: Catalogue Essay
April 14th, 2012 - May 27th, 2012
With the dominance of the four kings (Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun) and their auction figures, the understanding of Chinese contemporary art in the West has been disproportionately shaped by the influence of the figurative. Few Western buyers and curators have paid much attention to abstract art in China.
Perhaps it is because of a misunderstanding that Chinese art must be mysterious and opaque to a Western audience, that figurative forms dominated not only the early years of painting but also the contemporary market. Even if the meaning of a painting is not understood, the figurative forms are recognizable to even the most inexperienced art collector.
It is in this mindframe that why we sought to push the debate in a different direction and explore the territory of the abstract which has a long tradition in China. Though one may think of “guohua” or traditional Chinese painting as a strongly figurative tradition, yet calligraphy is often seen as an early form of abstract art.1 There has also been an important contemporary abstract movement which was influenced by by Western artists such as Andre Tapies and Robert Rauschenberg. Certainly the abstract tradition in China was rich, even if the West paid little attention to it.
In 2008, Wang Nanming produced an interesting exhibition “Turn to Abstract” with a large catalogue which charted the accomplishments of a number of abstract painters in the Jiangnan area and Gao Minglu has written an excellent article (“Does Abstract Art Exist in China?”) on the development of abstract art in China, starting from the seminal essay by Wu Guanzhong in the 80s which sparked off a debate about the abstract art. He then goes on to discuss that important nexus of abstract “dots and lines” painters in Shanghai including Ding Yi and Yu Youhan, which progressed in the realm of ink in the 1990s with painters such as Li Huasheng, Zhang Yu and Zhang Jin.2
In analyzing Chinese abstract art in comparison to its Western counterpoint, Gao reflects that the Chinese abstract art movement in the 80s and 90s was a response to the marginalization of abstract art due to enforced dominance of socialist realism, “the Chinese ‘abstract art’ of the last 20 years can be seen as a rebellion against conventional realism as well as against current urban mass culture, as both share a similar kitsch aspect.” It most certainly was a reaction against the didactic and narrative qualities of most Cultural Revolution era art and many of the artists chose to negate meaning all together.
This connects to Adorno’s concept of “negation,” wherein he refers to the propensity of mass culture to eliminate the spaces for independent experiences of the world3 – to spoon feed us with certain ideas and interpretations of what we see and experience. He preferred abstract art because of its inability to be pinned down – the slipperiness of meaning which allows each individual to come up with their own interpretations.
In fact, Gao feels that many of these artists purposely chose to negate meaning; a dot is just a dot, nothing more. Rather than code their work with symbolic underpinnings, this group of painters – which Gao refers to as “Maximalists” – focus more on the act of painting, the quiet meditative act of repetition and the mundaneness of everyday life.
In “Abstract Expressions,” we sought to not only offer an opportunity for aesthetic escape but also to further this tradition by exploring works by established and emerging artists both Chinese and resident foreigners. While some of the artist in this show pursue and abstract practice, others only dabble, but have nonetheless produced some extraordinary work. Some such as Lore Vanelslande and Bai Yiluo rely heavily on geometry in their visual language, while Wu Gaozhong uses more fluid lines combined with a sense of repetition. Repetition plays a role in the works of Chen Xi as well, whose works are populated by myriads of finely textured forms. We find a similar sense of “multitudes” in the work of Chai Yiming whose watercolor paintings teem with exuberant cell-like structures, while Shi Jing produces more muted versions where the “dots” appear to be buried within the canvas. Monika Lin buries forms as well, with many layers of plant and microscopic organic forms frozen within layers of resin. While Zhu Ye explores not so much a concept of depth but a tension which occurs on the surface of the canvas, with a vivid fleshy palette depicting rounded shapes rendered in hard un-yielding lines. It was in fact Zhu Ye’s “Red” 2011 series which first sparked my interest in doing an abstract show. There was something very powerful about these pieces, the delicateness of the watermelon wash, contrasted with the hard-edged ruthlessness of the red. There is a tension where one wonders which will win this chromatic tug-of-war, the pink or the red, or will they switch roles like a salty bore tide which flows up a river, then recedes to make way for the fresh water.
There is a give and take as well in “Hybrid Landscapes” 2012 by Monika Lin but this battle, rather than playing itself out on the picture plane, takes place in the many different layers of resin which is her medium of choice.
Green plant forms, compete with expressive flourishes of pink which threaten to cover them up. As the eye penetrates through the many layers of resin to discover the different forms, it’s as if one is peering through an endoscope as it voyages through the lungs or some other part of the human body. At the same time, the sea-green color makes us think of underwater worlds and the strange forms which might inhabit them. Either way it’s a journey of discovery that hints at a kind of mystery of the unknown.
Chai Yiming takes these ideas about the organic and casts them in a wardrobe of day-glow orange, pinks and blues. In his “Abstract ” 1998 series, the circular, polka-dot forms, could be frog eggs or some kind of unicellular organism. They swarm and cluster, jostling around like a bunch of rowdy molecules. In some works the colors are more intense and vibrant, while in others, they’ve been diluted with enough water so that the diaphanous forms appear to hover between a state of being and vanishing.
Shi Jing also explores this sense of being and not being in his work “Clear Dispersal,” 2011. The vague pastel dots on the white canvas look like splotches of diluted pigment slowly being dissolved by water. Here, the idea of dispersal or disappearance, could refer to Buddhist ideas about the dissolution of the ego. This would be keeping in line with Shi Jing’s interest in Buddhism. But on a more formal level the works also explore the concepts of vision and perception – the blurry forms look like objects seen from behind a pane of clouded glass, challenging us to look closer to confirm their existence.
While Shi Jing conjures up an ambiance of harmony, Chen Xi contrasts harmony with conflict in his pen and ink drawings. For instance “Drops” (2010) includes a “school” of teardrop-like shapes, which appear to be diving out of out of a sea of white like a group of inky forms. Another work named “Blue Wave” (2010) features a series of chiseled wave-forms (which could be equally interpreted as mountains) with a stylized blue shark fin (or wave) poking out of the top. “Six drops” (2010) takes this theme further with a stampede of wave forms, some triangular, some cresting, racing across a horizon like a treacherous skill-saw which threatens to tear up anything in its path. Looking at the way these forms interact we can see the first work presents an image of collective harmony, the second work the idea an image of an individual menacing the group, and the third the specter of a group, menacing and out of control.
Wu Gaozhong employs a similar aesthetic using a plethora of fine lines to produce mountainous landscapes which look like ribbon candy or even waves. His landscapes, however, are creased with fault lines where the folds come together and the lines disappear into deep crevasses, out of which sprout a profusion of dark coarse hair. In these pieces, Wu actually uses real horse hair to give the works three dimensional erotic connotations. In “Roving” (2010) he takes the series in a more geometric direction: his forms appear almost like quilting in upholstery. These works, like the others, also feature the characteristic tuft of hair, this time resting on the top of protruding forms and emerging from a gathering of converging lines. Wu’s addition of the hair adds a hint of obscenity to something which could initially be seen as beautiful or decorative. In this way he points to the similarities between the human body and natural forms while exploring the seductive pleasure of looking.
Dense patterns of geometric forms are also a key part of the “God is a Circle” (2010) series by of Lore Vanelslande. Sometimes drawing freehand, other times using a compass and a ruler, Vanelslande creates complex geometric patterns. They look similar to crop circles or visual graphic diagrams with black dots representing large population centers or some other relevant data. These works speak to some complex system or an old civilization, to architectural ratios and a kind of pomp and majesty that is associated with great architecture and science.
Bai Yiluo also explores this concept of hierarchy and organization in his “Song of the System,” (2011). There is something very ordered about his forms, but at the same time, there are areas where the order disintegrates into chaos despite the best intentions of the organization. Repeating forms of triangles and lines in concentric circles create a tunnel effect which is at once static – almost frozen – and at the same time trembling and dynamic, with the four cardinal points of the circle dissolving into distortion. The overall feeling which it creates is the idea that there is a sublime in geometry, in these perfect forms, that there is a truth in them which brings us closer to god or to the spiritual — drawing us in with its seductive dance of line and geometry.
我们在柴一鸣的作品中发现了一个与“繁复”相类似的涵义，充斥着旺盛的细胞式的结构,同时 Monica Lin也应用了彩色的有机形式,在她的多层树脂结构的作品上模拟了身体组织或植物结构。朱晔的油画带给我们一种生动的似肉的口感,虽然作品的线条是有机的，然而她的硬边艺术技巧讲述了更机械化和人造的一些东西。
例如在“六滴”2010中描画了一群在白色海面上逾越而出的泪滴式的形状，如同墨黑色的海豚。另一件作品“ 蓝色的波浪”2010 雕刻成的 波浪状（也可同样解读为山）的形式，带着装饰化的蓝色鱼翅（或波浪）跃戳入最顶端, “ 升起的水星”以将这个主题深化，一些三角形,一些边饰,在地平线上赛跑,如同危险的圆盘锯，将道路上的所有东西撕毁。眼观这些互动的形式，我们获悉第一个作品展示了团体和谐的景象，第二个图像展示了个体威胁着群体，第三个是一个凶恶群体的亡魂。