Published March 11. 2013 4:00AM
Some of the bold portraits by Qimin Liu loom larger than life, as if to give his subjects a transcendent stature they lack in their everyday existence.
His figurative, representational work is structured on the classic foundations of the past, yet the energy and connectedness to his subjects - who are largely disenfranchised people from the streets - renders the portraits contemporary for their social themes and emotive quality.
The passionate strokes of his brush seem to vibrate off the canvas with an immediacy associated with expressionism.
In March of last year, Liu opened the LQM Gallery on State Street in New London, which showcases these stunning figurative works and portraits. Part of his motivation for the gallery was also to showcase emerging talent, a natural given that Liu has been a teacher at Eastern Connecticut State University for the last 10 years. An established professor whose work is collected worldwide, Liu didn't attain his security without considerable hardships and struggles - all of which he doesn't want other artists to experience.
To that end, the first exhibit of work by younger artists opened in January, titled "New Talent." The artists include Clint Slowik of Chaplin, who is associate gallery director and coordinator at LQM. The other three artists are gallery assistants, and all but one of the artists were former students of Liu.
"I'm a professor," said Liu, who lives in East Lyme. "I'm also acting as a friend and mentor. I've never had a distance between me and my students; we are learning together, exploring together."
Liu's own journey in life began in his native China, where he was the eldest child of four. He grew up in poverty and became educated as an artist through determination and talent, using whatever material he could scavenge to make art, which garnered notice, then opportunity. He worked for the army creating propaganda posters for the Communist Party before eventually immigrating to the United States with his wife Shelly, a scientist.
For a period of time, Liu himself was partially homeless in New York following a separation from his wife, with whom he later reunited. During this time, he closely followed the homeless, imbuing his work with a connectedness to his portrait subjects.
Liu, said artist Vincent Aloia of Marlborough, possesses an exceptional talent for figurative work, and his abilities as both an artist and teacher attracted the painter to study at Eastern.
"He was inspirational," said Aloia, whose painting of a three-faced female perched on a motorcycle occupies a prominent space in the gallery. The piece is at once comical and peppered with conflicting symbolism, such as a cupcake stacked on top of a book riding shotgun. Frivolity and seriousness are at odds - much like the different faces and personas the rider presents.
Aloia, speaking of his transition to a graduate program, said, "It's nice to still have a relationship with him and have someone to bounce ideas off on where to go next."
The four young artists all participated in the hanging of their work, as well as gallery promotion and gallery sitting.
"They are artists who have a future," said Liu. "They have a work ethic and talent. They are all carefully selected."
The involvement, said Chistopher O'Flaherty of Griswold, helps the artists to feel in control of their vision. O'Flaherty, a student at Lyme Academy College of Fine Art, has a series of abstract paintings in the exhibit. The works offer suggestive flashes of the environment they were inspired by, such as the lights from cars, horizons, and trees. His work is thematic, with carefully controlled palettes that heighten atmospheric tension. O'Flaherty met Liu when he was selected by Liu and Ledyard artist Mark McKee to help finish the figurative mural at Caruso's music store in New London.
Jacklyn Massari of Milton found in Liu a mentor who has had an enduring impact on her as an artist. Massari had egg tempera icons in the show but has since taken them down for another exhibit.
"Qimin taught me about research and hard work. It seems like common sense now, but in order to be a great artist, you need to study. There is a misconception that art is a talent and you are born with it and you don't need to work hard or study, when really it is the complete opposite," Massari said.
"He would also take me outside and point to the patterns in tree bark, car tires, and rusty handle bars on a bike. That taught me that art isn't just in a studio, and true artists see it everywhere and in everything. I wanted to be like that."
Like Aloia, Slowik was drawn to Eastern's art program because of Liu's reputation and quality artwork. His sculpted ceramic portraits in the gallery are classical, with meticulous detail and proportion. A self-portrait that is partially constructed of leaves hangs on the wall as an installation, the leaves swirling away from his face, as if to invite the viewer to contemplate the organic mortality of their own bodies.
Both Slowik and Liu hope to bring some initiatives to the gallery, such as collective drawing sessions where artists can pool their resources for a model. They also want to have youth groups at the gallery and juried shows. Another exhibit in the smaller gallery will be up soon, and in May, the gallery will bring about eight artists from China to the region for their first artists' residency program. Liu also has his sights set on an exchange program for artists in America and China.
Sharing ideas in an artistic environment is beneficial, said Slowik. "You can grow exponentially and get other people's opinions and share thoughts and ideas. It drives you - competition, but it's friendly competition."
One of the hopes of the gallery, said Slowik, is to diversify New London's art offerings. Liu envisions representing other artists for group or solo shows who submit portfolios and artist statements.
"We have opened up a fantastic space for artists," said Liu. "We're open to a community of artists to utilize the space."