Jizi– An Intellectual Chinese Artist
Source:Artintern Author:Wang Chunchen Date: 2009-06-14 Size:
Jizi, as an intellectual artist, thinks not only about his painting, but also about the history he lives in. What he tries to create is not copies of the traditional works or of other painters,but his own unique creation.

I. Art to be Looked at and to be Read

As Chinese art gets more and more international attention, those interested in it tend to seek out those artists who seem to best represent Chinese character within the changing modalities of the contemporary Chinese society and economy. The works that are easy to understand in those terms attract their interest and recognition; they become the symbols of the new China. This means that when outsiders study and try to understand China, they do so according to their own knowledge of the country and their expectations. However, it is not always possible to understand art just by looking at it. It is said that Clement Greenberg had a habit of stepping back several steps from the paintings he was examining, closing his eyes, and then suddenly opening them to find what he was seeking in the pictorial surface. This was supposed to exemplify the pure process of looking, even though, Greenberg’s ‘looking’ was obviously informed by theory and a very particular understanding art. Nevertheless, the basic claim of the Greenbergian approach was that art could only be ‘true’ if it was unencumbered by theory and therefore fully autonomous.
But of course, this is impossible. One cannot look at works of art without bring knowledge of art to that experience. If we want to identify what kind of art we are looking at, we have to rely on our previous knowledge. Often we already have an idea of what kind of art we want to look at. This preference is based to a large extent on the type of art we have experienced in the past and are familiar with. From the international perspective, viewers tend to attribute more or less ideological meanings to art that interests them. Therefore, when the Chinese artists are noticed, ideological considerations are often attributed to them; those tend to be political and commercial, rather than formal. This is because it is increasingly difficult to distinguish art from non-art formally without any references to such factors as politics, democracy, history, psychology or cultural heritage.
The Chinese artist Jizi exemplifies some of the ideas having to do with the ideological judgment of art. If we use Greenbergian method to consider his works, we may feel dislocated. His ink and wash paintings seem to exemplify the continuity of the Chinese painting tradition. We would be tempted to say that they are not concerned with any socio-economic changes taking place in China. This is how the works appear. But in fact, in China there is an intense controversy surrounding Chinese traditional art. Some believe that it should disappear and its death should not be regretted since it is based on the past, looks old and out of date. In China today if one says that traditional art is a dying art, one is labeled a nihilist; if one insists that it is still vital in today’s art practice, one is called a conservative. Whether a type of art has a life or not is determined by the artists who practice it, not by slogans. When we talk of politics, we should be careful not to ignore something as ‘too formal.’ That is to say, if something is beyond our knowledge and familiarity, could we look at it as an art? When we encounter something we are familiar with, do we need to step back a few steps for a second look or do we need to ponder something that is too deeply rooted in our mind to determine what art should be?
These paintings are not traditional way of painting, but a challenge to it. But if we are not in the context of traditional painting, we may not be sure what we should comment on. So we say that art should be read, not just looked at. If we could read the information from the art and its location in the historical moment, we would know how to comment on it and how it should be appreciated. We should also allow for the possibility of a more open, pluralistic art world. If we do so, we will find more marvelous wonders created by man’s mind, independently and imaginatively, not just ideologically. We would also look at art not according to its creator’s name or by its political flavor.
There is a painstaking transformation of traditional ways of ink painting to modern ones. This transformation poses a challenge to debates: theories are based on art practice, not on a-priori ideas; if there is a history of art, its main constituents are the works, not the ideas. So when art historians step into the field of art practice, his eyes are not focused on the fame or commerciality, but on its historical significance. When history is formed, what we are impressed with are the images that are created in the river of time.
Another factor we need to consider is that in every country or nation there are some preservers of local cultural heritage. Without such stores of tradition as the abbeys of the middle ages, we would not have had the Renaissance. So much cultural heritage has disappeared unintentionally or was destroyed purposely. As for today’s so-called ‘ages of images,’ we ought to be earnestly aware of the fact that the precious heritage surrounding us could disappear if we are too careless or just want to be too iconoclastic.
Ink painting has a history and special visual features created by generation after generation. It has its own artistic logic and requirements for practice and appreciation. But it is also open to absorb something new; it can transform itself further. When we are open to art and its living world, we may encounter art that is quite distinctive from the popular forms. Jizi’s paintings are actually the result of fighting both the conventional notions of what art should be and the ideological notion of what contemporary art seem to be. As a kind of imaginative power of human mind, Jizi’s paintings prove that art exist for humanity, for the ever-present history. We could say that those true images of paintings will last forever both for today and for the future.
II. Efforts to Bring Ink Painting into New Horizon
Jizi, as an intellectual artist, thinks not only about his painting, but also about the history he lives in. What he tries to create is not copies of the traditional works or of other painters. Art in China is similar to the situation of China’s social-economic structure that has undergone a tremendous changes and development. Some perplexing issues are discussed among the art circles in China concerning how traditional and canonic Chinese way of painting as well as artistic insights can be developed or refreshed, whether it is practically possible to absorb western artistic practices and understandings as intellectual and artistic elements into Chinese way of art, how historically flourishing heritage is revitalized, and so on. As China has been influenced through the cultural exchanges with other cultures, especially western one, the artists have appeared with vigor and strong feeling that have never been felt before, no matter what kind of media the Chinese artists use, oil or ink. What they do is to emphasize their individuality and their own way of creating, to demonstrate their insuppressible forces and impulses to create individual and true art work.
Jizi understands the nature in his own way: not based on its outside appearance, but its essence. His understanding of art and nature is based on Chinese philosophy. Grand Way (Dao) runs its own course without words or language, but it exists there from beginning to end. No matter how human being is creative or intellectual, when his accomplishments are compared with Nature or Dao, human being is no more important now than ever. How a life exists in nature is not decided by his or her will but by a power that has always existed in the nature or cosmos. When we are in front of it, we need to show our awe more calmly and peacefully. The techniques and artificial products invented by man are never more significant than Dao itself, and their life is no longer than Dao of nature and cosmos. Human life is short, but nature and cosmos remain forever.
Sometimes Chinese threat Chinese philosophy as their own religious belief and practice. All their feelings and conceptions derive from such understanding and belief. Jizi has been working on art day by day and keeps a devotional idea that he would create his own way out of looking at and understanding nature and cosmos. He is like a pilgrim. He proceeds on this path and holds it as a guide to invent his own unique way of expressing it. He is a man who devotes himself completely to what he believes: art as a life is entirely molten into his fresh and blood.
His works are impressive and monumental. His treatment of the way of how ink is applied on paper and how to use brush strokes is very special and distinctive from others. His achievements will, I believe, exert a long-term influence on the way ink painting is practiced and bring more fresh air and pioneering inspiration to the development of Chinese way of art.
III. The DaoTaoto Feel the World
In traditional Chinese painting black ink is of unique importance. It has a 'dark', 'light', 'dry', 'wet' or 'black' quality according to the way in which it is applied to the page. These shades of black can be used as if they were true colors. Black is, in fact, normally favored over colors by Chinese artists. They use a range of techniques to make distinctive use of the subtle shades possible with a single tint; the more ink that is added to the brush, the darker the brush stroke, and if the brush is used to absorb more water, then the effect is light, or 'wet'.
While Chinese ink and wash paintings show evidence of the development of themes, traditionally there is greater emphasis on technique since the properties of the brush and ink are considered to be the substance of art. Artists have to practice constantly in order to reach the highest levels of artistic maturity. It is only in this way that they can coordinate the delicate balance of the use of brush and ink. Some Chinese artists may work their whole life trying to achieve an aesthetic goal.
Jizi has been painting for fifty years. For much of this time he has been committed to finding his own idiosyncratic ink and brush technique. He believes that ink should play a role equal to that of the artist in painting and that it embodies a spiritual quality. He bases his artistic approach on ancient philosophy founded on the belief that Yin and Yang are the two major forces in forming the Universe. Yin is thought of as being the passive, female cosmic principle representing Earth and Shade and combines 'low', weak and feminine qualities, while Yang is the active, masculine cosmic principle symbolizing Sun and Light and 'high', strong, masculine qualities. Yin and Yang, when they work together, can signify change, harmony or contradiction.
The inter-relationship of Yin and Yang is what constitutes 'TaoDao' - or ' The Way'. Dao can be interpreted as a Natural Universal Law that governs the movement and change of the Universe and has almost come to be seen by many as the incarnation for Chinese spirituality. Chinese culture has been firmly molded by the dualistic philosophy of Yin and Yang. The most obvious manifestation of this is Daoism. Even in present-day China large 'Dao' characters are often prominently displayed on the walls of Daoist temples, and they can still be seen on scrolls decorating ordinary people's houses.
Dao can also be applied to a creative context. For example, the art of writing Chinese characters is called 'Dao/Tao of Calligraphy', the art of tea-making, 'Dao of Tea' and medical knowledge is known as 'Dao/Tao of Medicine'. However, even though this word and the concepts behind it are so deeply-rooted in Chinese culture, Chinese painting has never been elevated to the level of 'Dao/Tao of Painting'.
Jizi is strongly influenced by the conception of Dao and has experimented with a Daoist approach with brush and ink. He calls his radical approach 'Mo Dao' or 'Dao of Ink' painting denoting the Daoist inspiration he draws on. He uses ink in painting his landscapes as if he paints 'Dao'. (Dao is approximately Logos in the western term.)
His is an artistic experience that is both profound and spiritual. He paints with bold, black strokes even though the shade pitch black that he favors has been feared by traditionalists as being inactive and improper. Normally, an artist does not paint with so heavy a hand because the paper used by Chinese artists is highly absorbent. If the initial brushstrokes are too dark the artist may not be able to paint overlaying images that are necessary in achieving depth and perspective in a traditional landscape painting; quite simply if the artist attempts to apply more ink the first image is merely spoiled or smudged. It is a different creative process compared to, say, oil painting where an artist can remove an inexpert brushstroke with a scraper, or can just apply more paint.
However, Jizi has developed techniques that combine his own methods with traditional ones. He does not paint over the first layer of ink. He paints dry, light or dark and, particularly, wet at the same time. He outlines landscapes and then quickly shades their textures in wet or dark ink. As a result, highlights merge into shadows, rocks appear solid and immoveable and snow on slopes soft and powdery. In terms of composition, Jizi uses his imagination to transform objects of the 'real' world into ideal, almost abstract forms that occupy 'ideal' spaces. An image may appear to be an abstract representation of a mountain, cloud or of water (or not any of them) to different individual viewers. This is intentional. Jizi wants to offer the viewer freedom to form multiple interpretations of his work; he wants them to become part of the spirituality of his paintings and through this process he wants to encourage them to think about the Natural Forces and Creative Spirituality of Creation.
Wang Chunchen (Ph.D of the Art History & art critic, now works in China Central Academy of Fine Arts)

[Editor] Elemy Liu