REVISITING THE CREATIVE POWER OF INK PAINTING
Jizi: A bridge Between Chinese Traditional Art and The Present
-- Regarding Jizis the Dao of Ink Paintings
Curtis L. Carter
June 21, 2009
The spirit of ink paintings is forever set in the solidity of mountains. - Inscription
Today, the faces of Chinese contemporary art appear in many forms. Perhaps most familiar in Western circles at this moment are the theatrical caricatures of the Buddhas smile as in the works of Yue Minjun which first emerged in the 1990s, and the political renderings of Mao Zedong, for example Dong Xiwens painting Mao Declaring the Peoples Republic from Tiananmen (revised ca. 1980). Yue Minjuns painting stretches beyond the roots of tradition in search of a new artistic identity. His work leaves few traces to the literati of traditional Chinese art. The familiar images of Mao emerged during his lifetime and beyond, extending beyond the geographic and cultural boundaries of China into the West thru Andy Warhols famous rendering of Mao, 1972, 1973, mark his unique role in the political and social evolution of mid-twentieth century China. Again, the many different artists renderings of Mao bear little relationship to traditional Chinese art, as they are grounded mainly in Chinese Social Realism or some form of Pop Art, with the possibility of connections to Chinese folk art traditions.
In the last century, Chinese ink painting encountered many challenges. These challenges and doubts, even concerning certain types of revolutionary themes, still show no signs of disappearing even today. For example, one judgment holds that Chinese ink paintings do not accord with the spirit of the times, and are thus incapable of reflecting the perceptions and experiences of people today. If we equate the creative ability of ink painting with the changes in society, we will recognize that ink painting is already missing on the art history horizon. This is one view. Another argument states that Chinese ink painting has undergone more than a thousand years of development, and there is no longer any depth or possibility left in it. All of the creative explorations that had to be made in ink painting have already been made by our predecessors. That is to say that there is no way today for us to surpass our predecessors in the forms of ink painting.
Jizi (1942-) belongs to a very different aspect of Chinese contemporary art that is fermenting quietly alongside other more flamboyant western-driven approaches to art. He and others who chose to work in the medium of ink brush paintings are engaged in a search for meaningful connections between traditional philosophical and artistic means and the present day experience. This does not mean simply painting in the manner of previous masters. Rather Jizis paintings achieve their own sense of originality through experimentation with renderings of pictorial space, varied ink colorations, and brush strokes. His medium is brush and ink painting, or some variation in the form of constructions.
Under these circumstances, and based on modern or contemporary art theory, using ink for painting has raised questions of legitimacy. Although there are still a great many artists who continue to paint using ink, they make no contributions to the writing of art history, or to the theories of art that elucidate art history. As a result, in the contemporary art scene, and in the impressions of the public, ink painting is no longer contemporary and no longer has contemporary value. For these reasons, ink painting in the contemporary Chinese scene, cuts an awkward figure. On the one hand, it is a bearer of Chinese culture, and some say that ink painting, although a strong transmitter of Chinese culture, nonetheless, in todays context, does not receive broad academic attention. But, if we merely remain in place as preservers or followers of the ancient style, that result will please no one, because the creativity of ink painting that we are discussing is not just amateurs playing with ink.
I first became acquainted with Jizis paintings during a visit to his studio in November, 2007 during a visit to Beijing to lecture at Beijing International University, the Central Academy of Fine Art, Beijing University, and the China Academy of Social Sciences. In my first impressions of Jizis paintings I experienced a powerful sense of visual energy, driven by the formal rigor and expressive force of the masterful hand of a gifted artist. Dark inks carefully layered to evoke spatial patterns marked by energized shapes, subtle tones of black to gray to white, and with occasional daubs of reds, blues giving a sense of visual and psychological order to the painting surfaces. Most impressive in his paintings is the extraordinary depth of space with multiple layers of intensity. The images can only be read imaginatively, as they are not representational works based on any real world events or objects, but products of the imagination, intended to activate in turn the imagination of the viewers.
Well then, what is the possibility for ink painting to come up with something new, something that will allow ink painting to continue? Those who respond to this question employ different tactics. Some want to extend the ancient method and carefully scrutinize it in the hope of obtaining a truth of two from the intent of the ancient ink painters. Others want to take a new path by exerting efforts in changing ink paintings mediums to allow ink painting to separate its medium from the load of cultural connotations that it bears. Others are searching the revolution in modern art forms for a brush and ink revolution in ink painting, while others talk about ink experimentations hoping to find a new road out. Still others integrate European style painting methods in order to transform the language of ink painting at its base, and so on.
The ink brush paintings of Jizi are thus mainly based on inner feelings or ideas rather than observations of actual scenes of nature, as is the case with traditional Chinese landscape art. His images evoke visual sensations that function to transfer the rhythmic patterns endowed in the paintings surfaces to the mind of the viewer. In the course of contemplating these works it is possible to imagine the free forms as wind driven clouds, mountains, streams of flowing water, or the clashing of rock formations that might generate powerful disruptions of the underworld. However, it is not out of the question to find in his compositions occasional symbolic architectural forms, or even symbolic animal figures placed quixotically in the midst of swirling abstract forms. One can even imagine the eye of a monster figure in some of the works. However, the main point is to experience the works as visual meditations with deeply spiritual and intellectual connotations grounded most likely in a philosophical understanding of Taoism.
As for art in such a situation, only individuality will always have significance and value. Individuality is the visualization of special concepts. Individuality not only can bring with it the unfamiliarity of visual experiences, but it can also bring about an assault on our concepts. As for ink painting, how to extend the life of ink painting is not merely a matter of familiarity with brush and ink composition but rather a honing of an artistic realm. Ink painting must surpass being an amusement. Todays ink painting demands momentum and strength, audacity not delicacy. Painters must paint the imposing appearance of a great moral standard and, if Chinese ink painting is to revive its artistic vitality, then we must strengthen that school of painters and that realm of magnificent paintings. Why did landscape paintings in the style of the Song painters become enduring classics and are still the realm of painting for which people today long? Because in these paintings there is a type of restrained quality that made them so. Today, we must encourage or allow ink paintings to revive their original creativity and creative strength, and this then requires heroic momentum and vigorous commitment. If we are to continue to write the history of Chinas ink paintings, then we must turn our attention to those artists who adhere to the development of the internal logic of ink paintings.
Like many other artists of his generation, Jizi had to work through the challenges of the Cultural Revolution, which deprived him of the opportunity for a formal education in art. His education in art was acquired by persistence toward mastery of the brush and ink medium through unrelenting practice. His practice was augmented by diligent self-study, reading books on art, consulting with other artists, and observing master paintings in the museums and galleries of Beijing. All of this while working at various jobs including carpentry and designing art- craft works. Since the 1980s, he has devoted full time to his art.
How to respond to the past hundred years of challenges to ink painting means seeing how far the new, creative ability of ink painting extends. In theory we can demonstrate the reasons for so much criticism, but practically we also have to grasp what is necessary to ensure that ink painting appears as a unique, viable art form.
Where do the paintings of Jizi fit into the larger picture of contemporary Chinese art? He belongs to a mainstream movement in Chinese contemporary art concerned with what constitutes Chinese painting, and ultimately, what constitutes contemporary ink painting. (Pi Daojian). The debate takes place in reference to both traditional ideas with respect to this medium and the influences of modern theories of abstraction and expression. This tradition persists despite the fact that the material medium of ink painting itself is quite, modest when compared with the complex formats of the media arts of today. Essentially, Ink painting in a narrow sense means literally painting with ink and brush, but in a broader sense it means black on white, painting of monochromatic palette. (G. Y. Wu ) Its success depends almost entirely on the philosophical and aesthetic understanding and skill possessed by the individual artist. These artists who choose to practice ink brush painting share a desire to create art that is grounded in the cultural traditions of China, while establishing meaningful symbols for life in the new China of today.
The artist Jizi started to study and create Chinese landscape paintings from the end of the 1950s. He experienced the 1950s movement for realism in traditional Chinese painting, and he also experienced the 1980s modernist alterations to ink painting. Likewise, he closely followed the 1990s abrupt and reckless experimentation with ink paintings. Jizi confronted all these developments in ink painting, but he did not wish to duplicate a path or follow another but rather to struggle to paint with the features of his own artistic language. For several decades, Jizi immersed himself in independent explorations and inspired himself by quipping that unless the paintings amaze people, I will not rest even after death, while he waited together with the fate of ink painting itself.
The importance of brush and ink paintings in Chinese contemporary art is attested to by the fact that leading artists of today are involved in the practice. Among these are Wenda Gu and Xu Bing. Wenda Gu co-authored a book on Chinese Ink Painting in the Twenty-first Century published by Shanghai Fine Arts Press. Both artists have participated in exhibitions featuring ink and brush paintings.
With regard to the controversies over the fate of brush and ink painting, over whether or not brush and ink painting has a tendency to return to the classical form, the heated debates about ink painting at present highlighting its own cultural values, Jizi carefully examined and pondered these issues as they formed the foundation for the careers of artists who painted with ink. If an artist did not clearly comprehend and take a stand on these issues, then as an artist he would have no way to develop his own artistic pursuits. In light of this, Jizi called his own creations the Dao of Ink Landscapes with the intention of strengthening the meaning and spirit of landscape art. Jizi continued to use the Easts unique vision in order to highlight his artistic individuality and to use todays visual experiences to deepen the potential of ink painting. At the same time, Jizi did not fall into the stereotypes of the original theories, but made brush and ink the sole criterion for judging, and pondered how best to allow ink paintings express a certain kind of spirit. This spirt is forever set in the solidity of mountains; it allows the audience to come face to face with nature; and it brings forth a sympathetic response to the spirit of a culture. Jizi hoped that these natural environments would be imbued with intrinsic properties that were transcendental, and that would allow the audience to intuit a spiritual energy that derives from nature. Jizi was not simply painting landscapes that only had form and not content. For this reason we say that for Jizi the Dao of Ink Landscapes were explorations of the Dao of ink painting, explorations of the issue of how todays ink paintings could extend and deepen their spiritual content.
The current interest has generated a series of exhibitions devoted to contemporary ink and brush painting. These efforts to extend the artistic possibilities for brush and ink into contemporary art have been documented in numerous recent exhibitions including the exhibition, Brush and Ink: the Chinese Art of Writing, at the Metropolitan Museum of art in New York (2007), Contemporary Art in Evolution organized by BJMOCA, Beijing, with venues at Harvard University (2008, 2009) in the USA, and Ink Not Ink, organized by the Shenzhen Art Museum and presented at Drexel University in Philadelphia, USA in 2009. Numerous exhibitions on this subject have taken place in China and elsewhere. The exhibition of Jizis brush ink paintings opening in Beijings 798 Art Space (June 2009) joins the on-going discourse to establish the importance of brush and ink painting in the contemporary art world of China.
From the aspect of artistic language, Jizi strove in his artwork drawings to break with traditional stylized compositions. On the one hand, he continued a portion of the traditional scattered perspective, while on the other hand, he combined many kinds of visual perspective relationships, allowing the layouts to expand and the scenes to broaden in order to change the traditional relationship between the abstract and the concrete. Jizi opposed the traditional de-emphasizing of the abstract, instead he merged it with western paintings connection of abstract to concrete in order to strengthen the artworks surface tension and the printmaking effect of the black and white relationship, as well as its optical effect. Jizi also boldly uses dead black, and uses the contrasts between patterns to strengthen the paintings overall feeling of depth. As to his artistic sign language, Jizi seeks the natural realm where the great brush leaves no sign and that is its sign. Jizi often uses the accumulation of black method: layers of stain accumulate so that depth is naturally achieved. These brush strokes are both born out of the classical language of ink painting and also are the results of Jizis long years of practice. The paintings have no permanent, set method, but are the result of constantly pondering and boldly exploring. And only after this pondering and exploring could Jizi obtain his accumulated experiences and achievements in ink paintings.
Looking at landscape paintings from the perspective of an Easterner, I often instinctively associate landscapes with the cultural theory of Heaven and man united. As to whether or not landscape paintings possess this characteristic, or whether or not contemporary landscape paintings are capable of achieving this kind of artistic realm, this is quite doubtful, and we cannot assume that every brush and ink painting has this feature of Heaven and man united. For this reason, when we use Heaven and man united to interpret contemporary Eastern ink paintings, we are caught in a vicious cycle where we take what should be the object of research and make it into a conclusion, and use that conclusion to cover a great many ink landscape paintings. On this point, Jizis theme is not simply a matter of labeling, as he does not expect to use a language that is already empty and overused to describe his own artworks. On the contrary, in the view of contemporary Easterners, we need more understanding of and cultural thinking about nature and the environment. In other words, we should use contemporary knowledge and comprehension to regard the realm of paintings that are expressed via ink. Comprehension decides peoples visual experience, and ink painting in the contemporary period requires comprehension and explanation. It is necessary, moreover, to use todays insight to penetrate the ontology and transcendence of paintings.
Jizis revisiting the history of the creative power of ink painting is in-depth research, from ink painting mediums and cultural qualities, on ink paintings inherent viability. This research allows ink paintings historical context to expand continuously to new visual experiences and psychological responses, and it allows ink painting to shine with new opportunities for ink paintings creative power. Art develops freely but with restrictions, so that only by breaking through the accumulated restrictions of the history of ink painting are we able once again to promote the expressive power of ink painting. This is not only an important issue for ink painting but also a significant opportunity for the contemporary transformation of art.
Translated by E. F. Connelly, PhD
1.Truth here is zhendi, a Buddhist term that means the genuine truth of a sage or person of insight in contrast to sudi, the vulgar truth, the truth of appearance, not reality.2.This sentence is a play on a famous line from the Tang Dynasty Poet Du Fu: Unless the poems amaze people, I will not rest even after death.3.In his Compilation of Jizis Aphorisms on Art, Jizi explains that, unlike what artists call false black, dead black has no transparency whatsoever.4.Heaven and man united (tian ren he yi) is a Chinese philosophical principle common to both Confucianism and Daoism.