Sunday, 20 September 2009

   

 

XU JIANG

 

We currently live in an age of active cross-cultural fertilization. Chinese culture learns from the West. Western culture learns from China. As westerners like myself learn more and more about the vigorous new contemporary art that has arisen in China during the past few decades, they are often puzzled about how they ought to interpret it. They see things in it that are already familiar – or that at least seem familiar – from the tradition with which they know. They also see things that seem rooted in a completely different set of artistic values.

 

Among the artists who have recently made important reputations for themselves in the Chinese art world, Xu Jiang appears to be one of those who is most comfortable with this very fluid and rapidly developing situation. He is a painter who uses western materials – oil paint on canvas – and who makes art works in western formats. He is also a creator who is intimately linked to the age-old Chinese tradition of landscape imagery, and who, like so many of the great Chinese artists of the past, is as much a poet as he is a painter. His creativity passes easily and seamlessly from the purely visual to a language of signs. The fact that the Chinese language records itself in pictograms, rather than using an alphabetic script, helps him to make this transition more swiftly and surely than any western artist would be able to.

 

When a westerner looks at Xu Jiang’s work, he does of course find parallels with art works he has long been aware of. This is especially true of a British critic like myself. The landscape tradition counts for a great deal in English art. To me, these paintings and drawings recall as wide spectrum of art that belongs to my own tradition. His drawings of the ruined Old Summer Palace situated just outside Beijing, burned and looted by European troops during the Second Opium War in 1860, are a good example. The buildings that best survived the destruction were a group of stone-built structures in baroque style created for the Qianlong Emperor by two European Jesuit priests Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoist. To an English eye Xu Jiang’s images look very much like the romantic watercolors of ruins made by the British artist John Piper [1903-1992]. To a Chinese spectator, however, they are very much more specific than this comparison might suggest – they recall an episode of national humiliation, and as such have a very specific moral content that a non-Chinese observer might be inclined to miss. Another layer of meaning is, however, added by the fact that the ruins depicted have unmistakably European architectural forms. If one didn’t already know what they are one might conjecture that they were the ruins of some grandiose schloss on the outskirts of Dresden, ruined during the bombings of World War II. This means, in turn, that they have a broader meaning in addition to the Chinese historical reference – they are meditations on the whole history of cultural barbarism.

 

Many of Xu Jiang’s works hold complex cultural meanings of this kind. Sometimes the symbolism is overt, as with a panoramic painting of Beijing’s Forbidden City, on which are superimposed images of hands holding coins, emblematic of the threat of commercial greed to China’s past. Sometimes it is only hinted at, as in his panoramic views of the new Shanghao, with its towering skyscrapers. The Shanghai paintings also suggest a European comparison, in this case with the paintings produced by the Austrian Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka during his first visit to London in the 1920s. In both cases the artist adopts a high viewpoint, so as to stress the immensity of the city that is the subject of his painting. Yet here one also has to remember that a similar viewpoint is used in large official paintings produced by court artists for the Qing emperors, where the aim was to produce an image that was a hybrid between a landscape painting and a map – something that gave precise topographical information. Xu Jiang’s Shanghai is an exciting place, but also a slightly threatening one – the city seems inhuman in its vastness. Yet at the same time it speaks of human ambition and human potential.

 

This panoramic viewpoint is also used in a triptych featuring the Great Wall, which is perhaps the nearest that Xu Jiang gets to the traditional Chinese treatment of landscape, with its blurred, gestural use of paint, so that forms appear, then disappear, as one looks at them. What is admirable here is the way in which the Chinese calligraphic gesture has been adapted to the needs of the Western medium of oil paint on canvas.

 

Another series of paintings is devoted to a very different subject – the fields used for the commercial cultivation of sunflowers in Turkey. Westerners immediately associate images of sunflowers with the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. These are sunflowers depicted in a very different way – not in a vase, but still rooted in the soil. Xu Jiang has chosen to show them at the moment when the plants are beginning to die, just before their seeds are harvested to make oil. For him, each of these withering stems has a separate and distinct personality. The general effect of the composition, however, depends on a rhythmic repetition of forms, marching across the entire width of the composition. In this case one sees a relationship to certain varieties of Western abstraction, and in particular to Absract Expressionism, where painterly form float in an indeterminate but shallow space.

 

It is Xu Jiang’s drawings that offer a clue about how to look at these Sunflower paintings. The drawings are made in series. Each series is a meditation on a single visual incident – for example, reflection in a pool or lake. Each drawing extends and varies observations made in the other images in the group, so that the whole group becomes a complete narrative about the artist’s relationship to nature.

 

The drawings are perhaps the place where Xu Jiang’s art is most specifically Chinese. But in these too, as in the rest of his work, there is also an ongoing dialogue between two cultures.

 

Edward Lucie-Smith

 

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