Today Art Museum, Beijing
13-19 December 2013
by JANET McKENZIE
This, Guan Jingjing’s first solo exhibition, presented artworks from two series created between 2008 and 2013: the Untitled series and the Remnant Mountain series. Guan Jingjing is consistently described as possessing the wisdom and commanding presence of an old master. Indeed, her powerful Untitled (2008) series of black paintings carry the mystery and majesty not of a young woman then still in her 20s, but of an artist drawing on a lifetime of knowledge and experience. Xia Kejun describes her achievement: “The blank plane becomes a receptacle, listening to the massive descent of black, allowing black to begin its own event and gain its own mass, the mass of the soul. To bear this great blackness clearly requires great artistic courage. The blackness affirms the sublimity of abstract painting. This sublimity is not the incisive moment of western art, but a massive collection of empathy, a surpassing and blurring of boundaries. But because of the staggering of the blackness itself and the subtle shifts in colour tone, this sublimity contains empathy and pity from the inner mind.”1 The Remnant Mountain series is rendered in the tempera techniques of western classical painting. This medium, after repeated applications and washings, leaves behind a fading shadow of ancient Chinese landscape painting in a continuation of what the Chinese artist Dong Qichang (1555-1636) called the southern literati painting tradition.
Xia Kejun, a leading arts commentator in China, derives the concept of “stimulation” to refer to the moment of inspiration for the artist, which in Chinese is xing. He explains this in relation to poetry, and asks: “If poetry can stimulate the mind, why not painting?” He is well supported by an excellent translation into English by Jeff Crosby.
“The Great Preface to the Classic of Poetrylists six principles of poetry: feng (airs), fu (exposition), bi (comparison), xing (affective images), ya (odes) and song (hymns),” says Xia Kejun. “Liu Xie’s The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragonshas a section on bi and xing, emphasising the difference between the two: is it not that the other techniques are direct and obvious, while xing alone is obscure? Bi is based on contiguity while xing arouses. Comparison uses closely related things to indicate some matter, while the affective image relies on something subtle to arouse reflection. Xing is established through arousing the emotions, while bi appears where there is contiguity. Bi expresses a verbal complaint, while, in xing, criticisms are made in a circular fashion. The times were different then, and that is why the poets in the Classic of Poetrytook two different approaches. Examples of xing were noted in order to highlight the differences between the more veiled ‘affective image’ and the direct ‘comparison’.”2
Guan Jingjing’s paintings were shown in the UK for the first time this summer at the Edinburgh Festival: Moving Beyond: Painting in China, 2013, which showcased the work of six artists in China: Liang Quan (b1948), He Gong (b1955), Liu Guofu (b1964), Yang Liming (b1975), Wu Jian (b1970) and Guan Jingjing (b1983). Common to all the artists in Moving Beyond, 2013 is the desire to evolve a suitable and authentic voice to describe the present situation: within Chinese culture, this will inevitably traverse the past and the present, the individual and the universal. They are representative of art in China at the present time, but they do, however, represent the independent, meditative artistic pursuits, thus asserting a force for change. Following 1989, these artists also reacted against the western-inspired styles of political pop and cynical realism that other fellow Chinese artists chose to employ, by establishing a dialogue between self and Chinese traditional culture.
Of the paintings shown in Edinburgh, those by Guan Jingjing attracted a remarkable response, being at once minimal, breathtakingly skilful and profoundly moving. She has developed a unique path in her art at a very early stage of her career (she has just turned 30), and is highly articulate. In each work, she confronts a metaphysical void; in each, the mental preparation for the work is often significantly longer than the time required to complete the actual work. She pays homage to the long classical tradition in Chinese culture of painting and poetry, both of which are underpinned by calligraphy. Calligraphy informs the very physicality of each painted gesture: her images are often created as if by a form of repetitive writing, which allude to time and space.
Xia Kejun describes her work: “In her paintings, we can see Guan Jingjing’s formal language: those colour fields are the tearing, smashing or cutting of basic forms. They are unconnected, like the solitary individuals of modernity, but within the reconstruction of the painted plane, they have a miraculous resonance, a dialogue between brushstroke and colour field. It is a musical flow, tearing and folding, opening and stacking, opening up a remarkably rich and moving space. Meanwhile, within the powerful colour tensions, black, blue or red colour tones permeate the edges of these spaces, opening up the space’s sense of breathing.”3 Guan Jingjing’s art is a visual poetry, an art of imagination and mindfulness. Her painterly gestures refer to living emotions, says Xia Kejun, “coalescing moments of the latent chanting of the mind. [Her] painting has quietly coincided with the traditional writing method of the ‘metaphysical fugue’, the silent observational method of dark tranquility, but she has transformed them through abstract writing, giving pause to the tattered soul of modern man.”4
The exploratory and mysterious paintings of Guan Jingjing are in contrast to mainstream art practice in China in the 10 years since she graduated from China Central Academy of Fine Art College of Urban Design. She insists that she could never have pursued a trend for the purpose of recognition or success, believing that art emanates from the heart: “I would never put something I don’t like into my artworks, things like Mao portraits or symbols of the system or commerce. I don’t like political pop. I don’t like its exaggerated, noisy, satirical tone.”5 The development of a personal, non-figurative painting style from art-school training to the present stage, at the age of 30, is for Guan Jingjing tantamount to a journey that could not have been planned or designed; rather it is a question of finding an appropriate means of expressing her life and her concepts of what life entails. She says: “Style follows your understanding of life. It is something that your life constantly creates, rather than some static pattern. Style constantly shifts … I’m not a theoretician, so my approach is not systematic. But every time I go abroad, I go to museums and exhibitions. I went to a lot of museums in America this year: the Met, Guggenheim, Getty, the National Gallery in Washington, and the Menil Collection in Houston, which has the Cy Twombly Gallery and the Mark Rothko Chapel.”6
Guan Jingjing found a remarkably individual style of painting from her early 20s, and now exhibits widely. She has been based in Beijing since she moved there to study (from Henan Province) at the College of Urban Design. She recalls that Chinese art training at the college continued to employ the Soviet style of art education: the teachers’ views and methods exerting a significant influence on the students. Drawing from life and all forms of observational drawing were pivotal to her education. Students were also introduced to European schools of art and to the work of individual western painters. After graduation in 2006, she rented a studio in Beijing and soon began to sell her works.
Although she admires a wide range of western artists (especially Twombly and Rothko), her works remain connected to Chinese traditional ink painting. The connection is not formal or stylistic but, in terms of the traditional artistic spirit, is a philosophical approach. Following a period of working in acrylic on canvas, she has recently chosen to work in tempera. Although it is a western material and technique, her works have a distinctly Chinese quality, partly due to the use of more water and less oil, which enhances the aqueous finish, resulting in an elemental and sensual surface where the many transparent layers enable the base of the work to be visible, what Guan Jingjing calls “a foggy, vaporous atmosphere”.7 She describes the effect of her methods: “The use of water brings a lot of variability and serendipity to the painting process. The combination of water and oil in the paint greatly increases the time required to dry compared to traditional ink painting. The process involves a lot of waiting, thinking, control and adaptation.”8
Her new Remnant Mountain series addresses the impact on culture and personal meaning of the loss of space “that once contained the transcendent, prosaic chants of the literati through the ages”. Her husband, the poet Zhao Ye, writes: “The situation that we face is that the nation survives, but the land has died. Our civilisation was wounded long ago, leaving behind only the setting sun in the west wind.”9 Guan Jingjing expresses her conviction that the dual onslaught of autocracy and modernity must be resisted, and that the Chinese must return to their roots. “That distant, faintly visible ‘remnant mountain’ is a vessel for my soul, an elegy for our time,” she says. She quotes the same artist who inspired the recent elemental and grand works by Shang Yang: Dong Qichang Project (2009), who claimed it was possible to “make a dwelling in a ravaged land”.10
Guan Jingjing’s work illustrates the Classical Chinese view that the detachment of the inner mind and the actualisation of the spirit are the highest ideals in life. For her, the pursuit of an appropriate balance between the self and the outside world also resists the mindless denigration inherent in materialism and consumerism, endemic in the present. “I have always felt that the experience and perception of life and one’s condition far surpass a work of art. A painting is perhaps merely a fleeting pause through which the viewer may gain a glimpse into another state of life and the cultural experiences which lie behind it,” she says.11
No longer required to serve a didactic role, contemporary poetry is nonetheless viewed as a highly principled pursuit requiring a classical education in Chinese art and culture in a pre- communist, literati tradition. In contrast to the political art that followed 1989, which overrode style or method, a number of artists have likewise sought a continuum with the great Chinese tradition of ink and brush painting. It is the unique place of calligraphy in Chinese culture, the essentially visual form of the written language that marks eastern art from the west. In the hands of highly trained and skilled practitioners in China, the methods of ink and brush on paper are being adapted and refined using acrylic or oil on canvas to create a visual language of great power and subtlety. Materiality and method are infused, too, with the everyday and with the motion and mayhem of a society in flux. Allowing deeply personal expression to assert itself in the same work as references to the long-standing traditions that have defined the human spirit through the touch and velocity of mark-making, and on an amplified scale in the case of Guan Jingjing, this results in works that sometimes take the viewer by surprise. Guan Jingjing and Zhao Ye share aesthetic leanings and ideals, and both place great importance on simplicity, substance and control in their respective visual and poetic languages.
“In the west, contemporary painting seems [to me] to have exhausted all of its possibilities,” says Guan Jingjing. “Chinese thought holds that all things revert after reaching extremes. Just as the landscape grows daunting, the flowers begin to bloom. In spiritual interpretation, aesthetics and artistic creation, China possesses its own unique roots and approaches. Though a dialogue between China’s ancient artistic spirit and the modern formalism of the west, I hope to harvest new fruits in the language of painting and visual aesthetics. This will be the direction of my efforts and reflections in the near future”.9
1. Painting to Stimulate the Mind. Exhibition catalogue by Xia Kejun for Painting for Stimulation: Guan Jingjing Solo Exhibition, published by Today Art Museum, Beijing, 2013, page 28
2. Ibid, page 23.
3. Ibid, page 26.
4. Ibid, page 27.
5. Guan Jingjing. Email interview with Janet McKenzie January-April 2013.
7. Guan Jingjing, “Notes on Remnant Mountain”. Email to Janet McKenzie, April 2013.
9. Quoted, ibid.
11. Email interview with Janet McKenzie, April 2013.