An Uptown cat became a Chinese artist. Then he returned home.

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An Uptown cat became a Chinese artist. Then he returned home.
Miguel Ángel Payano Jr.’s “Siesta,” left, and “The Sweet Ones,” both 2023, at his studio in The Bronx, March 21, 2023. Payano, who came back to New York in 2016 after making a life for 15 years in Beijing, received a Parkinson’s diagnosis in late 2020, tinging the momentum in his art and career with an existential urgency. (Elias Williams/The New York Times)

by Siddhartha Mitter

NEW YORK, NY.- People weren’t quite sure what to make of Miguel Ángel Payano Jr. when, like some kind of prodigal son, he came back to New York in 2016, after making a life in Beijing.

His family had long known he was a wanderer, ever since he went to boarding school at his own insistence at age 11. But in the graduate art program at Hunter College, where Payano showed up on his return from China — older than most classmates, with a prior MFA, exhibition history and collectors — he stood out.

There was his style, for one. A painter and sculptor interested in hybrids of the two forms, Payano arrived at Hunter with a talent for fine-detailed realism in a recognizably Chinese tradition. His visual language mixed figuration and grand landscapes with recurring surrealistic motifs.

Most of all, there was the journey that shaped him. Payano moved to China right after college and lived in Beijing continuously for 15 years. He attended China’s top art school. He married a Chinese woman. He had a studio in the city. He spoke fluent Mandarin, with a Beijing accent.

A pure Uptown cat — Dominican American, raised on 191st Street in the heart of Washington Heights — Payano had become a Chinese artist.

“I’m a Sinophile,” Payano said flatly, when we met recently. “I became an artist in China.” But now here he was, at 42, with his Hunter degree, in a studio in the Bronx, making works for “Out From,” his new exhibition at the Charles Moffett gallery in SoHo.

The show, his second with the gallery, continues his reintroduction to an American art world that had become foreign to him. So the work is also a document of return, marked by the experiences and emotions gathered on the voyage.

“Folks were trying to figure out where he belonged,” said Nari Ward, the distinguished sculptor, who became Payano’s mentor at Hunter. “Those questions became a way for him to navigate and keep moving.”

For the independent curator Larry Ossei-Mensah, who included Payano’s work in exhibitions at Ben Brown Fine Arts in Hong Kong and London, the artist is far from an outlier, but part of a history of global exchange that the New York-centric art world often ignores.

“His time in China maybe confused some people, but in fact he’s at this interesting cultural intersection of Afro-Caribbean, Latinx, Asian perspectives,” Ossei-Mensah said. “His practice articulates that there’s a deep-seated relationship between these places.”

Now should be a good time for Payano. His art is breaking ground: He has perfected what he calls “heavy collages,” three-dimensional paintings that jut out from the wall with sculptural components like plaster-cast hands and cast peaches that have mouths and lips, to form fanciful portraits of imagined characters.

His flat paintings have a similar fantastical bent, with stylized swirling seascapes or cloud formations in which disembodied legs appear in various skin tones, and trees in which birds perch along with grinning peaches that seem to chatter, even smoke cigarettes.

The works are playful but mysterious, seeming to communicate in some kind of secret code that bridges language differences. “I think of the peaches as single-celled humans,” he said. “I needed to reduce the scale of the human figure in a way to talk about identity in the macro sense — how we form our identities globally.”

But another, personal factor is shadowing Payano that he no longer wants to hide. In late 2020 he received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Now the momentum in his art and career has become tinged with an existential urgency. “My ambitions haven’t gotten smaller,” he said. “They’ve gotten bigger, and there’s more focus on making them happen.”

The tremor in his hand was noticeable when we met in the studio — all the more so, Payano said, because he was animated. He’s been getting to know the disease and its patterns. “It’s emotionally connected,” he said. “It can be positive or negative feelings, and they’ll trigger it.”

He was nervous about going public but felt it necessary. “I don’t want to be the Parkinson’s artist,” he said. “But I inhabit this body, and this body is the medium through which these works are created, and if the medium is being affected, that’s going to resonate in the work.”

In the studio there were works in progress, some begun in China, where he finally returned late last year after the long pandemic lockdowns in the U.S., only to experience China’s whiplash end of the “Zero COVID” restrictions. Beijing is still his base, he said, and despite the life changes — he is divorced now — he plans to head back there in the summer.

Materials for his semi-sculptural pieces lay in piles in the studio: curtain trimmings, synthetic cotton, an actual snake skin. (“That’s one of the nice things about working in China — you find some weird stuff,” he said.) Still, it was hard not to focus on the plaster-cast arms and hands, some mounted into the works in progress.

Payano began casting his hands while still dismissing his symptoms — tremors, back pain, a diminished sense of smell — assuming they might have been caused by working with chemicals. The artistic logic, he said, was for the hands to hold the sculpted peaches. But in hindsight there was a subconscious layer. “You live forward but you understand backward,” he said. “That was my anxiety coming into the work.”

His art involves “a lot of demand on dexterity,” he said, and knowing that his motor function will decrease has made him double down on the technical parts. “At one point before the diagnosis I thought, I’m not going to be such a tight painter, I want to get a little more loose. Now I’m the opposite. I’m just like: Dude, do it while you can.”

Bullish confidence has served Payano before. Through Prep for Prep, the nonprofit that sends students of color from New York City to independent schools, he attended St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire. There he fell in love with Mandarin for its visuality, he said — the way the different components in a Chinese character assemble to produce its meaning.

After graduating, he was admitted to a study-in-China program that he could not afford. “I went to the dean’s office and said, ‘I don’t have money for a flight,’” he said. “Where did I get the brass for that?” Funding appeared. Enrolling on his return at Williams College, with a Mandarin and studio art double major, he found his way back to China or Taiwan every year. After graduating from Williams, he went back on a one-way ticket.

In Beijing he found a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts to support his application to the painting department. He emerged in 2008 in the middle of the Chinese art boom.

“There was a proliferation of studio spaces around the city, and a community of international artists,” said Philip Tinari, director of the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. “Miguel was really living here, part of the conversation.”

And yet, Tinari said, “he ran up against the fact that as an outsider you’re never going to be considered fully a Chinese artist, and for the market and critical infrastructure at the time, the idea of something in between didn’t make a lot of sense.”

For Payano the realization came in 2013 in Hong Kong. “I was making work that was super Asian,” he said. “And I’m looking around the room and no one looks like me. Where are the Black people?” He concluded, “I need to correct my path.”

Return brought culture shock, Payano said. It “blew my mind,” he said, to immerse in the newly prominent work of Black artists like Wangechi Mutu, Sanford Biggers or Nick Cave.

For Ward, Payano’s art and perspective bring to the mix a welcome reminder that we all live amid cultures in a state of permanent change. “The idea of the Caribbean, the idea of China, we form these ideas of what they are but they’re all in flux,” Ward said. “That’s what he picks up on.”

If anything, Payano wants to mix it up more. In 2021-22 he appeared in the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, in Saudi Arabia, which Tinari curated. He showed a four-panel painting depicting a kind of abstract seascape, with butterflylike creatures overhead and feet emerging from the waves.

With the sense of a clock ticking, he’s ready to head back out. “Maybe it’s time to change it up, learn Arabic, country-hop for a few years,” he said. “If I want to be a nomad, I need to do it now.”

Miguel Ángel Payano Jr.: Out From

Through May 13, Charles Moffett Gallery, 431 Washington St., SoHo; (212) 226-2646;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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