Tang Chenghua: “The Walking Landscape”
Curated by Lan Zhang
August 3 – August 14, 2018
Flushing, New York
By MARK BLOCH, August 2018
I had been waiting quite a while to see the powerful paintings of Beijing contemporary artist Tang Chenghua (b. 1964).
I had heard he uses mixed media to convey bold, abstract compositions. He has used printmaking techniques such as wood block and etching over painted backgrounds created on canvas with acrylic, oil paint and oil pastels. He has also worked on his own handmade silk paper, sometimes with additional collage elements of that paper adhered to the surface, then intricately embellished with breathtaking brushstrokes, either the aforementioned chunky black etched marks or wispy, delicate chalk marks, also in black, but producing a mesh or roughly cross-hatched or scratchy look. All the work of his I had seen had a distinctive 21st century au courant Chinese look to it, with non-Modernist, non-European pinks and lavenders, approaching daring, day-glo intensity, intercepted by fragments of muscular artistic language in the foreground that obscure those deeper strata with crushing, shadowy expression delivered in darkest pitch black. Think Robert Motherwell (1915 – 1991) aggressively mashed onto an electric, Frank Bowling (b. 1936) abstract. Tang’s thriving wild palettes with crazy, inspired and surprising base layers are grounded with great stature over top of them by confident, dignified, solemn and serious gestural strokes.
So those were they types of work I expected to see in person as I made my way to the Amerasia Bank Gallery in Flushing, Queens. Instead, upon arrival, I was surprised to find smaller, more delicate versions of those same visual ideas: yes, bursting with playful, lyrical color and black brushstrokes. But these were smaller works, with the blacks softly meandering into the way water-based colors do, not oils or even acrylics, then spreading out across paper. Two were acrylic on canvas. I was infomed later they had been created in the last couple days. But in all, more than twenty works filled the space and while they did not disappoint, the on-paper works did take me aback. Doing a double take, I thought I was seeing perhaps only examples of early work by this prolific artist whose output I had previously only seen in photos.
After all, this was his first show in New York, a return visit after his studies 20 years before and a visit 10 years ago, so maybe this was a historical survey. The quality was certainly consistent with the reputation that preceded him, but these gentle works in this serene media was not what I expected to see.
Looking at the labels, I discovered was not early work but fairly recent and learned a few, including the two on canvas, had even been painted this year. Cornering the artist and curator together, my inquest revealed that my reaction had manifested their intentions. While Tang is an important Chinese contemporary painter and occasionally even a maker of installations, this entree to the New York scene was a show designed to reach the slightly more conservative Chinese-American, perhaps middle class Queens community that this elegant space graciously tends to serve. Furthermore, it was working: a few of these watercolors had already been snatched up to hang on nearby walls, in nearby homes and project Tang’s powerful statements of color and line right into domestic Chinese-American lives. Tang assured me there was always time for his next show to be bolder and more daring and contemporary, perhaps in Chelsea or Brooklyn. But not now. This was a way for him to be present in the Flushing community that was hosting him, for him to learn more about America and for New York to be introduced to him. His curator Lan Zhang confirmed this as we discussed the long history of abstract watercolor painting in the US and the cross pollination between Eastern and Western art.
In addition to Chinese painting, Tang grew up learning about the classics, the Renaissance as well as Modernism—Impressionism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop—right up to the political art of his countryman Ai Wei Wei, who he indicates is now also part of the Western art canon in his eyes. Tang has engaged deeply with what forces influenced Andy Warhol as well as the reciprocal relationship that delivered the international art market into China and other countries in the 21st Century where it previously had not been. Tang told me he did not have any specific artist in his mind that he wanted to emulate in his career but that as a person educated in Western art, he too wanted to succeed, to make his impact. In this, his first show in New York City, he has begun to share the vision of visual art to which he has dedicated his life.
In the early ‘90s, Tang left China to explore printmaking and painting in Japan, and was struck by the very mono-cultural Japanese culture. Like China, this was a homogenous environment. Even though Japan’s culture was simultaneously an amalgam of Western art and the East, it was, above all else, 100 per cent Japanese.
Next, Tang attended Hunter College, here in New York, for two years during the late ‘90s, encountering a startling flavor that was much more international and eclectic in scope. That big difference from his Japan experience as well as his upbringing in his native China had a profound impact on him. Suddenly forced to find his own place, he responded to what he found himself being asked to do by this wondrous environment. Today at 54 years old, he knows who he is after finding that place within himself that the American melting pot seem to insist on when he was younger.
Today, as an Associate Professor at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, he believes the kids to whom he teaches printmaking and painting will find their own way and build their own future the way he once did. He looks forward to seeing what they will create, the same way he learned to find his own voice after his original sojourn on these shores.
Tang mostly loves color and reflects it in his work. He doesn't gravitate toward the performance art, computer or video art trends that are part of his generation because his passion is for having an idea and being able to see it manifested right away, the way artists have always done it. He is a visual person who loves the rewards that painting immediately provides. When I asked him how long it takes to complete a painting, he explained that with these watercolors maybe one or two days and that his works on canvas, more typical of his oeuvre, require weeks or even months. In all cases, he mused, he will occasionally finish an older work even if he did not know it wasn’t finished. If he sees it, he has no problem making the necessary adjustments.
When I asked the knowledgable curator Lan Zhang about his watercolors, she began by mentioning his “combination of sophisticated color, striking lines and vivid strokes” but then stopped herself to add “more importantly, he reaches beyond the limits of the painted image” to what she said she could only describe as “embodying nature itself.” That was very helpful because I was trying to reconcile this exhibition called Walking Landscapes with Tang’s insistence that they were not landscapes. He explained that when he walks in the North, in Beijing, his home now, or in Fujian, his hometown in the South of China, he is inspired by his fleeting impressions as he drifts by, en route to some destination.
But when Lan referred to him, rather than the work as embodying nature, I understood what both of them meant. She explained that the works borrow, “a bold approach from the Western world.” But in talking about his color, lines and brush strokes, she explains, “Yet they still have a trace of the elegance of Oriental art.” In my opinion, it is a significant trace. He was described by curator Tiffany Beres, as a “contemporary calligrapher,” and who once explained “the combinations of lines and dots lose their representational quality and instead reflect the inner mind of the calligrapher.” It is that inner mind coming to life in action that provides Tang's dynamism.
Traditionally in Chinese painting, a brush is dipped in black ink or colored pigments. Unlike Western art, one does not smell oil or turpentine. The most popular materials to work on are paper and silk. Chinese painting’s continuous, ancient artistic procedures and techniques such as calligraphy in the traditional style is known today in Chinese as guóhuà, meaning “national” or “native painting”, to distinguish them from Western styles that became popular in China in the 20th century.
Meanwhile, gongbi, meaning “meticulous,” uses highly detailed brushstrokes that delimit detail very precisely. It is often highly colored and usually depicts figural or narrative subjects. Watercolor or brush painting, ink and wash painting, (in Chinese, shui-mo; “water and ink”) is also known as “literati painting.”
Landscape painting was regarded as the highest form of Chinese painting, and still is. The years 907–1127 AD were known as the “Great Age of Chinese Landscape.” In the North, majestic mountains are conveyed by strong black lines, ink wash, while sharp, dotted brushstrokes suggest rough stone. In the South, peaceful rolling hills and rivers come to life via softer, rubbed brushwork. These two well-established techniques, visible in Tang’s tool kit, are the classical styles of Chinese landscape painting.
But suggestions of Western art are also present here. Overlap between East and West is hardly unprecedented in either direction. Chinoiserie’s imitation of Chinese motifs and techniques in 18th century furniture and architecture is well-documented. In the watercolors of John Singer Sargent (1856 –1925), he painted his friends and family dressed in Orientalist costume, relaxing in sun drenched landscapes permitting vivid and innovative use of color. Charles E. Burchfield’s (1893 –1967) other-worldly, visionary watercolors of surrealistically presented natural scenes were influenced by his exposure in art school to traditional Chinese painting.
The art by Tang Chenghua in this show brings to mind several particular skilled American Modernists.
Jules Olitski (1922 – 2007), born in the Ukraine under Soviet rule to emigrate to the United States in 1923, painted sunrises and sunsets at his summer home on New Hampshire's Lake Winnepesaukee and winters spent in the Florida Keys in the 1990s, very evocative of some of Tang’s paintings. Olitski’s earlier tonal gradations are evoked by Tang’s subtle grey to blue or orange-yellow “skies” that float near the tops of several compostions.
Elsewhere, a grey aquamarine to deep blue transition with a large negative space in the center suggesting a cloud, summons the upbeat paintings combining Color Field painting with Lyrical Abstraction of Ronnie Landfield (b. 1947), who grew up in Manhattan and still teaches at the Art Students League. Tang’s light blues, muted greens and yellows that resemble a wetlands scene or black scratches and dots leaning to the right covering pale verdant mountains or possibly even buttes in the background, are reminiscent of Langfield’s work inspired by travels to southern Utah in the 1970s.
Perhaps the American painter that Tang most of all brings to mind is John Marin, whose dreamy landcapes influenced the Abstract Expressionists. When Tang’s greens, purples, and yellows combine to create a landscape, in the foreground are 3 different kinds of black lines. The first look like drips, the second are thin vectors and third are dark blotches creating islands of solidity right in the middle of the picture plane. In another Walking Landscape, what look like black berries hang over water creating a very Buddhist idyllic scene with help from green scrubbing at the top.
Other inventions come to mind as well. The quiet power of the late Helen Frankenthaler’s (1928 – 2011) compositions and all of the Color Field painters, really, impress themselves upon us with their art that was inspired by European Modernism and enthusiastically also embraced by the Abstract Expressionists for expansive fields of flat, solid pigments spread across canvas. Or stains worked into the surface of canvas, similar to the way Tang’s work lights up the paper here with his watercolors. The color itself becomes the content in Tang’s work, too, as kaleidoscopic hues are freed from objective context even as their title The Walking Landscapes remains.
To find more Occidental parallels to Tang’s approaches, it occured to me that one could look into the backgrounds of certain artists’ work, beyond their focal points. Many Tang works are resonant with details from work by artists like the very traditional aforementioned Sargent, Charles Demuth (1883 – 1935) or even Raoul Dufy (1877 – 1953), the French Fauvist. If one zooms into the negative space of a work by one of these three diverse painters, one begins to feel the way Tang masterfully applies paint to paper and that approach is the tip of the iceberg that spans not just this show but Tang’s entire career.
The master portrait painter John Singer Sargent was also a master of watercolors whose travels all over Europe and around the US later in life yielded a command of light and shadow. Dark squiggles that could be ducks in one Walking Landscape portrait accentuate the foreground of a scene that could be right out of New York’s Central Park by the Chinese artist while an imposing leopard skin design or perhaps a waterfall in the middle of the mysterious image are surrounded by the blue-grey and olive green sensuous tones of what Demuth called his Precisionism.
Two bands of color, black and a light blue, highlight a third horizontal area---one that occupies half of the surface with a hot pink--with the lower right corner contrasted in a deep vibrant green. The black dots, lines, even spirals that punctuate the pink call to mind Dufy’s trademark thin washes of color applied quickly with the black marks implying a word that Dufy used and might be considered a Euro-substitute for calligraphy: “stenography.”
In another painting here that is not one of the Walking Landscapes but is called Charm of South No. 63, bold crossing black gestures powerfully obscure primary reds and blue behind. In Charm of South No. 18-8 almost resembling an overflowing horn of plenty, speckled black-on-white and black-on-green cornstalk shapes cover a background that ranges from dripping bright orange at the right to a dark fade toward darkness on the left--via blue and on to solid black.
Ultimately, Tang’s works here may suggest Arthur Dove (1880–1946), a predictor of Abstract Expressionism and arguably the first abstract American artist, by way of his appreciation of Cézanne. Dove was a lifelong appreciator of nature, a solitary Henry David Thoreau-type who, from 1930 through the mid-1940s, with health challenges diminishing his output, nevertheless persisted innovatively with tiny works that moved increasingly toward abstraction. Dove's watercolors of this period began small at 5 x 7 inches before he reduced his scale 3 x 4 inch sheets as his health declined. Tang's works here are not nearly that small and his health is not an issue but this return to New York, armed with powerful declarations in water-based chroma instead of the much larger surfaces and thick pigments he normally works with, show a confident serenity that highlights his commitment to the surrounding host community in Queens.
In these framed paper works, Tang Chenghua’s use of translucent tones imitate life in Queens as well as Manahattan, in the USA as well as China, with their fluid delineation of light and space relationships. Hints of sea, sun and scenery, evidence of evasive winds, flowing currents and other rhythms bring the cycles of nature to life, transporting visions from outside of Beijing and his native Fujian into the outer boroughs of New York. Each work conveys radiance. Some employ fluid black lines, strokes and dots to delineate mysterious form within the color, creating recognizable “scenes,” while others forge those same undifferentiated elements into memorable but elusive tableaus of pure abstraction, as inventive and expressive of the artist's far-reaching passion as the larger oil and acrylic works and even installations I expected I might see here.
Tang’s The Walking Landscapes exhibition announced to me, and I suspect others, the promise a career that has only just begun to make itself known to longstanding American markets, but more importantly, to all appreciators of beauty, color, imagination and craftsmanship, not unique to West or East, but endlessly necessary and universal. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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