In 1988 a fire roared through his Chinatown studio. Months later another blaze devastated several River North galleries, including the one representing him. “I lost everything,” says painter Weiliang Zhao, who was in his mid-40s and had been a U.S. resident for only two years. “So I must do new work.” The time had come, he resolved, to change his style. Within days he made a dramatic shift toward abstract painting. “In China everyone did realistic style. Almost all Chinese artists do.”

After the cultural revolution, he had often gone to the library at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University, where he was a professor of art, to study a book showing the work of such artists as Picasso and van Gogh. “Before the revolution you could not open the book. Everybody painted Mao portraits. Nobody changed. Maybe I was the first one. I want Western modern and Eastern mystery together.”

Forbidden City, Bronze Kingdom–the titles of many of his new works call to mind grand and colorful illustrations. Yet they are almost all abstract and often in myriad shades of gray. Eternal Dialogue is a large two-panel painting. Near the edge of one panel a Romanesque statue is detailed in oil. On the other is what appears to be an ancient bone fragment. Wide, sweeping brush strokes in a mixture of acrylic and sand vigorously draw the two worlds together in a three-dimensional “sculpture on canvas,” as he describes it. The strokes are consciously reminiscent of Chinese brush painting. “I used four brushes together. Just like a Chinese artist doing brush painting, you have just one chance. This is the Chinese way. But this is my style, not Chinese.”

This painting is also marked by a number of rectangles and squares, forms present in every piece he produces. Traditional Chinese symbols deriving their meaning from an early Chinese belief that the world was square, these shapes represent to Weiliang doorways to other worlds. “What is inside those doors? I don’t know. You can see beauty. You can see hope. Sometimes you can see many things. Sometimes you can see nothing.

“My work is not East. It’s not West. It’s mine. I want to develop my art. I want to find original ideas. It’s very difficult.”

The paintings of Weiliang Zhao are on exhibit at East West Contemporary Art, 311 W. Superior, through November 30. Hours are 11 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday, Thursday till 7, and by appointment. Call 664-8003 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.