Four Artists’ Contexts
Source:Artintern Author:Qu Bo Date: 2014-02-24 Size:
The four artists have four different art lives and four different tracks of art development. It’s a coincidence that they come across the Chinese aesthetics at the present time node...

Context is an ambience in which things develop and a path leading to the interpretation of a phenomenon, which is different in microscopic and macroscopic terms. Context produced from art is related with such big propositions as system construction, cultural identity and social currents and so on. At the same time, it’s directly related with an artist’s personal experiences. Here the four artists – Chen Xiaorong, Guo Junfeng, Yang Guangwei and Zhang Xue, whose attentions are on different themes, have their own pictorial vocabulary and syntax, and due to difference in micro experiences, naturally have divides in their works. However, exposed to a certain common social context, they share the same generality in their creations. Contexts that are microscopically and macroscopically intertwined are clues leading into their works.

In macroscopic terms, Chinese aesthetics has been a hotspot on which the art cycles in China focus in recent years. Since the launching of the itinerant exhibitions of the Chinese new paintings like Xishan Qingyuan (Pure Views) both at home and abroad, the “new ink and wash” and the “new claborate-style painting” becoming favorites in the market and academic topics, and the “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” planned by Maxwell K. Hearn and currently on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the U.S., as well as some major exhibitions to be held in China in the year 2014, Chinese aesthetics has become a trend. To such phenomenon and exhibition there have been mixed responses, but their existence is an undeniable reality that can’t be ignored. As far as the artists’ personal experiences are concerned, they differ in their spiritual orientation and length, but are on the different paths that lead to the same destination as they all associate themselves with the Chinese aesthetics at the same time node.

Tranquil Repose

In the Twenty-four Styles of Poetry authored by Sikong Tu (837~908), a poet and poetic theorist of the late Tang Dynasty, poems are categorized in twenty-four styles, i.e. energy-absolute, tranquil repose, slim-stout, concentration, height-antiquity, refinement, wash-smelt, strength, embroideries, the natural, conservation, set free, animal spirit, close woven, seclusion, fascination, in tortuous ways, actualities, despondent, form and feature, the transcendental, abstraction, illumined, and motion. And by four-character-per-line poems, he metaphorically described their different orientations and realms. Since the publication of the said Twenty-four Styles of Poetry, its influence has not been limited to the poetry field but widely recognized, becoming one of the original classics of the Chinese art aesthetics. To judge the works of these artists from the visual angle of the said Twenty-four Styles of Poetry, it may be plausible to name theirs by tranquil repose, despondent, energy-absolute, and seclusion respectively.

Chen Xiaorong is good at water color. To discuss art with medium as the criterion, it will easily bog down in the mud of modernism in the form of self-sufficiency. However, medium is indeed like what Marshall Mcluhan said: “Medium is information” as itself is a content and it can express some certain implications. In Chen Xiaorong’s recent works, he mainly depicts the old houses with courtyards in Sichuan, Jiangxi and Anhui. The age of these old houses can easily cause people’s nostalgia or their sigh with a deep feeling for vicissitudes, but Chen Xiaorong’s paintings convey another atmosphere: tranquil repose.

Tranquil repose, interpreted by Sikong Tu in his four-character-per-line poem as “watered by the eternal harmonies, soaring with the lonely crane; it is like a gentle breeze in spring, softly bellying the flowing robe” in tranquil repose but thin, slight but tasteful resulting in a realm which is both insipid and beautiful. By making full use of the transparency of water color as the medium, Chen Xiaorong, with graphological brushwork, attempts to depict scenes beyond the twirling in time: although brightly shiny or mottled in shadow, these age-old houses and villages are set in tranquility and peace on “days as long as the off-year”, not to be disturbed by the elapse of time. These scenes in desolate or light and lofty conception are related to a large extent with the use of purple, blue and grey, and green, blue and grey in slather that are almost like ink and wash, plus the use of brushwork so that isomorphism takes place both in form and aesthetics.


The contents that Guo Junfeng has chosen are related with antiquity too, but from a field of vision and standpoint quite different from those held by Chen Xiaorong. What he depicts are characters in operas in various situations. The characters, in Chinese oil painting, are not new and no more a talk, but Guo Junfeng expressed his despondent realm and sentiment in the course of elaborating the operas by using a dark grey hue over a large area. This despondent sentiment is a sad and solemn emotion shared by “a warrior holding the sword with spirit of fearlessness but distressed”. The sword pulled out but the warrior has no target – it’s helplessness that artists have when facing the great historic vicissitudes. The indigenous traditional culture has been torn into historical fragments in a new situation, which are partly hidden and partly visible in haze-like modern fog making people deeply frustrated.

Guo Junfeng, in his work entitled Ni (Retrograde Motion), depicts a handsome general galloping on a white horse on an expressway, wherein an absurd sense of time-space dislocation thus arises. In the large shadow behind the general there may be some followers, but only one banner gives off a glowworm-like shimmer: it’s an exact description of his actual encounter. No matter what appearance and temperament of the contemporary stars and idols he and his horse have, they are bound to be lonely. In a galloping era, he and his horse are on the wrong way and will finally meet their failure. In addition, they are galloping in a reversed direction, where is their goal and destination?

Guo Junfeng also has some works that portrays characters in operas. I believe viewers who are familiar with traditional operas can easily identify the specific characters from their costumes, make-up and movements, but they can hardly associate these characters with the plots of the operas that they know so well, because the situation – so wild the characters are set that makes the viewers startled: how can the story unfold without a stylized stage setting? Guo Junfeng has more works named after operas, such as the Fengyi Pavilion, the Yutang Spring, and Picking up the Jade Bracelet, etc., in which the setting is no longer wilderness but they still reveal a scene of desolation that can hardly be covered up. Dr. Wu Hung, a famous art historian and professor of the University of Chicago, wrote a book discussing the “ruins”, in which he points out that one of the ruins bears the weight of suspended timeliness, mixes the different tenses of the past, the present and the future. Perhaps the opera scenes that Guo Junfeng depicts can be regarded as such ruins, which can have an expectable future albeit recollection and regret. It’s like his act to name some of his works as Birthmark – the “birthmark” of a nation that indigenous traditional culture can’t cover up with rouge and powder.


It’s fitting and proper to use the words “energy-absolute” to sum up the aesthetic orientation of Yang Guangwei’s recent works. Sikong Tu once chanted energy-absolute in his four-character-per-line poem as “expenditure of force leads to outward decay, spiritual existence means inward fullness, let us revert to Nothing and enter the Absolute, hoarding up strength for Energy, freighted with eternal principles, athwart the mighty void, where cloud-masses darken, and the wind blows ceaseless around, beyond the range if conceptions, let us gain the Centre, and there hold fast without violence, fed from an inexhaustible supply” in a free and unfettered way that Daoist philosophy advocated, according to which he describes a realm in which there is intercourse between spirits of heaven and earth. By using composite materials on canvas and with grand and lofty spatial arrangements, hazy and abstract visual effects, Yang Guangwei brings out a good interpretation of the energy-absolute images of the Chinese mountains and rivers.

Yang Guangwei has always had a fond love for the Chinese traditional aesthetics. Naturally, it doesn’t mean that he has the clairvoyance to anticipate the current social context for art, but it’s because he has studied and practiced ink and wash painting that he has been in the practice of Chinese traditional aesthetics at an early date. However, he does not stick to the specific traditional method or pattern, but tries to use various methods and media to transmit the traditional spirit. In the course of exploration on the way, he realized the richness of the traditional aesthetics and gradually took “energy-absolute” as his chief orientation.

Energy-absolute, in a philosophical sense, is from “hoarding up strength for Energy”, an accumulation of the inherent, natural strength over a long period, but the premise is “emptiness” – empty that it can contain all things on earth so that it can lead to a “turbid” realm. From the perspective of visual appearance, it requires to consolidate, purify the specific things and express them after having simplified them. After the frame is repeatedly drawn, painted and polished, the materials demonstrate their different physical properties or change into texture in the frame. From the view of Chinese aesthetics Yang Guangwei reveals images of unified, changeable mountains and rivers that are free and at ease with themselves.


For a long period of time Zhang Xue has been drawing realistic landscape painting based on the “great mountains and big rivers”. He applies his brushwork in fine and exquisite dots on the frame repeatedly trying to achieve a faithful reproduction of the object with the help of the texturing and scratching method as applied in traditional Chinese landscape painting. Later he gradually zooms out his field of vision and puts his focus on the bush – elements that constitute the mountain woods, and even the booming anemone vitifolia all over the mountains and plains. Some of the anemone vitifolia are laid out here and there that constitutes the texture of the mountains. The reason why texture is used here is that some of his brushwork for shaping has already become independent: brushwork that appears in the change from withered, moisturized to thick and thin has been disassociated from the plastic molding job, having a texture that is easy on eyes.

In his recent still-life series, Zhang Xue uses his brushwork casually extending dimensions at the tip of his brush that results a feel of ease and verve like in a Chinese traditional ink and wash painting in freehand style. At the same time, Zhang Xue reduces the types of colors so that his paintings almost come to be monochrome, with which the independent aesthetic value of the brushwork is demonstrated more effectively. As to the still-life object that ought to be molded, it acts as a medium to cause the painter’s passion in creating his works, and now it’s no longer important if it’s something or nothing.

In Sikong Tu’s idea, seclusion is “following our own bent, enjoying the Natural, free from curb, rich with what comes to hand, hoping some day to be with God”. Creation is something where one can place his sentiment, so an artist should behave as per his nature that he can capture anything his eyes are on and write anything his brush is at. “Then, if happiness is ours, why must there be action?” If it’s like this, we can reach this point, just keep it natural and we will be able to go into a realm of seclusion. Zhang Xue, getting indoors from his field in the wilderness, shifted his angle of view and technique and has achieved to be metaphorically “wild” – a realm of seclusion.

The four artists have four different art lives and four different tracks of art development. It’s a coincidence that they come across the Chinese aesthetics at the present time node. However, due to the contexts of their respective microcosmic art experiences as mentioned above, this coincidence is an inevitable implication, which facilitated the production of their recent works, and of course also constitutes the present exhibition.

[Editor] 孙雯