Artist Mu Pan (MFA 2007 Illustration as Visual Essay and BFA 2001 Illustration), one of the 18 SVA alumni featured in the upcoming exhibition “The Pond, the Mirror, the Kaleidoscope,” infuses his paintings and drawings with political references, historic events and iconic imagery from his native Taiwan. His work has been exhibited across the United States and around the world, from La Luz De Jesus Gallery and Giant Robot 2 in Los Angeles to KunstRaum H&H in Cologne and the Musée Halle Saint Pierre in Paris. We caught up with the Brooklyn-based artist to learn more about his life before, during and after SVA.
Your work draws from a distinctively Asian culture, but Frog War (Triptych), your painting in “The Pond, the Mirror, the Kaleidoscope,” doesn’t seem to incorporate those elements. Are you veering away from that style?
It’s still there, but maybe it just looks a bit different. Before, I used watercolor on paper. For Frog War (Triptych) I tried acrylic, which I used a lot when I was at SVA. Because watercolor is more transparent, the many layers of my brush strokes and color are not as visible as with acrylic. When I was using watercolor, I used sandpaper to scratch the image to make a highlight effect. With acrylic, I just put white paint on top instead. But besides the technical part, Frog War is still about Chinese history.
I love battle scenes; it’s my favorite subject. But it has nothing to do with my military service experience. In fact, I was just a propaganda solider of the political warfare department—all I did there was poster-making and mural-painting. I couldn’t even dissemble a .57 rifle!
Battle scenes excite me, especially the kind with swords and spears and people on horses trying to kill each other. I don’t know why—I just like it—in paintings, in movies. I enjoy producing images like that. Maybe I feel like a commander-in-chief when I make them.
I had many wonderful teachers when I was in school. They influenced me tremendously, and they made me who I am today. I’m still aware of what they told me. Even now, as an art school teacher, I constantly pass down their words to my students. The three most important teachers during my school years were Thomas Woodruff, Greg Crane and Joo Chung.
Tom was extremely harsh on me because he knew that I could take his criticism well and improve more than I expected. He made me set a very high standard for myself. He also told my class that each of us should spend at least two hours a day drawing. In a year, we’d have 365 drawings. If he hadn’t told me that, my sketchbook would have been just random scribble marks and rough drawings. I still try to draw every day if I can. If not, I’d feel guilty and wouldn’t dare to face Tom.
Greg Crane made me realize what oil painting really means. Before I met him, all I did with oil was to render, to make painting realistic looking, and nothing beyond that. Greg completely opened my eyes; he taught me to really understand the pigment and to take advantage of it. He taught me to be honest about what I see, and never fake the real thing.
Joo Chung’s ideas and knowledge of theory go far beyond illustration. Without him, I would still be focused on superficial matters such as technique, equipment and finishing. But he’s not just a mentor to me; he is like a father. He taught me how to live my life as I am, how to be a student, how to be a teacher. His words will stay in me forever, and he will be my lifetime friend until one of us dies.
I was drunk and I was depressed, and there was a knife next to me and my painting was there too, so it happened. Not just that painting—all my paper sculptures were gone with the same fate. It’s okay. I can always make a better piece next time. I’m not attached to whatever I make; I only enjoy the orgasm during the process of making it.
How have comics and anime influenced you?
I’m not into comics at all. I find them boring and whiny, just a whole bunch of hipsters complaining about their lives. I grew up with Japanese manga. I still like it, and I do put some manga elements into my work. But I’m more influenced by ukio-e and Chinese figure painting, with storytelling. The way I work is still very manga, but with better anatomy.
Your work has been featured in Juxtapoz and other high-profile media outlets. How does it feel to get that kind of recognition?
I didn’t realize I was featured until my friends showed me the links. I just shut my door and keep working, one piece after another.
I’m glad that after more than 10 years, people started paying a little attention to my work. But it’s not going to change my current situation. I will still be working every day, struggling to make images. If I make it, I work. If I never make it, I still work. Fame is nice, but being myself is way better. Working is the most meaningful and important part.
Images from top down: Mu Pan; Frog War (Triptych), 2013, acrylic on paper; Crazy Horse, 2006, drawing on paper; Lucy, 2005, drawing on paper.