The beauty of Chinese landscape painting can be understood in many different ways, but one of its most intriguing and unique features is its underlying intellectuality and philosophy, which in most cases are imaginative and idealistic. Featuring three modern artists dealing with the wider genre of landscape painting, this exhibition explores how contemporary aesthetics, techniques, and perspectives transcend classical forms, and how artists go beyond landscape in landscape paintings to present their modern mentalities.
In China, landscape paintings have long been compared to landscape poetry. Poetry and paintings share the pursuit of conveying subtle aesthetic taste, beyond mere images. Tang poetic critic Sikong Tu (837-908) praises artistic conception “beyond images [象外]”, while the earlier theorist of painting Zong Bing (375-433) asserts that “those obscure intentions beyond word and image can be understood in heart from the writings[旨微於言象之外者，可心取於書策之内]”. Ambiguity, in terms of verbal and pictorial representation of landscape, allows artists to freely explore multi-dimensional meanings in their works.
Such ideas of ambiguous formal structure provide pre-modern and modern artists with common ground on which they share the painting techniques, but also evoke the immediate Zeitgeist. The poststructuralist philosopher Julia Kristeva argues that ambiguity “provides the creative and innovative impulse of modern poetic structure.” Such a statement helps us to view paintings in general, but is particularly useful when viewing Chinese landscape paintings. Wang Wei (692-761), praised by Su Shi (1037-1101) as the best practitioner of the homogeneity of poetry and painting, urges viewers of landscape painting first to go beyond the visual elements, but to contemplate on its overall flavor and atmosphere气象.
The three artists presented in this exhibition, Arnold Zhang, Wang Mansheng, and Tang Ke, picked up this aesthetics of ambiguity and flavor, which belongs to Chinese landscape painting. Moreover, they use this traditional genre to reflect upon and to engage in the communication between classical and modern aesthetics and philosophy in a modern context.
For Arnold Chang, what is beyond landscape is the modern aesthesis of abstraction: lines, negative space, shades, and rhythm. He incorporates Western abstractionism into the Chinese traditional pictorial language of landscape through his diligent and meticulous practice of brush and ink, or bi mo[笔墨]. Despite the vibrant and appealing composition of Chang’s paintings, the true quality lies in the nature of his brushstrokes, which are dynamic, subtle, confident, and rhythmic. Many of his paintings are representations of birds-eye views of panoramic landscapes, but their most important feature is the resonance of lines and dots, black and white, solidness and emptiness. For those who see the form, one finds magnificent mountains, and for those who see beyond the form, one enjoys the purity and harmony of the artist’s vision and mind.
Instead of projecting a modern world-view or aesthetic, Wang Mansheng’s work assumes a rather traditional stance despite his wide employment of modern techniques. Wang’s paintings are intended to cultivate the inner virtue of the artist and the viewer. He indulges in classical Chinese poetry and classics, and these forms have served as his way of developing a vast and vital qi[浩然之气] and nourishing natural landscapes. Using self-made materials, such as weed brushes and ink, Wang captures the light, shadow, and glow of the spectacular mountains and rivers. The tranquility and sublimity of the scenery gives the viewers a chance to reflect on their inner feelings, and pay a visual pilgrimage to the landscape.
Tang Ke, whose artistic training is mainly in Western oil painting, finds Chinese landscape in his experimental oil on acrylic film works. The layering of oils and the impressionist visual quality are all inherited from conventional oil paintings. The switch from canvas to opaque films introduces a natural sense of ambiguity. Through ambiguity he locates the intersection of modernity and classicism. The viewer finds idyllic landscape elements, such as mountains, boats, and trees, in his carefully controlled, impulsive act of piling up oils.
Whether starting from Chinese landscape paintings or returning to them, the three artists all represent the artistic trend of transcending the conventional visual language of landscape paintings. Beyond landscape, the artists and the viewers see more. One enjoys landscape by forgetting oneself in it – as the Taoist saying goes: “ one should forgetthe trap after the fish has been caught[得鱼忘筌].
PhD Candidate, East Asian Languages and Literatures, Yale University