News | Tai Xiangzhou: “Eight Views of Xiaoxiang” On View at Princeton University Art Museum

Guo Xinran

Tai Xiangzhou (born in 1968)’s ink painting "Eight Views of XiaoXiang" (2017) is currently on display at the Princeton University Art Museum. According to the artist, this series is a response to the work of the same name by Wang Hong, a painter from the Southern Song Dynasty who was active around 1131-1161. The series originally consisted of seventeen paintings, eight of which were acquired by the Princeton University Art Museum in 2018. Five of these eight paintings are currently on exhibit at the museum.


On display next to Tai Xiangzhou's work is the oil painting "Winter Sky" (2002) by American artist Pat Steir (born in 1938). These are two visually contrasting works: one is an oil on canvas measuring approximately 2.7 meters wide and 3 meters high, and the other is an ink on silk measuring 0.7 meters long and 0.3 meters wide. Although the size and medium are completely different, both works depict boundless, undefined spaces. They can be viewed as some form of representational re-creation, or as an aggregation of the painter's brushstrokes on the canvas. Their juxtaposition in the exhibition hall presents to the audience two distinct ways of representing space.


From a distance, there are no discernible objects in the works of Tai Xiangzhou and Steir. The space presented in "Eight Views of XiaoXiang" is hazy and blurred, filled with flowing gases or liquids that move slowly in a nearly weightless state. On the large canvas of "Winter Sky", white paint is splattered on a black background, forming fine dot and line traces. At the top of the canvas, the lines formed by the paint dripping from above create a curtain-like visual effect; at the bottom, many splattered white dots can be clearly seen. Both artists link the vague space to specific things through the titles of their works. The titles of Tai Xiangzhou's individual pieces often involve water, such as "Clouds Hover over the River at Dusk", "Moon Surges on the Great River Flow", and "Pale Smoke, Water Spread Far and Wide". These titles are all related to the water and unpredictable weather of the XiaoXiang region in Hunan. They sketch out poetic scenes, directing the brushstrokes in the painting towards the mist, floating clouds, or flowing water of XiaoXiang. The title "Winter Sky" serves a similar function. The dots and lines Steir splatters on the black background can be seen as twinkling stars in the night sky, while the large size of the canvas makes the space presented seem boundless, echoing the imagery of the sky.


"Eight Views of XiaoXiang" and "Winter Sky" present two unique modes of representation. They are unique because they can be seen as representations of concrete spaces while also maintaining a certain distance from what is depicted. In the work of Wang Hong that Tai Xiangzhou responds to, the artist uses light ink to express the steam and river water spreading between the distant mountains and the riverbank, depicting a scene covered in clouds and fog. Tai Xiangzhou's "Eight Views of XiaoXiang" magnifies Wang Hong's depiction of water vapor. It detaches water and fog from the traditional landscape composition, filling the entire pictorial space. The pervasive water vapor obscures the viewer's line of sight, making it difficult to recognize specific spatial positions. They are representational, but they also obstruct the representation of spatial details.


In "Winter Sky", a black curve in the middle also serves as a barrier. Unlike other splattered traces, this line is splashed horizontally by the painter on the canvas. The white traces created by splashing in the painting symbolize starlight, while the significance of this black curve is not clear. It disrupts the consistency of the composition, interfering with the representation of the work.


In constructing this unique form of representation, both Tai Xiangzhou and Steir highlight the details of visual language and the planar properties of the picture, allowing viewers to more easily notice the artist's creative process. Tai Xiangzhou's "Eight Views of XiaoXiang" concentrates the viewer's gaze on the abstraction of traditional painting language. When creating landscape paintings, the artist transforms natural landscapes into mental images, and then these mental images into visual language, a process that involves abstraction. In Wang Hong's work, the steam, water surface, and embankments represented by a few strokes show traces and effects of abstraction. Tai Xiangzhou further detaches these abstract traces from landscape painting to form a more abstract composition. This not only magnifies the details of the brush and ink but also creates a new pictorial space that is fluid, centerless, and without clear spatial attributes.


The traces on the canvas of "Winter Sky" evoke the action of the artist splashing paint in front of the canvas. This association often links Steir's work to the abstract expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock (1912–1956). In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Pollock created a series of large-scale oil paintings by splashing paint, also known as drip painting or action painting. Action painting emphasizes the artist's improvisational creative process, viewing the artwork as a trace left by the artist's actions. For viewers of "Winter Sky", if they focus on the black lines in the middle of the picture, the work can also be seen as the sum of the traces left by the artist's splashing action.


This kind of wavering tension in the picture also appears in Steir's own accounts of her creative process. She once said: "I want to destroy the image as a kind of symbol. In order for the picture to become the symbol of the symbol, I need to create images through my actions, and then erase them. It seems as if there are no images, but it can also be seen as infinite images." As she said, "Winter Sky" points to the sky and starlight, but also dissolves signification, drawing the viewer's attention to the process of signification itself.


The spatial representation in these two works involves obstructions or disturbances to the viewer's gaze, and both the representation and its disturbance are closely related to the size of the picture. Inside the museum, the juxtaposition of these two works precisely draws the viewer's attention to this point. Traditional Chinese painting theory includes the notion of "seeing the small through the large," suggesting that viewers imagine the picture as part of a larger space unfolding from the picture, and this imagined space is one that can be entered. Viewed in this way, Tai Xiangzhou's "Eight Views of XiaoXiang" reveals a vast space from a very limited canvas. Unlike traditional landscape paintings, however, the relationship between the foreground and background in Tai's work is more ambiguous, and the spatial relationship between the picture and the viewer is harder to determine. As mentioned above, the depiction of the water vapor that pervades the entire space is both representational and obstructs the picture's representation of space. This makes the spatial representation of the picture emphasize pure visuality, which can be scrutinized by the gaze, but it is difficult to enter through viewing.


The viewing of "Winter Sky" is closer to that of large-scale Abstract Expressionist works. In an article analyzing Pollock's drip paintings, scholar T. J. Clark believes that the intricate lines in Pollock's paintings and the area close to the wall create a strong contrast in size. Between the extremely small and the extremely large, there is a lack of medium-sized visual language, making it difficult for viewers to find visual cues in the picture to confirm their position. The experience of viewing "Winter Sky" is similar. When tiny splatter traces unfold on a three-meter-high canvas, viewers will have a feeling similar to that of viewing a sky scene - only able to gaze into the vast starry sky, but unable to approach. At the same time, the black line in the middle of the work constantly reminds the viewer of the flat attributes of the picture, hindering the depth of the viewer's gaze. Through the concept of viewing the small in the large and the contrast of sizes, these two works create a vast spatial effect; at the same time, they also emphasize the flat attributes of the picture, which makes the representation of space focus more on visuality.

In addition to constructing visual spaces, "Eight Views of XiaoXiang" and "Winter Sky" are also connected with complex spatial sensations. Tai Xiangzhou once named a series in 2017, which also focuses on water and fog in its composition, as "Huangzhong Dalue". Huangzhong and Dalue are respectively the first pitch of Yang scale and Yin scale in ancient Chinese music theory. As an idiom, “Huangzhong Dalue” is used to describe solemn music or prose. The title "Huangzhong Dalue" connects the water and fog depicted in the painting with sound waves. Moreover, in Chinese landscape painting, the misty water vapor is often the visual representation of "Qi". "Qi" is both an abstract concept and a perceptible energy, expressed in traditional painting through factors such as water flow, terrain, and spatial reality. In "Eight Views of XiaoXiang", the water or gas pervading the painting also makes viewers think of "Qi". Sound waves and Qi are invisible, from these two reference points, the spatiality of the painting is not only visual, but also has an imaginative dimension.


"Winter Sky" gives people the feeling of facing natural scenery. Steir began to use the technique of splashing oil paint on canvas in the 1970s. The works she created in this way are called "Waterfall Paintings". In these large-scale works, she brushes a large amount of oil paint at the top of the canvas or directly splashes it onto the canvas, allowing it to form a waterfall-like texture under the action of external forces or gravity. The creative process and the way of representing space in the Waterfall Paintings are close to Pollock's drip paintings. Although Pollock did not depict the shapes of concrete things, his works are not completely disconnected from the figurative. By highlighting the material properties of the canvas and paint, Pollock created a new method of representing nature. Traces or fragments of concrete things, such as handprints, gravel, and broken glass, can often be seen on the surface of his works. More importantly, most of his drip paintings are close to the size of an entire wall, a size that was still rare in the mid-20th century. Large canvases, arbitrarily splashed paint, and complex, crisscrossing lines bring a strong visual impact, making viewers feel as if they are facing natural scenery. Similarly, "Winter Sky" also presents dense dots and lines on a large canvas. The three-meter-high black background is filled with rain-like traces of paint, which makes it difficult for viewers in front of the painting to control and overlook all parts of the picture with their gaze. This brief sense of loss of control makes viewers think of the feeling when facing the vast starry sky.


The visual effects of "Eight Views of Xiaoxiang" and "Winter Sky" oscillate between the abstract and the concrete. They point to concrete reference points, while also emphasizing the flat properties of the picture. The picture is both representational and material; or to put it another way, the artist achieves a more complex, multivalent representation by emphasizing the material properties of the picture. Therefore, the representation in both works is not only visual, but also encompasses the imagination of the invisible or the human spatial experience of nature.

October 22, 2019