Dian Liang

Published in Issue 21
Text by Emma Sharpe

Shanghai-based artist and illustrator Dian Liang is nostalgic for the future. Her body of work, spanning drawing, animation, and both traditional and digital painting, manages to circumvent the banality of the present. It scoops from the world of the known past— from pop culture, manga, anime, personal memories and experiences—to launch itself into a glazed, electric future.

I’m reminded of sci-fi concept art, or of the airbrushed landscapes sold by street vendors on childhood vacations: Dune-like scenes with multiple moons and green skies. I think I had one with a pyramid built on a purple planet, another with a muscled unicorn spraying stars from its horn. Liang’s work carries the same mystical resonance—digital daydreams of a fantastical world whose stretches of reality still feel familiar.

In one image, a thumb presses into the soft underbelly of a snake’s neck. What looks like electricity laces across the scaled body and out its black tongue. In another, the leather of a dog’s harness glistens as if wet, its mirage-like spikes shimmering. Apparitional beings float in and out of focus across compositional planes, soft-edged and fuzzed as if stuck in a perpetual motion blur.

Throughout Liang’s world, animals and humans seem to conspire. I think of my own childhood dalliances with sci-fi and the animal kingdom: the Animorphs series, featuring teenage shapeshifters who transform into the animals they touch. I think of dæmons from the His Dark Materials trilogy—birds, monkeys, ferrets, forever at your shoulder, prescribed to a life of pre-destined partnership.

If, as Wikipedia tells me, “Dæmons are the external physical manifestation of a person’s inner-self,” then perhaps the analogy works. Liang’s paintings act as artful dæmons, giving body to the internal by visualizing the abstract. With each illustration, Liang wrings a sea of references through her own interiority to expel a complicated reflection of the inner self, wrought with nostalgia, utopic longing, or dystopian grief. In all, Dian Liang’s work mirrors the steely stares of its subjects: it’s poised, resolved, and ready to move to the outer edges of reality.