Since the 1970’s progressive Chinese artists have expanded quickly into and beyond the revolutionary spaces and models of contemporary Western art, making great aesthetic contributions along the way. While much attention has been paid to major figures like Ai Weiwei and Cai Guo-Qiang, flourishing styles and philosophies (“Wanshi” or “Cynical Realism” for instance, a label that covers a variety of paintings and multi-media works expressive of deep disillusionment) have been somewhat sparingly noted in the American art press, or in major museum shows that offer a degree of popular international perspective. The fifteen artists assembled by CSU professor and curator Qian Li for the remarkable exhibit “A Tradition Re-Interpreted” combine a consciousness of traditional Chinese art and the heuristic approaches of late modernism, proposing a balance between the past and present, or among ironical, realistic, and idealistic practices. Working in media ranging from ink on rice paper to acrylic on tyvek and multichannel video, the artists shown at CSU’s Gallery present views of today’s China, geographic and moral, as an aesthetic layer silted lightly over deep accumulations of human experience. Immemorial features of human consciousness and struggle shape the underlying contours of these frequently profound, fresh and energetic works. All of the artists here (five women and ten men) were initially products of China’s art schools and universities. All have also exhibited internationally and several have permanently relocated to the United States. Lihua or Leah L. Wong, originally from Hongzhu, earned her MFA at Ohio University at Athens and now works at the Columbus College of Art and Design. Her work is already familiar to many Ohioans.
Some of the central themes of the current show are articulated by Wei Qingji, a well-known figure internationally whose post-modern outlook emphasizes the role of memory in image-creation. His Wei Qingji a large painting in ink on rice paper, reveals a barely visible, raging dragon of the classical (and Imperial) type, rearing dimly through a black archway. Qingji says, “I have a great interest in historical unity and continuity…I am dedicated to making traditional media utter new voices, and making both images and ideas that relate to our everyday experiences.” In line with such ambitions, if more ironically and pessimistically, is a six foot long color digital photograph by Lu Yao, who completed his graduate work in Brisbane, Australia and returned to Beijing, where he is now chairman of the photo department at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Titled Dwelling on Mount Fuchun, Lu’s work appears at first glance to be a traditional mist-and-landscape study, executed in shades of bluish-green against a beige background. On closer examination, though, the poetic vista of hills and peaks turns out to be a digital assemblage of photographs. We’re looking at a dump, camouflaged and retained with the flexible plastic netting commonly used in China. The illusion is almost perfect, until it falls apart all at once, like a dream. Lu’s picture enacts a point of occult balance between fantasies of the past and harsh realities of the present, between painting and photography, documentation and romance.
Yongliang Yang pushes a similar environmentalist subtext much farther in his ten-minute video Rising Mist. Shown at CSU’s Galleries in a darkened screening room, Rising Mist served as a transition from an exhibit of historical artworks and artifacts (held concurrently in the front gallery) to the areas where “A Tradition Re-Interpreted” was shown. Much like Yu’s photograph, the video looks at first like a film of a traditionally picturesque, contemplative mountain-scene painting, depicting the mountain haunts of Taoist poets. Waterfalls are visible here and there, like the flowing silver hair of sages, and a river winds near the bottom. But soon it becomes obvious that something is going on in these mountains, and it’s not Li Bai versifying. For a start, the mist is rising, just as the title says. And in among the crags and the pine forests human activity is on the rise. Industrial buildings, homes, bridges, highways peek into view – and as they do, the “mist” grows thicker. Eventually this increasing smog eclipses the entire scene in a white haze, and the video ends.
Supplementing these narratives of creeping catastrophe, several vividly personal accounts of the ambivalent, fraught relationship of the modern self to the natural world were scattered through the exhibit, including a six foot tall ink on rice paper painting titled “Look Out” by master artist and professor at Central Academy of the Arts, Qinghe Liu. Qinghe portrays a wide-eyed, nude, almost cartoon-like young woman, staring fearfully through a screen of cruel, thin branches which lacerate and bind her flesh. She holds her arms behind her and presses her legs together; they disappear into undergrowth which moves around her ankles like flame, flickering against darker brown shadows. Qinghe says, “The aspiration for nature is in sharp contrast to the current condition of rapid development in China…we are losing our priceless vernacular culture.” Like the young woman he depicts with such sympathy, the world of the present is in many ways held hostage to a threatening future – is bound naked in a dark wood.
Among the most timeless, and ironically topical, works on view were a pair of eight foot tall, ink on rice paper “self-portraits” by Guangbin Cai. These beautifully executed paintings, which are perhaps self-portraits in a fictional rather than a literal sense, address questions of identity, technology, and tradition with rare eloquence. Each shows a face floating into view, filling the display screen of a late-model iphone. All the familiar parts are there, the receiver at the top next to the discreet eye of the phone’s camera, the home button at the bottom. The rice paper itself is shaped, sculpted like the ubiquitous phone with softly beveled corners. Probably nothing in world culture has ever said “me” with the universality of a smart phone. It also says “now,” of course, and resonates with echoes of a global technological revolution. Yet there are much older formal subtexts. Guangbin makes us aware that the phone’s lozenge-like shape, towering in his rendition, pressing up and back on the wall with the weighty blacks and grays of Chinese history, in itself could be an echo and a reminiscence of a kind. Among the memories it evokes are the shapes and the foundational significance of lonely steles with their looping inscriptions marking the passage of early dynasties. And like all the epigraphs and personal seals and cultures of mankind they signify our endless desire to be confirmed, known, to one another and to ourselves.
Douglas Max Utter is an exhibiting painter and arts writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. He received the Cleveland Arts Prize, Lifetime Achievement in 2013. He lives on the East Side near an abandoned observatory, with his cat Spanky and a lot of unsold paintings. View more articles by Douglas Max Utter.