Post-ism: Xu Jiang’s Painting and Its Cultural Relevance
By Fan Di’an
What is “the contemporary” of contemporary art in the cultural discourse? Every Chinese artist is confronted with the question. From the beginning of the twentieth century onwards, Chinese artists explore new concepts and expressions in their encounter with the Western art currents. It has been accepted that compared to its counter part in the West, modern art in China follows a distinctive trajectory of modernization. In the last decade of the twentieth century, the accelerating pace of globalization brought many challenges to Chinese artists; Chinese art, which was still dealing with issues of modernity, has been enmeshed into the fabric of the globalized contemporary art. Understandably, not every artist is ready to respond to new issues and problems in the fast-changing art world.
It is appropriate to label the new cultural condition “post-ism”. Our notion of “post” derives primarily from postmodernism. With the advent of globalization, postmodernism, originally perceived as the critique of modernism, has caused much chaos and confusion in the art community. What is art if the artist abandons the form in favor of the concept? Postmodernism, like modernism in the early twentieth century, has a profound impact on the art world. On the one hand, many Chinese artists respond to the postmodern conditions with anxiety and resistance. On the other hand, the dynamic cultural and intellectual scene since the implementation of the Open Door policy convinces us that the “post-West” era of Chinese art and culture has arrived. We are in a new position to deal with East/West relation. The fast-growing society offers Chinese artists and intellectuals new resources and opportunities. In the process of learning from the West, we are able to critique and respond to the West in a strategic way.
The interaction of the postmodern and post-West conditions has added a great deal of energy to Contemporary Chinese culture. I see Xu Jiang as a resourceful artist who actively responds to this new cultural landscape. For many years, Xu Jiang plays multiple roles. As a scholar/critic, he is deeply concerned with the cultural and intellectual orientation of contemporary art. As a curator, he has organized numerous impressive exhibitions. He is also a good speaker and communicator who shares his insights into important issues in art. He is a tireless educator who brings innovative ideas and practices into art education. Xu Jiang, however, is a painter by nature and destiny. His artistic exploration in the past two decades is distinguished by the cross-fertilization of the artistic and the intellectual. As an intellectual artist, he is concerned with the East-West relation in a historical context with the goal of “building a new and independent cultural history, which serves to build a new identity by connecting history and the contemporary conditions.”His painting, as the vehicle of his thoughts, embodies and manifests the contemporary cultural conditions. In this sense, his painting imbued with intellectual power can no longer be taken as the mere representation of an actual object or event.
Xu Jiang is primarily recognized as a landscape painter. Unlike other artists who specialize in either cityscape or natural scenery, Xu Jiang painted both with equal eloquence. The two worlds in his painting, however, convey different thoughts and feelings. Xu Jiang’s penchant for the cultural and historical richness of the city finds vivid expressions in his painting. His cityscapes with compelling images of skylines, streets, and buildings, recalls a tragedy or epic. The cityscape is not viewed as a record of the actual scene; its blurry, dream-like quality alludes to the transient nature of its existence. Xu Jiang, therefore, names his cityscapes, “Landscape of History” or “Faded or Fading Landscape”. His paintings of Berlin, Shanghai, and Beijing reveal his notion of the city as the locale of history and culture. The cityscapes have moved beyond the representational. Though the subject matter may vary, the artist poses similar intellectual questions. What he paints becomes a meta-landscape, revealing his spiritual, intellectual, and cultural concerns.
Compared to cityscape, Xu Jiang’s painting of natural scenes conveys a sense of liveliness and spontaneity. Xu Jiang switches his role from a philosopher to a poet, who finds joy and inspiration in nature. Xu Jiang’s landscape painting is at the intersection of nature and culture, the intellectual and the poetic, the verbal and the visual.
Xu Jiang’s exploration of the cultural relevance of the landscape painting marks his major artistic breakthrough. On the one hand, Xu Jiang borrows approaches from cultural study in the postmodern context to question the established notion of art. For him, painting is more about the questioning process than the final product. On the other hand, his post-West position helps him to use the native elements, both traditional and contemporary, to absorb and transform the Western elements. His art is at once historical and contemporary. The historical refers to his notion of history as a lived experience. The contemporary points to the intellectual and cultural dimension of his art.
Small doubt that Xu Jiang’s unique approach to art and culture opens up new avenues for painting, which faces the dilemma of following either the tradition or the West. Xu Jiang’s attitude towards the image plethora is also inspiring. He remarks, “This is indeed an era dominated by images. Movies, television, news, advertisement, photography, and video have invaded every aspects of our life. Their accessibility makes them ubiquitous. If you were a painter, you must have enjoyed the process in which you can take time to interact with the object. It is in this process we are able to acquire a good eye and fine taste for what we call art. Things have changed. Today you only need to press the button or click the key to bring the world in front of you. If you want, you can turn the world into a picture…When images can be easily produced and consumed, we tend to forget the artistic and refined quality of painting. In a world saturated by images, we realize that the image age is characterized by the devaluation of the image, more specifically, the devaluation of the artistic and refined quality of the image.”
Xu Jiang’s s observation raises two major questions. First, how to rediscover the creative potentiality of the image? Second, how to restore the artistry and refinement in painting? It is noteworthy that Xu Jiang does not turn his back on issues in the image age. Instead, he recognizes the role of new media art in building a new visual culture, as he states, “new media art actually is a new language in the context of globalization… As a new cultural phenomenon, it has changed the old cultural landscape and heightened our awareness of the conditions in the process of globalization… it offers new possibilities for contemporary art production in a cross-cultural setting.”Xu Jiang is the leading figure in Chinese art academies to promote and study new media art. It is no coincidence that Xu Jiang was the chief curator of the 2004 Shanghai Biennale, “Techniques of the Visible”, and the driving force behind the new media study program at the China Academy of Art. As a practicing artist, Xu Jiang is mainly interested in the ontology of painting. In the early 1990s when he studied in Germany, he experimented with the spatial and temporal elements in a series of installations with chess-playing theme. Later, he decided to focus on what he calls jiashang hua(literally meaning easel painting). His response to the crisis of painting and the rise of media art, is to create a fruitful dialogue between the traditional and new media.
Xu Jiang and many other painters have chose to be faithful to the conventional media. Xu Jiang uses the word shou wang, (literally meaning to guard and watch) to describe his position. Shou wangdoes not mean seclusion. The painter should be open to the outside world and at the same time illuminate the world from within. The critical element in this process is the way of seeing. Xu Jiang notes, “What is actually lost in the decline of painting in the image era is a special way of seeing. Though we experience the excitement and joy in seeing, we are not always aware that our way of seeing is shaped by history and culture.” In Xu Jiang’s view, seeing is an act involving the biological, the social, and the cultural. His painting, therefore, can be perceived as the combination of the actual image, the image of the mind, and the image of the intellect. It is notable that Xu Jiang, as the central figure of the Figurative Expressionist School, is an avid scholar of phenomenology. In the act of painting, the phenomenological perspective allows him to experience the world directly and to see into the nature of things. The grand and seemingly blurry images in his works often reveal something deeper. Xu Jiang’s bigger composition often consists of a group of small-scale sequential paintings in order to involve the temporal and the spatial elements. It is a way to reflect the artist’s perception of the world or the image of the mind. The use of simple palette, bold and spontaneous brushwork, and rich texture reveal the spiritual and intellectual dimension of his oeuvre. In my view, Xu Jiang’s works are remarkable for his personal expression, but also for its cultural relevance to the discourse of “post-ism”.
Xu Jiang is at the intersection of many opposing categories. This position is evident in his most recent work, entitled the Sunflower Gardenseries. The sunflower becomes a symbol of both the cityscape and the natural scenery. In the paintings, one finds the endless interplay of culture and nature, motion and stillness, contemplation and narration. The artist orchestrates images of the sunflowers into an ode to life, where the beginning and the end, the past and the future meet.