Features & Columns

Canvas Noir

Local artist Wayne Jiang captures the solitude of San Jose by night in his evocative paintings
ROUND MIDNIGHT:Wayne Jiang's 2009 acrylic 'Babyland' is as much an exploration of the idea of 'the other' as it is an urban landscape.

FROM INSIDE the main corridor at Alameda Artworks Studios, artist Wayne Jiang is pointing toward the open doorway, through which we can see the setting sun. Outside, across the narrow parking lot and behind a squat chain-link fence, sits Park Avenue Preschool, which isn't actually located on Park Avenue.

Both the preschool and Alameda Artworks Studios sit on The Alameda, just off Race Street, separated by this parking lot we're gazing across from the studio hallway. Next to the preschool are a playhouse, a jungle gym and a toy sports car popular with the kids.

Off in the distance, we see the tops of the palm trees that characterize the Shasta-Hanchett neighborhood. Immediately in front of us, an exit sign appears at the upper left of the doorway, leading into the parking lot.

Using acrylics, Jiang once painted this exact scene and called it Exit to ... . I feel like I'm in the painting itself.

Originally from Guangzhou, China, Jiang arrived in San Jose at age 15 and went to Piedmont High School. He then spent much of the '90s enrolled in San Jose State University's School of Art & Design, where he earned a degree in illustration. His paintings exude an ambience that reflects on stillness, solitude and mystery. They combine Western and Eastern sensibilities and beautifully capture the sometimes-dreary ambiguity of deserted San Jose side streets, empty storefronts, facades and, at times, people dining alone in local restaurants.

Exit to ... symbolizes a juxtaposition of opposites, a yin-yang combination of exterior and interior, which is why we're standing in the corridor, staring out the door. Nine years ago, Jiang rented a studio in this building and lived nearby, so he spent a long time painting scenes from this neighborhood, an old San Jose area named after St. Leo's Parish, around the corner.

First, Jiang would snap a photograph of a desired scene. Then, he would paint back in his studio, using the photo as a reference. He would often walk the area at night, on the hunt for settings to capture.

"During that time, I had just broken up with a girlfriend," Jiang tells me, as we leave Alameda Artworks and amble south across the parking lot. "So I had a lot of spare time. If you live alone and you walk at night, you tend to think a lot."

I ask him how many of these nighttime scenes he painted during that stretch of time. He claims he doesn't remember.

"I did a lot," he says. "I never really counted, probably 50 to a 100."

QUIETUDE: In a recent painting, Jiang uses the celebrated Babe's Muffler statue on The Alameda to create an uneasy late-night mood.


Now 37, married and living in Pacifica, Jiang launched a show last fall at the Leonard and David McKay Gallery at History San José, in Kelley Park. The exhibit, "Everyday San José: Paintings by Wayne Jiang," runs until next May.

Occupying four rooms in the Pasetta House, the exhibit showcases numerous Jiang works—night settings, panoramas, restaurant scenes and landmarks of San Jose's underbelly. Another room includes two San Jose street maps, showing the locations of each painting in the show.

There's also an intriguing diagram of Jiang's eight-step process, in which he begins with a pencil outline and then gradually adds different hues of acrylic until the complete painting begins to emerge. It resembles the different layers of an old-school four-color printing press.

When I showed up on a bleak overcast afternoon, the day after Thanksgiving, Jiang was sitting in the gallery office, playing ukulele left-handed. History Park was nearly deserted, with the trolley carrying only two people as it passed by. No one else was around. It was a perfect setting in which to immerse myself in the solitude and stillness that Jiang depicts in his work.

For example, in his recent painting Night Window 2003, we see the moon illuminating a deserted dead-end street. Two tract homes are distinguished by their front lawns—each with a gallon jug of water placed in the middle of the lawn, apparently to be used to prevent neighborhood dogs from relieving themselves.

Another painting illustrates the celebrated Babe's Muffler statue on The Alameda, viewed from in front of the vacant two-story building next door. The piece highlights the dark empty facade in the foreground while looking down the sidewalk toward the statue of the muffler guy in the background. As of this writing, the painting has sold.

Over at the legendary corner of Bascom and San Carlos, one finds the Babyland store, the focal point of another painting, simply titled Babyland. Jiang gives us a stretched-out nighttime panorama of that store when viewed from the north—that is, from the corner median in the street. The right side of the painting looks south in the direction of the Pink Poodle, while the left side of the panorama looks east down San Carlos, complete with the Western Appliance sign in the background.

In Burbank Shops, Jiang painted the building that houses the now-empty watering hole Club Four, just north of the Burbank Theater, but from an odd angle. A deep blue nighttime sky dominates the scene, while a splotch of light emanates from the bottom right corner, in front of the bar.

Jiang's night paintings function not as landscapes per se but more as explorations of "the other." They exhibit a sense of dislocation; someone on "the outside" looking in; someone who doesn't fit, trying to identify with and partake in whatever emerges from the scene; a displaced participant longing for something unobtainable but still finding beauty in the process of that longing. One could easily make comparisons to Edward Hopper, America's legendary realist painter of isolation, misery and loneliness. San Jose certainly needs its own Edward Hopper, to say the least.

Although Jiang did quite well when working at Adobe as a content designer for Photoshop Elements, he says he definitely felt a sense of displacement. He really just wanted to paint full time.

"I was working in high tech, and yet I still couldn't buy a house here," he says. "I felt like I wasn't part of this world at all. I'm on the outside looking in."

NOCTURNAL REVERIE: Jiang performs a 'Night Song' in this 2009 self-portrait.


Back at the parking lot outside Alameda Artworks, Jiang and I are ambling south and approaching the driveway that empties onto Garland Street, a narrow road perpendicular to Race Street. The sun has just disappeared over the horizon. Upon hitting the sidewalk, we find ourselves in the middle of a scene Jiang photographed for his painting Sign No. 2. Looking east, with downtown San Jose's miniskyline off in the distance, we see the exact angle of Garland Street that appears in the painting.

Even more notably, now that the darkness has descended, the quiet scene is illuminated by the omnipresent yellow hue of San Jose's low-pressure sodium-oxide streetlights. It is precisely this murky yellow lighting that Jiang masterfully captures in his paintings. The lights add a gloomy effect to the desolation of this particular neighborhood, especially since we're the only ones on the street.

San Jose's now-infamous yellow streetlights were installed throughout the '80s because they reduce light pollution and are easier to filter out by folks at Lick Observatory who are searching for stars, galaxies and other objects in the sky.

This kind of lighting is not unique to San Jose, as other large cities near astronomical observatories also use such street lamps. Fortunately or unfortunately, San Joseans have bitched about these lights for 20 years now, because when drivers look down the road a bit, they often can't distinguish between streetlights and caution-yellow traffic lights. And since there are 65,000 yellow streetlights, it's often difficult to identify what color certain curbs are. So people get parking tickets.

No one, however, imagined that an artist from Guangzhou, China, would wind up in San Jose and squeeze some artistic inspiration from the street lamps, transforming their yellow glow into a defining characteristic of his paintings. I guess he can thank the astronomers.

Also, when it comes to acrylic paints, we've already got Payne's gray, Prussian blue and Venetian red. So why not San Jose yellow? It would help put the city on the map.

"It's such a distinctive color," Jiang says. "Warm, yet murky and mysterious. There's something lethargic about it. You look at this light, and you don't want to run a marathon."

Jiang speaks with a slight Chinese accent, dresses well and drives a fairly nice car; on his Facebook page, he's a member of outfits like "Dulcimer Appreciation Group," "Support Women Artists Now," "Left-Handed Guitarists" and "Adobe Old Skool User Interface Team." He met his wife because they were both dulcimer players. That fact alone was enough for me to become a fan.

A few minutes later, we're one block over, on Luther Avenue, behind the Odd Fellows Building, looking at another scene Jiang painted. Billboard at the End of the Street features—you guessed it—a billboard at the corner of Race and Luther. This particular painting, which also can be seen at the "Everyday San José" show, depicts the desolate intersection illuminated only by a yellow streetlight, off-camera and out of the range of the painting.

Our nighttime walk then concludes at Eugene Avenue, an isolated, shadowy dead-end lane, one more block down and also perpendicular to Race Street. Clearly, the road is off the beaten path, a street seemingly overlooked and thrown away by civilization. Jiang lived on this block, years ago, and it was here that he photographed the reference shot for Night Window 2003, which now hangs in the Leonard and David McKay Gallery.

It was his first nighttime painting. In this work, the full moon emerges from the clouds, up above the horizon, and complements the murkiness of the yellow low-pressure sodium street lamps. When painting the scene, he decided not to include the cars parked along the side of the already narrow street.

"This is a neighborhood where everyone knows each other," he explains. "So I wanted to go for a more close-quarters kind of feel. That's the good thing about painting. You can romanticize a little bit."

LIGHTING THE PAST: 'Calm Before Nightfall' depicts the electric light tower at San Jose's History Park


These days, Jiang says Pacifica is a much better place for him. Its kooky coastal environs lie somewhere between San Jose and San Francisco—in more ways than one.

"In San Francisco, there's more excitement and danger," he tells me. "Everyone's trying to be dramatic and alternative. San Jose is more rural; everyone's trying to be the same."

As a result, his paintings of San Francisco scenes tend to emphasize crowds, noises, chaos and volume, while his San Jose scenes convey solitude and a sense of all things hidden.

"With rural areas, it's all mystery and fear," he says. "There's not much comfort."

But because Jiang presents and contextualizes his work around the concept of solitude more than anything else, he says he frequently gets comments from armchair psychoanalysts who view his paintings. They just need to know more.

"There's usually two reactions," he says. "One, they walk by, look at it and then keep going. Two, they stop and ask me questions like, 'Why are you painting this?'"

As a result, many viewers end up seeing themselves in Jiang's paintings, thus discovering things they might not have previously considered. Talk about accidental self-realization.

"They end up volunteering more information about themselves than I do in the paintings," Jiang says with a laugh. "That's fine with me."

He continues: "Everyone interprets it differently. Solitude is such a great American theme that many people interpret in many different ways. You've got the Hudson River School when they painted these great landscapes with no one there; you've got film noir; you've got blues music, which is about solitude and other things. It never goes out of style. I feel like I'm in the lineage of those who are reinterpreting that solitude."

At the McKay Gallery, one particular room contains mostly paintings of restaurant scenes, completed by Jiang during the last few years. Two paintings feature scenes from inside the Dalat Cafe at Ninth and William streets in downtown San Jose.

In each one, a nondescript couple dines in the corner of the restaurant, while an empty table occupies the foreground. For Red Chairs, Jiang painted an empty table inside the Dac Phuc restaurant, at the corner of Santa Clara Street and Almaden Avenue. In fact, many of his restaurant pieces feature vacated tables or simple still lifes of the condiment dispensers, rather than actual human figures.

"It takes a lot of intensity to paint people," he says. "I wanted to do something different."

In another room at the gallery, one sees paintings of house facades and interiors, further reflecting on the outside-in theme. One piece shows local art collector Ray Ashley in his home amid the figurines, tools, trinkets and paintings he has amassed. A lamp at the far left of the painting functions as the sole source of faded yellow light in the scene. Again, we see what's becoming a trademark for Jiang: murky yellow illumination. The work is simply titled Ray.

Ashley is part of the backstory in another painting, Sit Down Dinner, primarily because he actually owns it. The scene depicts Jiang's father and uncle getting ready to eat in a home near the Berryessa/Milpitas border. Ashley, a fixture at local art auctions 25 years running, bought the painting when it was being shown at the now-empty D.P. Fong Gallery.

"He actually bought it at gallery price," Jiang recalls. "That's very rare for him. He usually only buys things at auctions."

Music Break, commissioned in 2000, features an exterior house shot from the Shasta-Hanchett neighborhood. The nighttime scene looks in through the window at a person playing acoustic guitar, while two other guitars hang on the wall. Again, the yellow San Jose sodium-vapor street lamps provide the illumination and we get the feeling that the painter is not just literally looking in from outside but also metaphorically trying to find his place in the entire world he depicts.

Memory Hue

Looking past all the solitude and mystery, though, Jiang says that above all else he is a realist. There is no need for abstraction.

"With realism you really have to stand your ground," he tells me. "Abstract artists are always talking about what they're against. I like to talk about what I'm for."

And what about the yellow streetlights so prominent in Jiang's nocturnal paintings? If everything goes smoothly according to Mayor Reed's Green Vision goal No. 9, San Jose will eventually replace all 65,000 sodium-oxide lamps with smart, zero-emission LED-based fixtures by 2022. The city has already begun pilot programs in certain areas to test out the new lights. So no more yellow murkiness. The scenario is quintessential San Jose in the sense that once an artist comes along and decides to reap inspiration from these particular lights, the city decides to rip them all out and replace them with something else.

"My night paintings will never look the same when all the new lights are installed," Jiang admits. "I will continue to paint night scenes of San Jose regardless. One day, the night paintings of this period will have a time capsule quality to them. When people see these paintings, they will talk about the 'old days' when all the street lights were yellow."

EVERYDAY SAN JOSÉ: PAINTING BY WAYNE JIANG runs through May 30 at the Leonard and David McKay Gallery at the Pasetta House in History Park, 1650 Senter Road, San Jose. (408.287.2290)