Xu Ze, "Homeland," 2012, oil on canvas, 43" diameter
When we think of Chinese art, our thoughts are often of traditional landscape painting. This genre goes back to the documented beginnings of Chinese culture and history. Realistic paintings using calligraphy and brushwork to depict mountains, water and trees have dominated Chinese painting for centuries. It is a visual language that continues into the contemporary art of Chinese artists. Over time, the character of landscape painting has evolved with influences of modernization, urbanization and cultural shifts. "Changing Landscapes" features the paintings of contemporary painters He Ming Ke, Yang De Yu, and Xu Zu, all of whom are from the Sichuan Province, and are generally unknown to American audiences.
Their work bears historical connections to literati painting, dating from the year 960, when the Chinese scholar-painters, more interested in personal expression than in literal representation or surface beauty, became valued. The works here are expressionistic landscapes that exhibit controlled emotion and a depth of spirit. Using limited color palettes and active and practiced brushwork, the three artists use nature to talk about their culture and personal experience in a country that is transforming quickly with environmental, social and political challenges.
Yang De Yu's meditative paintings are often delicate and intimate close ups of carefully studied, practiced and rendered sections of trees, bushes, and rocks with a haziness of light blue clouds floating within and among landscapes. With a color palette of grays, light blue-greens and a pale gold-yellow, the artist's abstracted forms and shapes are not clear, and are ironically reminiscent of the skies over many Chinese cities and countrysides caused by environmental pollutants. Titled such as "After the Rain," "Early Spring" and "Sunset in the Hollow Mountain" depict comparatively dark and dreary, yet quietly beautiful settings.
In Xu Zu's semi-abstract landscapes, at first glance trees, rocks and water are prominent. When viewed carefully, however, we see that the landscape is fractured by tiny figures, faces and cities of tall buildings. In his "Homeland" series there are very small areas of bright blue, which highlight sections of what is an otherwise bleak palette of gray, gray-blue and dark-greenish-blue. In "Fantasy of Water #5," the overall gray brushwork is suggestive of water, within which a head and face appears. Xu Zu's fractured landscapes seem to wrestle with the conflict of man vs. nature, Chinese cultural traditions and the imbalanced impact that growth of big cities and modernization has had on nature and natural resources.
He Ming Ke presents "The Story of the Stone" series, square-shaped paintings given consistently gray backgrounds and a large circle within, where a mythological tale seems to emerge. Chinese women in traditional garb are contrasted against rocky gray structures scored with crevasses and holes. The circular framework creates a world within worlds, and suggests that there is a story to tell about the universal importance of traditional culture.
Artists' personal portrayals of the Chinese landscape have evolved over the centuries, and the subject remains a potent source of understanding the changing cultural challenges presented with the new millennium. The visual language of this trio of contemporary Chinese painters gives an American audience important context and insights into China's 21st century culture that are visible in this exhibition.