Jiang Hai: Spiritual Expression and Redemption
Source:Artintern.net Author:Yin Shuangxi Date: 2011-04-22 Size:
Jiang Hai’s artist career started in the mid-1980s when he graduated from the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts. For more than twenty years, Jiang Hai, like a devoted monk, has dedicated his time to his oil painting in which he studies the changing society and its lives.

Jiang Hai’s artist career started in the mid-1980s when he graduated from the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts. For more than twenty years, Jiang Hai, like a devoted monk, has dedicated his time to his oil painting in which he studies the changing society and its lives. In an approach that is reminiscent of the Japanese Ukiyo-e, Jiang Hai unfolded in his paintings scenes of a drastically changing society, its values and emotions. I have been informed of his artistic development from the materials he periodically sent me, including his exhibition catalogues and reports and writings published in newspapers and journals. In my opinion, Jiang Hai belongs to the few artists since the ’85 New Art Trend who continued their artistic creation without flattering, satisfying or pleasing any popular views, which is very rare in the art world of today. He was one of the participating artists of the 1989 China Avant-garde Exhibition, which had promoted many into art market stars and members of the millionaires’ club. Seemingly satisfied with his life in Tianjin, Jiang works in a very leisurely way. Every time I see him, he greets me with an honest and soft smile. I never hear him complain about public affairs or his personal life.

Jiang Hai’s work is as powerful as that of Francis Bacon. In his internal world, there is a spirit of vigor that is active like sizzling volcano magma. But such a powerful spirit is rendered in his painting with high rationality, which gives his art an elegance characteristic of eastern art. This was why I located his art “somewhere in between logical painting and lyrical expression”, as discussed in my essay published in Art Trends (1995, Issue 8, Taipei). With qualities of elitist modernist art, Jiang Hai’s art is allegorical of the social spirit in China in its transition toward a modern society. This allegory is closely related to the artist’s personal life experience and is in a sense micro-political. Jiang’s painting is sort of abstract expressionistic rather than realistic, which results in general allegorical images that are often very complicated. Composed and structured in an interwoven way, these images are reflections of the swiftly changing values and forces of the modern society. They form a spiritual maze, in which the audience could experience an aesthetic adventure, both psychologically and spiritually. Such experience results in the audience’s deeper understanding of humanity and life.

The subject matter in Jiang Hai’s painting comes from a wide range of modern life, from toys to modern weapons, from written words, fast food to the animal world and materials and objects found in the artist’s studio. However, Jiang’s painting is by no means a pictorial record or copy of daily life. What Jiang is concerned about and tries to convey in his painting is an artistic attitude toward daily life, or in other words, an abstract expression of real life. We can also say that Jiang Hai is more interested in the abstractness of his expression of real life. Behind the seemingly formalist study lies the artist’s fundamental attitude about the modern social life. On the one hand, Jiang Hai tends to reveal in his painting the alienation in the modern social life, where highly rational programs of modern life and materialism controls the spiritual life and creativity of human beings. As Max Weber put it in The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, "Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved." In modern society, life has been degenerated into simply consumption, which has nothing to do with ideals of beautiful life. Individuals have become part of the gigantic machine of the industrial society, where it is very difficult to have any discussion of true life. The tragic suicides of the Shenzhen Foxconn employees in their twenties always remind me of the highly deformed bodies in Jiang Hai’s painting, which appear to be bodies crashed from falling. On the other hand, however, Jiang Hai’s painting also expresses the vigor of daily life, the unpreventable youth and information in a highly regulated hierarchical society and the potential tremendous changes in the seemingly calm reality. As Heidegger put it, “The art work opens up in its own way the Being of beings.” The daily life is the life of the lower social classes, which could not always be controlled by the huge bureaucratic system. In this very life, there lies a hidden tide for innovation and change, which is a combination of multiple ideas and actions. The composition of artistic imagination and body images in Jiang Hai’s painting proves the critical qualities of art. It is in the fragmentation and reconstruction of daily images that Jiang Hai searches for the poetic and creative forces of daily life, which in his painting has been transformed into visual deconstruction and resistance against the power that is in control of human thoughts.

In his earlier works that were seen in his 1988 show, Jiang Hai started using the abstract expressionist method in composing his images of figures. In his Black and White Games series, for example, human bodies are formed into Taiji-like compositions, where bodies are barely recognizable as they are painted in abstract brushstrokes. His 1989 Ball-like Objects series, with opened heads made in newspaper collages, reflects his concerns about social life. His Faces series, which was shown at the 1989 China Avant-garde Exhibition, are paintings of flat and silhouette-like images that were composed of rearranged faces. These paintings are seen with some of Jiang Hai’s later signature elements, such as sharp and hard diagonal lines and round shapes, traces of cutting on wood board, bright colors and passionate brushwork.

The significance of Jiang Hai’s art lies in his emphasis on the concept of contemporaneity that he developed out of his understanding of the status of Chinese art since the ’85 New Art Trend. This contemporaneity means not only a challenge to conservative mainstream art in formal issues but also a reflection of the existence of people in the contemporary time. The contemporaneity also means a break with imitating modern Western art in order to establish an artistic language with Chinese aesthetic qualities that could be used for international cultural exchanges. This could not be realized without painstaking endeavors of the artist, whose goal is to accomplish his own language in the rich but complicated system of contemporary art. Such a transformation was made in solitariness and with calmness. With a two-year period of continuous hard work, the artist has achieved rich empirical experience in abstract painting language, which turned his art from one of emotional expression to one of independent visual language. Based on his absorption of such Western modernist artists as Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Amedeo Modigliani and Egon Schiele, Jiang Hai has been in search for his own artistic vocabulary in order to establish his own unique position in the development of Chinese contemporary art. His work has been shown in such prestigious exhibitions as the 1992 Guangzhou Biannual, 1993 Biannual of Chinese Oil Painting, Annual Exhibition of Chinese Oil Painting and the 1994 Second National Exhibition of Chinese Oil Painting. In recent years, he has his solo shows in Tianjin and Shanghai. All this proves that Jiang Hai has entered his period of maturity as a contemporary artist.

In Jiang’s Leisure series completed in 1991 to 1992, gigantic fishes appear to be moving in dark deep sea. Their sharp teeth and protruding eyeballs look disturbing, but the flatness of their bodies make them look like clouds viewed from a satellite that are filled with restless colors. What catches the viewer’s attention is not the simple background but the multiple layers of color and brushwork. The artist seems to reveal to the viewer an unrealistic empirical world, where we feel imagery alienation when we focus on his painting. The fish, therefore, is no longer one with any meaning from actual life, but has become a symbol, a sign, of macro significance.

The outlined bodies in Jiang Hai’s 1992 Single Bodies series show influence of Egon Schiele. The bodies, however, seem to be growing out of disorder, reflecting the artist’s internal conflicts in a way of existentialism. The awkwardness and painfulness of the distorted bodies have a sense of comedy because of the excellent rendition of color. The male bodies are outlined in clear and sensual lines reminiscent of Schiele’s and seem to be breaking through the gloomy looking sky. Such a feeling is reinforced by the artist, who utilized enamel paint with collage in making the picture surface look rough and tense.

As seen in the series of Earth Surface, Embarrassment and Alienated Spaces the artist completed in 1993-94, Jiang Hai realized that abstract art is the visualization of concepts, which means he searches from inside himself for appropriate composition of visual elements in order to create individualized structure and imagery. Jiang Hai also understands that abstract art is the result of wisdom and spirit abstracted from reality. And linguistic or logical thinking could not be used to enter the deeper level of art creation ruled by irrationality, which is only accessible by means of intuitive reaction and sensuality. What Jiang Hai wants to solve in his art is a fundamental art thesis, that is, the relationship between contingent, ambiguous and complete intuitive imagery and structural, orderly and symbolic linguistic framework.

As we can see, Jiang Hai uses very strong and bright colors in his Earth Surface series, the content of which is oceanic lives. This series is a development of Jiang’s earlier works. The free dripping of colors and the disorderly forms of the nonorganic objects make them traces of life impulses. The unstoppable excitement in the deep self of the artist tries to search for a way to express itself, but its tragic sense is covered up in the bright colors. The tension in Jiang Hai’s painting is formed by the conflicts that the artist dramatized: the conflict between partial rich colors and overall stable tonality, the conflict between restless images and controlled structures, and the conflict between rough texture and lyrical expression.

Jiang Hai’s bright colors and powerful brushwork that he developed over the past many years are used for exploring from a psychological perspective the spiritual trends of contemporary society. The structural forms in his paintings exist as containers and frameworks for human bodies, where unconsciousness flows in all directions and disorderly desires struggle to surface in the paintings. Jiang Hai’s work is therefore not just a product of visual aesthetics but one of psychological analysis of the unconsciousness. The internal emotions of individuals are communicated with collective sub-consciousness, which results in great tension.

Since 1997 urban life became an important theme of Jiang Hai’s painting. Different from earlier series that didn’t last very long, Jiang’s urban series is a product of many years of work. This indicates that the artist has been continuously concerned with the drastic changes in modern metropolises, with which his art changes and develops. The past ten years marked the key period of urbanization in China, before which social change in China was not as dramatic. In Jiang’s many works depicting urban scenes, for example, Urban Structures: Dining Table, we see gluttons who become food on the plate of others. Urban Structure: Celestial Bodies expresses a strong sense of motion, while in Urban Structure: Playing with Water boats formed by human bodies are used as ferries. The pictorial surface of Urban Structure: Great Flu is very complicated, which indicates that Jiang Hai has become an urban prophet. In Urban Structure: Great Food, Jiang Hai, like Joan Miró, turned industrial products into organic forms. Continued into 2000 the Urban Structure series, with images of gigantic machines, bottles, vaults and fences, is a visual summary of the drastic changes of our time that is characterized with its great achievements as well as the widening gap between the poor and the rich.

What is worth noticing is that from 2006 Jiang Hai’s attention has turned away from industrial products to natural objects. Often seen in his paintings are now fragmented animals and insects, which implies the reconstructed relationship between human beings and the animal world. Such images remind us of Hollywood movies of disasters of man, animal and the natural world. A unique way of image construction is developed by Jiang Hai in his more recent works, where double images are formed by human bodies that imitate natural objects or industrial objects. Human beings are shaped in combination with cows, pigs, insects and helicopters. What we experience in Jiang’s paintings is change within non-change and non-change within change. But at the very core of Jiang Hai’s painting is always man himself. His work is a visualization of the concept of man as naked body. Such concept represents that man are often invisible in modern life, in which man’s true image and ideas as well as his true personality are often hidden. The theme of vanishing man replaced by objects is more obviously expressed in his 2007 On the Edge of Vision and 2008 States of Objects series.

In his Engines of Objects series, Jiang Hai uses human bodies as compositional framework. They are intertwined as crossing and overlapping lines. Relaxing colors are used against green backgrounds, which offers a sense of visual adjustment. The bodies are formed more like industrial machines. The circles could be imitations of magnifiers, round fans or instruments. Acrobatic bodies are formed with strong sense of motion. Bright pinkish colors appear to be more freely applied than the colors in the artist’s earlier paintings. In the Swirling series, human bodies form helicopters that are suspended in the sky.

In Jiang Hai’s work, human bodies are formed as part of the objective world. This double image is the unique creation of Jiang Hai. The images of human beings do not exist simply with the objective world, but rather as constituting materials of the objects. Although one may be tempted to understand this imagery as representing the unification of man and nature as in the Chinese traditional culture, it is more likely a modern allegory of man absorbed into what he has created. This reminds us of Michelangelo’s ceiling painting at the Sistine Chapel, where Adam weakly reaches out his hand to receive God’s touch. This is the classical idealization of God creating human being, who was then placed on top of all objects of the world. In the modern context, however, human beings have become part of what they are manufacturing. This is very much like what Lu Xun described about his career as a writer when he said what he ate was grass but what he contributed was milk. Likewise, in Jiang Hai’s painting, man produces industrial products and consumption goods at the very cost of human labor with their blood and flesh. Thus, human blood and flesh has become part of these products which in turn are products of flesh and blood. This constitutes the landscape of life and desire of our modern world.

The art of Jiang Hai is not simply an abstract expression of spirit, not it is a documentary record of modern life. But rather, he uses a kind of abstract expressionist method in dealing with issues related to subjectivity in image-making of art. As producer of images, the artist is the subject of pictorial forms, who creates images that transcend real life. The subjectivity in image-making enables us to be freed not only from reality but also from linguistic practice in order to enter a different spiritual space. It is in such a process of pursuing the freedom of image-making that Jiang Hai has his internal conflicts released. His art not only comments on the inflating desire of our time, but also reassures our confidence and hope in life.

May 29, 2010

[*] Yin Shuangxi is a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, where he is also the deputy editor-in-chief of Art Research.

[Editor] Elemy Liu