about the country and its dedication to Buddhism, and pictured it as a place of mystics, with much poverty but also devotion.

"In the past decade I kept hearing reports that Tibet is being ruined by modern society: highways, buildings. I wanted to go and have a look myself," he said.

In his home, he flips through a sketchbook with his brushed-ink impressions of Lhasa. A street vendor and a monk pass by, followed by a man in a business suit. Plenty of Western travelers were there as well, many to climb mountains.

The mountains make many appearances in the exhibited paintings, including a self-portrait called "Oxygen!" Here, Wang is shown in front of massive cliffs, holding a hospital mask and wearing scrubs.

It was that painting along with another self-portrait that first impressed Palo Alto painter Kenney Mencher, a professor in Ohlone College's department of art and art history. Last year, he and Wang both took part in a show of self-portraits at the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara.

"I thought that these two works by Mike were some of the best paintings in the show," Mencher said. "Several months later I came across his work at the Pacific Art League and in each instance of seeing his work, I got that little shiver I get when I see a painter who does the things I love to see."

Mencher added: "The light, color, anatomy and paint handling were extraordinary to me and really held up under closer inspection. I also felt that these two portraits in the Triton show were more than that. They also showed that he had a mastery over some of the hard stuff to paint like drapery, still life and landscape painting."

Mencher said it can be difficult for realist painters like Wang to break into the gallery world; some gallery owners find straightforward realism too illustrative, without an edge. And yet Mencher says that "one of the best galleries in San Francisco," the John Pence Gallery, expressly seeks out realist artists.

(Mencher himself does realist paintings with a twist: They're filled with symbols, and his subjects wind up in dramatic situations that can resemble film noir.)

Wang says he'd like to find a gallery to represent him, and mentions a solo gallery show as one of his goals. Still, he seems happy balancing art with medicine. Free from the restrictions of his student days, he paints whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and he doesn't have to worry about making a living at it.

"Once I have the idea, it goes quickly," he says contentedly. "I can do a painting in a week."

What: An exhibit of oil paintings by Mike Wang

Where: The lobby of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: Through Aug. 27. The lobby is open from noon to 1 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday and one hour before every public performance.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to Mike Wang's Web site at http://www.mwangmd.com .

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