The benevolent enjoy mountains; the wise enjoy rivers and lakes. The search for tranquility in the landscape embodies the Chinese view of the universe as the union between man and nature. Along the historic path of Chinese painting, the maturation of landscape painting catalyzed the thriving fields of flower and bird painting and portraiture, forming the cultural backbone for Chinese painting. Since the 85 New Wave in Chinese art, contemporary artistic creation in China has tended towards social topics, following the western trend of putting conception first. Recently, Chinese contemporary art has appeared to be lost, too tired to carry forward. On the other hand, landscape painting, with its relatively classical nature, has provided a roadmap for rethinking the internal mental motivations behind changes in contemporary art. Soul of the Land focuses on the important Chinese landscape artists Wang Keju, Bai Yuping, Ren Chuanwen, Sun Gang and young artists Hong Dan and Zhang Yu. In terms of both painterliness and creative concepts, they have made innovative contributions to the ancient tradition of landscape painting. The goal of the exhibition is to explore the developmental trends of contemporary landscape painting, to analyze individual artists and their cultural inheritance to reveal the new aesthetic direction being shaped by China's current reality and humanist landscapes.
In classical Chinese painting and poetry there is the idea of the "eight landscapes of Xiaoxiang", eight aesthetic forms which became the landscape archetypes for ancient literati to use in spiritual self expression. A longstanding principle for ancient Chinese landscape painting has been to "learn from nature as a source for the expression of the mind". Many famous painters emerged through the ages, such as Fan Kuan, Li Cheng and Mi Fu of the Song dynasty, and Wen Zhengming and Dong Qichang of the Ming dynasty, whose work with the landscape and ink enriched the spiritual content and expressive language of Chinese ink wash painting, while also developing a diverse array of forms for landscapes, such as the panoramic landscape, the ravaged landscape and the refuge landscape, reflecting Oriental conceptions of nature and the universe. Through the ages, the rich sentiments of painters have been imbued with the spread of Zen and the developing ideas of the reclusive literati, coming together to form the mainstream in classical landscape paintings. In their quest for the mental state where "the mountains are tranquil like the time before memory, each day is as long as a year" we see the perception of eternal time from oriental thought, loading endless meditations with the ancients' concern for weak, infinitesimal individual life. In the past century of development in Chinese oil painting, Zao Wou Ki's lyrical abstracts were like looking down upon the vast landscape of the universe; the landscapes of Lin Fengmian, Liu Haisu and Wu Guanzhong imbued oil painting with oriental perceptivity. French painter Cezanne, the "father of modern painting", emphasized the purity of painting, with importance placed on the formal structure of a painting. His landscapes inspired cubism and abstract art. The traditions of Chinese and foreign landscape painting nourished the generation of Wang Keju, Bai Yuping, Ren Chuanwen and Sun Gang, encouraging them to continue writing the contemporary legend of landscape art.
Contemporary art images are mostly derived from photographs, the internet, or from the visual heritage of culture and consumerism, which are then recreated. The hasty imitation and appropriation of western modern painting has made it so that Chinese painting can only establish itself through images comprised of Chinese signs. Instead of using artistic strategies such as shocking themes or novel art forms, Wang Keju, Bai Yuping, Ren Chuanwen and others have persevered with the eternal and unchanging themes of landscape painting, engaging in the lonely and arduous task of bringing Chinese transformations to painting language. While returning to the bold but subtle moves of the ancients, they also ponder their emotions as contemporary artists facing the changes in today's landscape.
What these artists share is the combination of expression and imagery in an abstract structure. In their calligraphic use of the brush and their contemporary interpretation of fine art, they have thoroughly distinguished themselves. Their humanist sentiments are laced with anxiety and pity for today's social reality. Wang Keju, Bai Yuping, Ren Chuanwen and the others are facing their phase of artistic maturity, forming a link within the contemporary art environment between the past and future generations. They have a strong sense of history, and are making a positive effort to bring diversifying innovation to Chinese oil painting on a deeper level. Their pure painting explorations of the contemporary context are of profound significance.
Wang Keju depicts the fertile villages and hills of the Shandong Peninsula. His images are often structured with a grove of trees in the foreground, offset by a mountain ridge in the distance, creating a sense of space. This technique achieves the same effect of the so called variegated or monumental landscapes of the Song dynasty, which set a foreground object as a foil for a distant background. Wang Keju sets his colors with elegance, delicately unfolding like a classical blue and green landscape painting. His branched lines are filled with tension with emphasis on creating an abstract feel, pursuing inspiration from the inner mind.
Bai Yuping depicts the vastness of the Shanxi Plateau. The panoramic composition is imbued with a forceful air. Furry suggestions of trees produce an abstract texture, and add softness and fullness to the image. He likes to use simple whites or yellows to convey a snowscape or a pasture under the sun, with subtle color shifts that demonstrate his deep understanding of the ancient, advanced concept of creating "five shades out of one ink".
Ren Chuanwen takes the simple town and country life, and turns it into a peaceful paradise of the soul. In the midst of today's creeping onslaught of industrialization and urbanization, these pastoral scenes may look dilapidated, but the people have a Zen, dreamlike quality to them. They are the finishing touch to the painting. The forms in his paintings have an illusory, hazy atmosphere to them, reminding one of the floating countenance of Yuan dynasty landscape painter Ni Yunlin.
Summer Beach by Sun Gang,Oil on Canvas, 150x180 cm, 2006
Sun Gang's works are soft and moderate, stripped of all complexity. He uses gentle colors, taking advantage of the positive and negative forms between black and white, as well as colors, as structural elements, balancing and contrasting between form and color, and integrating it with abstract elements extracted from natural inanimate objects of purified structural form, expressing the rational poetic sentiment of spiritual introspection.
Landscape Memory by Hong Dan, Mix Medium on Canvas, 100x80 cm, 2009
Hong Dan uses readymade works to make collages of ink and wash imagery, bestowing freehand landscape painters from Bada Shanren onwards with contemporary ambiguity. He leaves a lot of blank space in his pictures, which are eccentrically composed, like an ancient book of paintings that has been smeared by a naughty child. Here, naivety and wittiness come together to make something interesting.
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