Benrei HUANG, who has been creating illustrated books and illustrations for more than two decades, has in recent years exhibited a series of acrylic paintings with rabbit Nini as the main character. These works are not large in dimension, but each depicts a story. Using simple composition and warm colors, they convey the moods that strike the artist as she lives.
Benrei HUANG once said that her work has been deeply influenced by surrealist artists, and in her works, a whimsical style that is reminiscent of the surrealist artists’ work is evident. However, the creative impulse of surrealism is to transcend the rationality, order, and constraints of the real world, yearning instead for a truth that is revealed in a subconscious or dream state—which differs from Benrei HUANG’s creative stance. Although their materials originate from daily life, surrealist artists use pastiche or montage to assemble divergent elements in a way that defamiliarizes the familiar. Benrei HUANG uses similar tactics but in the service of creating various depictions of daily life. She uses a narrative approach like that of a fairy tale to communicate a lesson, with a rabbit character standing in for humanity. In various settings and incidents, what is conveyed remains as so-called life wisdom or principles for living. Such a form and style of creative work is certainly related to the artist’s many years of work as an illustrator and author of illustrated books. However, the illustrations attached to stories have been removed from their ancillary position, and now represent statements that stand on their own.
Within Benrei HUANG’s works, Nini can be seen as a representative of the artist explaining her views on life to the audience. The rabbit has no facial expressions, or even a gender. It takes on the attitude of a thoroughly neutral character in depictions of various truths about life. This sort of narrative approach has the strong air of a moral fable, using metaphor to illustrate a principle and convey the artist’s ideas—an approach widely used in literature and especially popular in folk stories, often carrying a warning or educational message. The speaker, perhaps hoping to win the trust of the reader, does not use a first-person voice, but rather the third person, increasing the believability of what is said. Therefore, while the audience for a fable may be extremely broad and varied, these stories are often used to educate children. A simple narrative structure embeds a moral to achieve the effect of teaching. As a result, when reading a fable, what is most important is not the literal story but the meaning that lies outside the superficial characters and plot.
Rabbit Nini resembles an innocent child, quietly accepting the fresh experiences of life and learning to safely deal with the little events of daily life. All the understanding embodied therein originates with the creator herself. She uses the appealing rabbit character and background settings to convey her thoughts. Benrei HUANG once said in an interview, “When it comes to our lives, the universe has already decided our destiny. Our existence and our efforts are predetermined, and nothing in the face of the natural order can change their course. However, effort must be made (in the pursuit of goodness), as that is where human dignity is found—even though in the end it all comes to naught.” This sort of life philosophy, mixing stoicism and striving, is evident in her paintings. Nini shows us worldly wisdom that might have been overlooked in moments of a normal life. Most of this wisdom reminds us to have a positive and eager attitude toward life and Benrei HUANG uses Nini to emphasize active engagement in life. This expressionless rabbit is not simply a straightforward sunny presence; sometimes, it looks confused, sometimes calm. What all this seems to imply is the artist’s view of life: that the tranquility found in contemplation is more genuine than cheerful laughter.
The subject of many new works by Benrei HUANG include shadows. In this series of works, shadows become the main character’s counterpart, not only as proof of the self’s existence, but also as a constant representation of the self, in dialogue with the body. On many occasions, the shadow is like an inner demon, a power that inhibits forward progress, as in works such as When your shadow slows you down (2010), Let no shadow slow you down, I brought mine on board (2011), and It probably is not that big (2011). In these pieces, a shadow of dimensions far out of proportion to the rabbit is ostensibly cast. Looking back at its own shadow, Nini hesitates to go forward, or perhaps becomes fearful at the sight of the large shadow. In these works, Benrei HUANG uses shadows as a symbol of matters that we cannot control or see clearly. They often disturb us before we are able to take genuine action. Once we see our doubts and confusion are merely a matter of mind, and understand that hesitation comes only from an overly cautious attitude, these black shadows are revealed as nothing more than an emptiness, and cannot truly control what we do.
Occasionally, shadows are another expression of the self in Benrei HUANG’s works. Their existence makes up for reality’s shortcomings, perhaps providing solace or expressing some expectation for oneself. In To the destiny and beyond (2010), a rabbit and duck in a bathtub turn into high seas adventurers on the wall behind them. But these adventurers are only shadows. The formidable image behind Nini might represent the aspiration for bravery that Nini has for itself, or perhaps it actually represents the rabbit’s true character, unknown to anyone else. Benrei HUANG uses illusory shadows to create room for ambiguity and multiple interpretations, a juxtaposition of reality and fiction, a conflict between vulnerability and courage— these things are powerfully juxtaposed in this work. Another work, Drawing lesson 101 – this part is too dark, or it’s just a bunny with a black butt (2011) likewise utilizes shadows as an element. The shadow in the painting mischievously points at Nini’s tail, as if playing the role of another character, with self-referential humor pointing out that everything is as it is because the artist has made it so. The famous painting shown in the work, Nini’s looking at the painting, Nini’s shadow, and this work that encompasses it all—all are as arranged by the artist herself. In these works with shadows as a theme, one can find Benrei HUANG’s observations on life, and an extremely confident life philosophy. In particular, Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing, through the rain the wind is blowing, and I see my shadow drifts away (2011) expresses a unperturbed attitude in the face of hardship, while Well I’ve been where you’re hanging, I think I can see how you’re pinned (2011) evokes the mindset of the old hand, and carries a strong sense of imparting wisdom.
Besides the use of shadows, Benrei HUANG’s paintings often juxtaposes positive and negative spaces to create a sense of being suspended between reality and imagination. Shadows are an example as well as the juxtaposition of the sea and islands, land and sky, inside and outside...their contrast is meant to counter the mode of thinking based on binary oppositions—if this, then not that—and also reflects the artist’s perspective that life is full of gray areas. Days of essential boredom (2011) uses a ship’s confusion about where the sea and the sky begin and end to evoke the pleasure of being carefree transformed into a time full of wonder. The sky presents itself (2011), in a like manner, uses the misplacement of inside and outside, sky and earth to create a fantastical visual effect. Between the dream and the reality fall a lone you and a lonely me (2011) takes advantage of the juxtaposition of the inside and outside of a container, wakefulness and dreams to stress that reality has always embodied many complex layered relationships.
An individual’s survival in the world is not an exhaustive effort at resistance, but a matter of trying different adaptive maneuvers in response to natural changes. Benrei HUANG’s works take a light tone in communicating an individual’s life philosophy, using Nini to describe a mindset that affirms the cosmos, at ease and resolved, drawing on a gentle sensibility to take a lighthearted look at the world. The natural change of the seasons, besides embedding the notion of the passage of time, also reminds people of the things that can and that cannot be done. Ultimately, there is an all-powerful entity, the final arbiter that cannot be defied. A calm approach to dealing with things lets people be a little less perplexed, a little less perturbed, a little less agitated, and more able to see the beauty of life. Green thumb (2011) turns decay into a wonder, and works like I love you more and more (2010) and When the season changes, I will, too (2011) convey the artist’s joyous outlook on nature, and they are her declaration of life’s value and meaning. Although reality does not necessarily conform to our wishes, a sense of renewal and delight can emerge as winter ends and spring begins, and even the smallest bit of green is a vital and beautiful expression of hope.
Benrei HUANG’s paintings draw on a warmth and humor that makes one smile inside, while reminding us that life inevitably has moments of anxiety and confusion. However, what we cannot forget are our resolute beliefs. When we undergo trying times, we must not forget to lighten our step, quietly listen to the sound of our own heart, letting the situation that we face become a source of therapeutic wisdom that heals the soul.