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【评论】The Role of Culture in Visual Reproduction

----A Comment on Jiang Huan’s Oil Paintings

2010-12-07 15:28:31 来源:艺术家提供作者:Gao Ling
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  Jiang Huan’s oil paintings are noted for exquisite realistic skills. Over the years, he has followed his own way, never moved by the fashionably new styles of oil paintings and the endlessly emerging forms of art media and materials. It is hard to tell what attracts or moves people more: his academic realistic style of paintings or his contemporary art which is based on real life and pursues different art forms. As far as Chinese people’s capability of art appreciation is concerned, the academic realistic style of oil paintings, which are reproduced with vivid images, satisfy most people’s reliance on visual impressions. Such a reliance results from the fact that Chinese artists have been introducing Western paintings, especially oil paintings of the classical age, to reshape traditional Chinese paintings which put emphasis on a concise expression of notions and on literary scholars’ inner thoughts. As a painting system which puts emphasis on the use of lines, the contrast of colors and the perspective, proportion and structure of the tableau, Western art is obviously more suitable to the needs of the Chinese society which is on a transition to modern age. Whether democratic republic, or resistance to foreign invasions, or social and political construction of New China, we need to abandon the pure form of self-expression; instead, we should use a more clarified and more standardized vision identifying system to unify people’s visual experience. This tells why traditional Chinese paintings have been trying to absorb the artistic language form of Western paintings in the past one hundred years, yet difficult to disseminate and develop expressionist and abstract paintings effectively. Even in the recent thirty years, China has opened wider to the outside world, the social system has changed, and many new media and genres of art have emerged because of the influence from Western modern and contemporary cultural thoughts, yet in the reality, most Chinese people still regard the truth of art image and the beauty of art taste as the highest criteria for judging the value of art. Dating back, the maturity of Western classical paintings has had a history of several hundred years. Today’s Western art is not completely a pursuit for various forms and thoughts of art. Because of their loyal adherence to visual reproduction of the classical age, representational and realistic oil paintings are still liked by many ordinary people, who are indulged in an art illusion reproduced from vivid images and are filled with great admiration for the artists’ superb skills.

  However, the evolution of Western art in the past one hundred years has, after all, witnessed a breakthrough of classical formulism, an emergence of revolution in art language form and a strong concern of art for real life. Different styles and skills, and different media and materials, have considerably expanded the breadth and depth of art reproducing the real world. Such a huge progress of Western art is no longer covered by a mirror-like representation of realistic objects. In China, in recent thirty years, art has been deeply influenced by Western art, especially with the advent of globalization in the new century, mixed with different forms of Western cultural thoughts and the rapid growth of Chinese economy, Chinese art also sees significant changes both internally and externally. It covers all the stages of Western art in its evolution and development for several hundred years. The form and style of Western art at its each stage can be found in China in a short span of these recent thirty years. This proves that the enlightenment of realistic and scientific rationalism, which started more than a hundred years ago and yet constantly delayed because of foreign invasions and resistance as well as internal strife of various isms, remains an unaccomplished task in today’s China. And besides, the rapid development of China in recent thirty years, after all, presents a mixed pattern of social structure in traditional form, modern form and contemporary form. Culturally, it is more like a pattern of folk culture, classical art, modern art, post-modern art and even contemporary art all advancing in parallel. Therefore, no single technique of artistic expression can accurately represent the true feelings of Chinese people and their visual experiences at the present time, not to speak of communicating with frontier international art.

  With scientific rationalist enlightenment on the one side and intellectuals’ responsibility for focusing on the reality and intervening in the society on the other side, there is actually no need to consider technical elements for a breakthrough directly into the real life, yet in terms of art recognition and appreciation, techniques do not seem to be thoroughly popularized. This, perhaps, is the most embarrassing thing and the most difficult choice faced by Chinese artists today. The current situation of art creation and art recognition faced by Jiang Huan is such a non-linear and leap-forward situation. From his paintings, we can see clearly what work he has done in such a contradictory reality. In his two oil paintings, Pleasant Dream and Fragrance of Stamen, which were produced in 2005, I notice that he has many striking similarities: the same model, the same posture leaning toward the right, the same wandering mind with eyes closed, the same table with just the tablecloth put in different directions, and certainly, the same angle of perspective and the same composition of paintings. What makes different are the model’s hairstyle, gesture, dresses and the conch shells used as props changed into daffodils. In such a closed and limited visual space, the artist meticulously delineates two objects which are very similar in shape. He believes there is a gestalt-like psychological element in his paintings. This gestalt lies between the watcher’s eyes and the world, with the eyes, the gestalt and the world interacting. To put it in other words, the artist believes the limited visual image in his paintings is just like a visual mould, with a unique optical structure, so that the watchers can modify a painting’s image and obtain an inner-heart aesthetic pleasure with the aid of psychological movement when they look at the painting. Without such a faith in the effect of the painting’s image awakened in the audience’s mind, it would be impossible for Jiang Huan to create two works of the same pattern with a peaceful mind just four years ago. He said he would not abandon his techniques of realistic oil paintings he had accumulated over the years. This implies that he certainly has noticed the current situation of Chinese art, not to speak of the mainstream of Western art he has seen when he toured around the world. It is just that he thinks that the realism of Chinese oil paintings is far from coming to its end. The key is how to promote this form of art in his own creations in China where there is a large group of audience who appreciate and accept it, and make it more suitable to contemporary Chinese people’s demand for art appreciation.

  Then, what is the art that contemporary people want to appreciate? To be more exact, what is the art that most people in contemporary China want to appreciate? Is it that a work contains the art value especially the academic value when it meets most people’s demand? And besides, what is the way to test most people’s demand? Is it that we are actually satisfying the artist’s own narcissism and indulgence in self-admiration when we consider this virtual and unproven demand of most people? In Jiang Huan’s later works, we are glad to see his new changes: for example, in his three works Just Like the Sound, On the Riverside and Sorrow at a Happy Night, the delineation of three beautiful ladies and scenes in the closed space remains highly realistic. Yet, at this stage, the artist wants to express a meaning beyond the paintings. In the first painting, the robe undressed on the bed, the harmonica cupped in the hands, and the eyes looking upward ----all convey an overtone. In the second painting, the nicely-clad girl who is reclining on her side is not actually a truthful representation of the surrounding grasses and flowers; they show no signs of being pressed, but an overlapping of scenes imagined by the artist. The third painting similarly uses a short and broken jade to imply a bad omen in the state of peace. This shows that with the expansion and deepening of artistic creations, the original composition of the painting needs to be adjusted to be able to hold the external messages that the artist has absorbed into his mind. Then, a visual composition with a larger holding capacity, or a visual field more expressive than before, is opened up, and the audience’s imagination and sensation are consciously led by the artist toward a direction so that they can re-understand the new composition according to their own visual experience. Indeed, for an artist who has long been engaged in realistic paintings, he needs to change his conception of art merely as a visual shape or a gestalt, but should implant a broader scope of social and historical changes into his paintings, which is a slow and gradual process. Yet, if he regards his art only as a familiar and prototyped visual composition in an isolated space, then it obviously proves what William Norman Bryson (British famous historian of art and founder of the Western “new art history”) said when he criticized cognitive psychology was still used in the circles of Western art until the 1980s: “the practice of excluding visual reproduction out of all the other cultural phenomena seems to have some substantial mistakes. ….The product of visual reproduction is no longer considered merely as optical or merely an impact on the retina.”

  If a work of art does not merely focus on the visual form of visual reproduction and the role of optical retina, then what else will it focus on? Undoubtedly, it should also focus on the whole world in the social, cultural and historical settings. Limiting the visual focus merely on the retina, it is obviously impossible to explain the profound influence of society, culture and other external forces on the artist and the audience who are the main viewers. “As a part of a common space, visual subjectivity is mixed with and impacted by a large group of visual codes.” In Jiang Huan’s latest works produced in 2007 and 2008, that is, in the six works of The Criterion of Happiness, The Same Old Beautiful Dresses, How Far Away Is Tenderness, Distant Waters, Lenny’s Happy Life and The Superman Is Old, we see his deliberate alteration of classical paintings in the background of tableau and in the modeling of figures, and more importantly, his bold use of video resources of Western pop culture in his creations while he stayed in America last year. This shows that the artist follows his own way and begins to shift his visual focus from a mere reliance on what he sees with his eyes to a real society space which is much more variable and accountable. Certainly, the cultural issues contained in the real society will present a more anticipating visual image in his subsequent creations. Though this new image will retain the traits of realism, it will also obtain a more broad space and will promote a transformation of representational and realistic oil paintings in contemporary China, making more contributions to the accomplishment of the unaccomplished missions of Chinese culture.

  Gao Ling

  January 26 and 27 (1st and 2nd Days of Chinese Lunar New Year), 2009

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