Abstract Expressions: Abstract Expressions Catalogue Essay
April 14th, 2012 - May 27th, 2012
By Rebecca Catching
April 5, 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, 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.
Also, from the point of view of the viewer abstract art can be seen as an aid in meditation, something which can cause us to focus on one thing, break our repetitive thought patterns and escape into a world of color and form. It takes us away from the bustle, guanxi-mongering and face-building of our modern lives. It asks little in terms of demanding us to analyze its meaning: gazing up at it in a white airy space is perhaps one of the more accessible non-religious spiritual experiences we can have.
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 artiss 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 unyeilding 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 in the center shape contrasted with the hard-edged ruthlessness 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 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 watercolor 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 dolphins. 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 stampeed 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, (Khmers or Greeks) 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.
In this essay, I purposely sought to focus on the formal aspects, and did not read the artist statements ahead of time. I wanted to come up with my own interpretations of the work, to merely react to the colors lines and forms, to let them tell the story. I hope that you as well have gathered your own stories form the work and have been able to interact with it on a very instinctual level – one free of insider knowledge and background – one where we can be alone with the work and merely feel – where we can indulge in the pure pleasure of looking and challenge ourselves to pull meaning out of these combinations, of form, line and color.