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Embracing Tradition: Ink Landscapes by Arnold Chang

December 17, 2005 - March 15, 2006

(above: Arnold Chang, Landscape After Qiu Ying. Hanging scroll, ink on paper, 25 1/2 x 23 1/4 in. Collection of the artist.

 

Artist Arnold Chang turns to the past for inspiration in a new exhibit, Embracing Tradition. On view at the Crocker Art Museum from December 17, 2005 through March 19, 2006, this show brings the traditional ink landscapes of China to the West.

Chang was inspired at an early age by the old masters of the literati tradition (wen ren hua), a manner of painting that originated among elite intellectuals in 12th-century China and has continued to flourish today despite suppression during the Cultural Revolution in 20th-century China. Chang's unique position as a Chinese American artist enabled him to study and practice this style in the United States when artists in mainland China were expected to pursue a social realist style more characteristic of Western traditions and loaded with nationalistic messages.

Chang first became interested in painting at the age of 10, when he saw an exhibition of the great Chinese painter, Zhang Daqian. Chang then studied Chinese calligraphy, and went on to receive a master's degree in Chinese art history (contemporary painting) at UC Berkeley. Forsaking his academic career for that of an artist, he studied with the literati ink painter C. C. Wang in New York City. Like the 17th-century Chinese individualists,

Chang's contemporary paintings and the classical works of the literati tradition present a different understanding of art. For Chang, painting is an act of self-expression that reflects the character and personal qualities of the artist as well as the manifestation of an ideal of nature. The final piece is not his focus, but rather the intellectual rigor enjoyed in the process of creating a landscape.

In composing his works, Chang emulates the way the literati masters have traditionally worked. His art continues a centuries-old Eastern tradition in the West, ensuring that it is carried on to the next generation. Chang creates landscapes that do not achieve a perfect equilibrium, but rather reflect the imperfections found in nature. His carefully modulated brushwork captures mood and dynamic tension, and provides insights into ancient Chinese calligraphy.

 

 

(above Arnold Chang, Mist in the Mountains, 1989. Handscroll, ink on paper, 7 3/8 x 52 in. Collection of the artist.

 

An interview with Arnold Chang led by Nancy Tingley, Adjunct Curator:

 

I know you wear many hats, as a scholar, a connoisseur, and an artist. I would like to ask you to speak in your artist hat. Could you tell us a little of your personal history?

My interest in Chinese painting started at an early age. When I was about ten years old, my father took me to an exhibition of Zhang Daqian, who was one of the masters of twentieth century Chinese painting. From that point on I began to take an interest in Chinese art and, not coincidentally, it was the first time that I began to think of myself in terms of ethnicity. I grew up as an average American kid. It was really the art that made me think about deeper issues of identity. It's ironic that I'm delving into a traditional artistic tradition while many artists working in China today are trying to become more mainstream. (right: Arnold Chang, Majestic Mountain, 2005. Hanging scroll, ink on paper, 56 1/4 x 29 1/4 in. Collection of the artist.)

 

You say that seeing the exhibition of Zhang Daqian paintings inspired you. Had you thought of yourself as an artist before that?

I always associate the experience of seeing an exhibition by Zhang Daqian as being both an artistic and identity epiphany. I always liked to draw and that feeling of being absorbed in what I was doing was the emotional state that I've tried to preserve; working in Chinese painting has allowed me to keep the essence of that experience.

 

So the process, the actual painting, continues to be what is most important to you? Can you talk a little about that?

I enjoy the experience of drawing, that state of total concentration and relaxation that defines the creative process.

 

What was your college training like?

When I went to college, I started as a studio arts major, at the University of Colorado, where I discovered there wasn't much instruction. The instructors would say, 'be original, be creative,' as they gave us a vague assignment. They didn't really teach technique at that point.

 

The method of teaching in a traditional Chinese setting is quite different.

Right, while still in high school I had a teacher named Wang Jiyuan. I went to him with the hope of doing Chinese painting, but he wanted me to do calligraphy first. I had no idea what I was doing, because I didn't speak a word of Chinese. I didn't really know what calligraphy was about. But I got really into the process of doing it.

I began learning landscape painting in Taiwan, during my junior year in college. What I found refreshing about Chinese painting is that there are standards of quality that a good painter should follow. I'd try to draw a tree, and my teacher would say, "no that isn't right, you did that wrong. This line is no good." I liked this. I needed some sense of objective standards, some criteria. Later, I studied Chinese art history with James Cahill at the University of California, Berkeley. As I learned more about art history, I came to understand those standards have an historical basis.

 

You paint in a style of painting referred to as literati painting. Can you explain the literati theory of painting, the tradition within which your work falls?

One of the major tenets of literati theory is that the expressive quality of the work goes beyond the subject matter. In the initial phase of literati theory there was a strong sense of how the artist's moral character was perceived through a painting. In a very Confucian way, a painting is the imprint of the artist himself. By the fourteenth century the attitude shifts to something more akin to self-expression, but this does not necessarily mean individualism. The term literati painting is the standard English translation of a Chinese term, wenrenhua. Wen is literature, ren is people, and hua is painting, so the idea of literati painting is painting that is done by people who are literate, people who write. In essence, the idea was to raise the level of painting to that of the other polite arts, such as music and calligraphy, as there is a distinction similar to the Western division between fine and decorative art. Literati painting is an ongoing tradition, rather than a series of separate movements that are constantly superceded and replaced, as in the West. Part of what the Chinese artist is trying to do is to link the past and the future.

 

When you paint, how would you characterize your state of mind and method?

I have some basic compositional notion, or some artistic problem that I'm trying to work out. Letting the interaction of the brush and the ink lead me through the process is close to the original literati ideal. When I start painting, I only have a vague idea of where I'm going. I start drawing, letting each line and form lead me to the next. I construct the landscape gradually and slowly, back and forth, visualizing and thinking about where I can go with each phase of the drawing.

 

Was it part of your training to paint in this way?

Definitely. I had the privilege to study with C. C. Wang (a great collector, connoisseur and painter) for a quarter of a century. That's where I learned all of my brushwork technique and a lot of my ideas about painting. But, I also recognize that the structural analysis that I learned when I studied art history with James Cahill comes into play. I'm consciously thinking about how to construct a picture, so that it's not just a pattern of beautiful lines, but it also works as a coherent composition.

 

How would you distinguish the subject matter of the literati painter? It's my understanding that most literati painters have painted landscapes.

Very early on in Chinese history landscape became a separate genre and the most important theme for the literati painter. By the twelfth century, the Chinese realized that the goal is not just to make a picture that is photographic or naturalistic , but to display the essence of the subject matter. When applied to landscape painting, the artist is expected to use the landscape to express his own personal nature.

 

What do you want to achieve in your painting?

The challenge I've set for myself is to create landscapes in classical mode, using techniques and materials that would have been available to Chinese painters as early as the tenth century. I don't include specific references to time, such as figures, and only include generic houses, purposely wanting to make them non-specific in time. The response I seek from the viewer is that the work has the look and feel of an old master painting. And yet, one can't point to any specific image or artist that I am copying. In other words, my paintings are based on traditional brushwork, structure, composition, ­ techniques I've learned through years and years of studying old paintings, but I'm now taking all of that experience and melding it into my personal vision of landscape.

I would hope that the images are strong enough, compelling enough, that someone who has no background in Chinese painting can enjoy the works as images that stand on their own. My approach is largely art historical and intellectual, but I don't want to get so intellectual that I literally don't have an audience!

 

Could you discuss this painting?

What I like about this painting is that the drawing follows time-honored principals of brushwork, a combination of dry, wet, light and dark strokes all intermingled into shapes that work as landscapes but also form interesting patterns on the surface of the picture. With a good artist, each stroke performs a dual function. The line itself, any kind of mark ­ a dot, a dry line, a scratching of the surface ­ has beauty, balance, some visual interest in and of itself. At the same time, every mark contributes to the representational quality of the image and is not superfluous; ideally it's performing some role, as a tree, a rock, or in the creation of a pattern of mist, and has a compositional function.

The structure of this painting is unusual, sophisticated and complex, with all these rocks jutting off in different directions, from left to right to left, and yet the whole image holds together compositionally. It's not naturalistic but plausible, believable. I've used the diagonal elements to create compositional flow. For instance, the foreground mass relates to the middle ground pieces, in an echoing and mirroring effect that leads the eye from lower right to the center left.

The composition itself is the result of a series of formal decisions that create a unity through movement and dynamic balance, which is achieved mainly through the thrusts and movements of the rocks. Textural variety is achieved through combining dry scratchy rockiness on the surfaces of the main outcroppings, with a tangible, soft, misty quality that looks almost like cotton candy. I particularly like the way these bands of mist are not treated as negative space, patterned against something positive, but you get a sense of weight and moisture, while the bands also define a clear, logical recession. Resolving abstract issues of form and composition, combined with the emphasis on the subtlety of drawing and layering of ink wash and line is what contributes to a successful painting.

 

If someone knowledgeable about Chinese painting were to look at this, would they see elements of other painters, predecessors?

I would be curious to know what art historians would say the sources are. I was not consciously thinking of any one particular artist. I combine qualities of various artists. If someone says that it resembles an early eighteenth century painting, I'd say that's fine, although I'd like it to be more like a fourteenth century painting. But, I think this is an ambitious work that wrestles with a complex internal structure, and I've managed to pull it off. I'm never satisfied, but I'm happy with that as a record of where I am at this particular point in time. I like that it has a believable recession into space, weight, and a sense of volume and solidity, which I think a lot of artists of recent times have sacrificed for brush flourishes.

 

Could you talk about this other painting now?

Sure, I like to talk about them in tandem, because I worked on both of them over a period of months, switching from one to the other. In some ways they relate to one another and in other ways they are distinctive from one another. What is similar, is the theme that I've been playing with in recent work, the contrast between the rockiness -the textured, dry quality of the rock faces - and the atmospheric mist and clouds. In both works I've tried to play with the cloud patterns, giving them a sense of palpability and fluffiness. The clouds appear to be floating over the mountain, so that you see rocks through them with bits of the rock behind, creating a sense of mystery and grandeur, because you realize you can't see everything clearly since it is bathed in mist. There are actual places in China that give you that sense.

The composition is quite dramatic, with its frontal, monumental rock form, and, unlike the previous painting, the mountain face screens you from the distance. There is not a sense of recession, but instead, a sense of going up, up, up, without letting you see beyond the face of the mountain itself, except the very distant mountains to the right. I was exploring this compositional thrust, a backward C-form. Some of these movements are quite elegant and somewhat unexpected.

Two large pines in the foreground form an entry into the picture. As you look at it, you realize that you go up, soaring, as the mountain does, into the distance. It's not a painting based on any real space or setting, it's just playing with brush and ink and building up forms from brushstrokes. I like the differences between the right and left sides. In this one, a connoisseur might see something of Northern Song monumentality, but if you break it down, you see a lot more movement and flow in the lower section than you would see in Song painting. So, there is an attempt to recapture the feeling you get from monumental Song painting, coupled with the more subtle, nuanced brushwork derived from Yuan masters. If anything, that would be an underlying goal in my painting, which is nothing new, as artists have been trying to do that since the Ming.

 

For me, there is something more treacherous in the landscape than what you feel in a Song painting. I feel as if you climb up that mountain and you would plummet into the abyss. That sense of vertigo seems a later development to me.

Yes, you are right. Maybe like the Ming painter Wu Bin. That's the thing about Song painting, it is still more closely akin to actual scenery, linked to reality. The Song period was the height of realism in Chinese painting. My landscape is certainly more from imagination than reality, and if it's conveying danger, that stops it from being static. I'm happy with that.

 

Who do you see as your audience?

I just paint for myself because I'm primarily interested in my own personal development. I can't know what artists of an earlier period were thinking, but I feel as if I am getting closer to what they were about. Even though historical circumstances were completely different, I think there is an internal level, spiritual or whatever, where people haven't really changed so much. When you talk about human nature, it doesn't change.

 

How would you characterize your position relative to contemporary Chinese artists?

This literati aesthetic theory formed the mainstream of Chinese painting from the fourteenth into the twentieth century, but in the twentieth century everything changed, due to historical events. China, which had always thought of itself as the middle kingdom, the center of the universe, was suddenly forced to reassess its place in the world.

From the mid-nineteenth century throughout the twentieth century there was a debate among scholars about the role of tradition in Chinese art and about the direction that the artist should go and about the responsibility that artists had to their society in changing times. And it's actually been one of the most exciting periods of Chinese history. In 1949 when the Communists took over, China went off in a different direction. The nature of the twentieth century, is one of conflicting ideas and vigorous debate about things like modernity versus tradition, Chinese-ness versus internationalism, all these kinds of issues come to the fore, and are debated among artists, critics, and intellectuals. They are a part of a larger discussion about modernity and tradition that covers all aspects of Chinese society.

Chinese people in their twenties, thirties, and forties don't necessarily know about traditional issues and have a very different world view and experience than older Chinese. Somebody like me is an anomaly, since my opportunity to study with a classically trained Chinese artist, like C. C. Wang, resulted from the exodus from mainland China in 1949. Whereas, if I had grown up in China, I wouldn't have had access to someone like him, and during the Cultural Revolution, they didn't talk about the past and there was a total effort to disconnect from the past. Those who grew up under the Maoist regime represent an unusual historical situation. One can't assume their attitudes reflect traditional Chinese attitudes vis-à-vis art.

When I have conversations with people in China, I realize we are poles apart. For me to say that I represent the true lineage of Chinese artist would be presumptuous, and I don't mean to imply that. The future of Chinese art is up to artists in China, which puts me in a bizarre place regarding the tradition.

 

How was literati painting affected during the political upheaval of the twentieth century?

The Cultural revolution, named thus because the party wanted to consciously break ties with the past, wanted people to think differently, so traditional Chinese painting and music were banished and culture reorganized around a new set of Marxist and Maoist principles. Chinese artists were cut off from Western advances as well as traditional culture. Ironically I had more access to traditional culture than my Chinese peers living in mainland China.

 

Is there a way to separate the aesthetic aspect of literati painting from the social aspect?

That may be possible today, where it may not have been possible a hundred years ago. In ancient China, to be a literatus meant something specific, you had to be educated in certain modes of thinking, and in certain texts, such as the Analects of Confucius. Now it may be possible for someone like myself who is educated, but in the West, to be able to understand the essence of literati painting, even though I have not been schooled in Confucian thought. The breakdown in the social barrier may allow us to think in aesthetic terms.

 

Are there many artists painting in literati style now in China?

In the last few years there is a rebirth of interest in literati painting styles and theory. One of the challenges in the twenty-first century is to take what is valuable from traditional culture, but not necessarily to take all the excess baggage that goes along with it. In the postmodern era, the goal is to create a personal vision of landscape that transcends the old-fashioned, outmoded classifications of East and West, ancient and modern.

-- Text from gallery guide for Arnold Chang exhibition.


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