Qiu Zhenzhong and Shen Jinbo: Calligraphy’s Future, Painting’s Time to Come
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, MAR. 2017
Calligraphy in Mainland China is not what it used to be. This is not at all a judgment pointing out the lessening of its achievement, but instead a description of the increasingly innovative and exploratory nature of calligraphy in recent years there. In America, we repeat the adage that China is a brush culture—at this point, the comment amounts to a cliché, but like all clichés, it has its measure of truth. It seems to me that the ongoing and currently developing art of calligraphy is in some respects an assertion of cultural pride. But it is of course more than that. It is the further expansion of an art that lies at the heart of Chinese culture—we cannot understand Asian painting without tying it to the tradition of calligraphy, which is so basic to visual expression that it amounts to a touchstone for the way we experience Chinese art. Calligraphy is very different from, and not nearly so important to, Western art practice; here, it is a stylized manner of writing that has little connection with our fine art. So it may be that we are a bit bemused by a practice that looms so large in a legacy so different from our own.
Indeed, one of the major errors made in the West in the reading of Chinese calligraphy is our tendency—in fact, our predilection—to interpret its painterly achievements in light of our own art! This is, inevitably, a basic mistake. Parts of Chinese calligraphy and painting do address abstraction, even early in the culture, centuries before our period of nonobjective modernism. But to say that such abstraction reminds us of Franz Kline or other abstract expressionists is to switch codes as if they were indistinguishable from each other. It is actually necessary, given that our historical conventions are so very different, to allow such variances to occur. This is a truism, one that the Chinese know, but which we may forget in light of both our admiration for a practice we do not fully understand and, more problematically, our willingness to rewrite other culture’s accomplishments as inventions of our possession. This is an quandary we should remain aware of, despite the fact that it is quite well known. Today, when so much contemporary art is international, rather than specifically national, in style, it becomes particularly important for art-world participants to respect the boundaries of difference found in earlier expressions of other cultures. We simply cannot incorporate into our readings of Chinese art an affiliation turned toward the particulars of our own stance and background.
The two calligraphers on display, Qiu Zhenzhong and Shen Jinbo, are exemplars of contemporary art. Like most good artists, they push the boundaries of a tradition they have been educated in. Qiu, in the later part of his career, is an established professor at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing; he is also an accomplished poet and art theorist. Shen, a younger man, is an increasingly recognized calligrapher and painter active in Beijing. Their work could not be more different: Qiu is given to black-and-white assertions that may be more, or less, joined to the calligraphy that has preceded him. In contrast, Shen’s art is less demonstratively calligraphic, being taken with suggestions of landscape or seemingly pure abstraction. In both, though, we find remarkable skill and evocative beauty—attributes that are not seen so often in contemporary American painting! It should be remembered that these works occur in a world art culture inundated with imagery coming from global backgrounds, and so they are inevitably placed within a context that can easily misread the particularity of their origins. At the same time, despite my assertions that Chinese art must remain Chinese, we cannot completely rule out the notion that some esthetic awareness of modernist abstraction echoes throughout their work.
To today’s audience, especially its younger viewers, the desire to stay aware of—or more accurately, maintain--difference must seem like an exercise in impossibility. We are moving toward a mono-culture that excludes alterity from its expressive esthetic. Yet Qiu’s art intimates, even asserts, the recognition that a style has to come from somewhere, and that it is unfeasible to work out of a culture that is not one’s own—especially a culture as great and enduring as China’s. Qiu’s “Statue” series give us a sequence of black-and-white paintings, composed of lines that break and curl in and over each other in a decidedly messy fashion. Everything in a Western viewer’s experience would convince him that these works come from an abstract expressionist perspective. But what if such a view only demonstrated a longing on our part to appropriate examples of art that are stylistically similar to ours? The line is certainly expressive, but is originated not from the free-hand painting decisions of the West in the 1940s and ‘50s; instead, it comes from a heightened awareness of the centuries-long history of calligraphy. The point may seem obvious but is necessary to make.
The “Shan Hai Jing-Prequel” sequence by Qiu looks as casual as the “Statue” series, although its forms are drafted in a lighter, more transparent tone. They are really compilations of random form, although hints of natural imagery do come through. As a group, the paintings are remarkably demonstrative of emotion; they cast implied feeling despite the fact that no recognizable theme can be generally assigned to them. Inchoate blots merge together, mostly without line. No. 22 looks like a flower, or more daringly, like an open vulva. The tension between pure abstraction and our wish to recognize the shapes as something figuratively meaningful results in a powerful work of art. No. 22 holds our attention with a dark-colored center, around which lighter areas pivot and circle. In line with the other works, it seems as dedicated to an abstract process as it is to nature or female anatomy. Still, it cannot be denied that the image implies more than a single reading. No. 38 is completely different, being oriented toward a pattern established by lines alone. On the left is a fringe of light-colored lines, while the right is more chaotic: blots and lines that are spare on the higher part of the painting and denser on the lower right.
How does calligraphy come to play in No. 38? Or in any of the two series? The relations between the actual works and the calligraphic tradition are indeed tenuous, but that does not mean that the link does not exist. Increasingly, we engage history through an abstract understanding of its precedents—a point of view that is illustrated by the work we have described. So Qiu is truly updating his inheritance. The danger of work like this is that it may stray too far from its actual past, yet it is impossible for Qiu not to move forward. We all must be true to our time. So for an artist of Qiu’s talent, the problem is not so much the revisiting of his precedents as it is the reawakening of the earlier work’s perception through a differently nuanced view. It might be said that if America has too little history, China has too much—in the sense that a return to historical convention would damage the achievement of contemporary art. The effort to go on to whatever is next, even as the artist acknowledges the past, is central to world art today, and Qiu fulfills his responsibility in the most marvelous manner.
There is not much cross-talk between the work of Qiu and that of Shen, who has two styles: one in which recognizable nature, in particular mountains, is found; and the second, which appears purely abstract, and is oriented toward what seems to be all-over pattern painting. Clearly, Shen’s style establishes contact with both the old and the new. Most of the titles, referring to the seasons, the sunset, the world itself, add to the figurative understanding of the paintings, and so Shen’s names for his art build a correspondence between inner and outer worlds. Yet it can hardly be said that Shen is painting only discernible imagery; his effects are regularly nonobjective, even when the painting seems confirmed in its portrayal of nature. It goes to show, then, that the arc and spectrum of contemporary calligraphy has moved far beyond the presentation of characters written with stylistic inventiveness. Instead, it makes its way toward a place where the stroke remains important, but the subject matter is extraordinarily new, pushing past the recognition, however stylized, of words in favor of abstraction and a possibly figurative thread.
Shen is a young artist well steeped in knowledge of the traditional Chinese arts: calligraphy, painting, seal cutting/engraving, and music. He possesses a large collection of scholar stones and calligraphy by Liu Yong, a 19th-century artist who has influenced his art. He was a student at the Central Academy of Fine Art. where he focused on oil painting. But despite his training in academia, in oil painting, which remains the favorite studio of art students in China, Shen has turned, at least in part of his work, to brilliant interpretations, highly contemporary in feeling, that make nature his center of attention. His “Season” series, a group of four paintings that are highly reminiscent of traditional paintings of landscape, in particular mountains, play out as well as examples of insightful abstraction, albeit to a lesser extent. Just as calligraphy needs an extended foray into a new understanding of the genre, so painting in China, with its great history, needs an exploration into what is possible now. Chinese art’s promise, its future, depends upon chance-taking that will encompass an esthetic we long to see renewed, given the weight of its breadth and depth. Shen thus is proposing a new deal, one taking us out of the past and into the future.
All the arguments I have brought up about Qiu’s calligraphy hold true for Shen’s painting style. At this point, it would be redundant to rehearse the supposed similarities between certain of Shen’s painterly effects and similar stylistic decisions found in Western abstraction. It is better, I think, to determine the differences in style rather than to immediately join practices that clearly do not originate in the same place. Qiu’s “Season” series, gray on white, belong to the enduring lineage of landscape art in China. In No. 1, high peaks are suggested by gray lines and small, seemingly unboundaried areas of color. White plays a large role in all these paintings, which seem to be enveloped in mist. Shen is quite obviously appreciative of the past, but his language is inescapably new. Yet this does not necessarily mean that he is painting current abstraction: We must learn to accept other cultural effusions as they are. In Shen’s No. 3, white mists seem to envelop the composition, but in the lower middle of the work, we can see a series of sharply vertical forms, inevitably mountain peaks given our knowledge of Chinese painting. Reduced to an essence, the imagery in this work of art beautifully suggests a way of seeing our material lives have obscured, but it also is a recognizance of past imperial splendor.
And finally, it is simply a marvelous painting.
World No. 3 is very different from the “Season” paintings, being entirely non-objective in nature. Its structure is composed of imagery that looks like soap bubbles or a surface much like cracked ice. Its all-over nonobjective composition makes it much easier to align with abstraction than Chinese art history. There is nothing obviously Chinese about the imagery, unless it is true that the single brushstrokes come out of calligraphy. But this is hard to prove on viewing the painting. Perhaps we can say that here, at least, a sympathy for abstraction has been brought about by the extensive international knowledge of painting styles communicated by media all over the world. A vertical painting, World No. 3 consists of reddish-pink patches that fill and overflow the bubbles serving to structure the composition. The painting would look fully at home within a retrospective of 1950s American abstract art. Here it must be acknowledged that access to a particular style is no longer geographically limited; this is a great freedom for the contemporary artist, but it also means that cultural boundaries have been blurred to the point where they mean very little. The question, How Chinese is it?, no longer holds weight.
Whether the current situation of free and wide-ranging allusion in Chinese art is an improvement or a disadvantage is something that can only be determined by the objectivity that comes with time. It is transparently true that the Chinese artist cannot escape or transcend his past, but it is also true that we are now in a situation where influence is traded freely among artists who come from all corners of the world. One would like for art to remain recognizably demonstrative of someone’s cultural origins, but this has inevitably become a moot academic matter rather than an accurate description of contemporary art. Qiu, at the age of seventy, remembers the changes from the old to the new within his own lifetime. But Shen, the younger painter, began by possessing the freedom to choose imageries that a greater cultural openness has provided. That both are exploring the gray area between abstraction and figuration means that Chinese calligraphy and painting can no longer assert the stylistic integrity of a development occurring within a unique culture. But this does not mean that the Chinese artist has given up on his longing for an esthetic that captures a unity of thought. Such a wish is a far cry from today’s eclecticism, but it remains true that the virtue of art still tends to originate with the particulars underlying the artist’s provenance, as Qiu and Shen’s excellent works so admirably demonstrate. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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