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Some occasional thoughts of a mind at leisure

Wu Yiming: his new Chinese ink painting and urbanism Author: Zhu Qi Translator: Kaimei Olsson Wang (王凯梅) 2012

Li Yu, a Chinese scholar from Qing Dynasty once wrote a book whose title loosely means "some occasional thoughts of a mind at leisure". The book recorded the different playful reflections of a self-contained scholar on occasions after he had eaten his nice dinner and drunk a good cup of tea. This is what I think about when I look at Wu Yiming's new ink paintings. They are the dairies of his mental state: it is not that he is digging for the difficult meanings of life; but rather that he depicts the scattered thoughts of his mind when at leisure.

Chinese ink painting of the 20th century has been much influenced by Western realism and modernism in general. The painterly relationship between image and object embodied in realism and the uneasy state of mind typical of our modern time as expressed through cubism have both had an impact on Chinese ink painting. Much of the reform in the Chinese ink painting tradition since the last century took place under such circumstance or influence. However, there are aspects that are not possibly be covered by this reform, such as the realistic approach in ink painting, the abstract form in ink painting and ink painting's anti-nature character.

Since the late Qing Dynasty, modern Chinese painting mainly developed along two paths: one path traveled along the influence of Zhao Zhiqian and Wu Changshuo where the pursuit for freedom of spirituality was worked out through ink and brush strokes. Such paintings have impressionistic brush strokes and engage both calligraphy and the art of inscription in the image making. The other path as represented by masters like Huang Binhong, emphasized the literati painting tradition of Song and Yuan Dynasties. These paintings embody strong upper class intellectual arrogance and Zen Buddhism meditation. Their great achievement was a personal touch in painting the outlines of mountains and the waves on the water.

Masters like Fu Baoshi and Xu Beihong however explored the formalism tradition in Chinese painting through calligraphy, flower and bird painting. The loose brush strokes and the graduation of ink and colour effect in Chinese ink painting although much different from the tradition of Western modern painting, nevertheless contain a similar kind of free spirit. Perhaps we should say at this point, Chinese ink painting had prior to Western paintings several hundreds years in such free experiment.

Wu Yiming however has made a different choice in his approach to ink painting here. He is not keen to follow the formalism reform of modern ink painting tradition as developed by Wu Changshuo and Huang Binhong. Neither can he be situated easily within the framework of ink painting's contemporary reform in the last 30 years. The development of Chinese ink painting since the late Qing Dynasty has already separated from that tradition. We may say that the form of Chinese ink painting is identical to the western abstract and expressionist painting tradition, but that its content seldom deals with the subject of modernity, landscape depicted by the ancient ink painters has long been replaced by modern cities where most of today's ink painters inhabit in. The development of urbanism is an unsolved issue in our contemporary ink painting.

As far as the realism, abstraction and expressionism in ink painting are concerned; they are merely responses to western modernism. Such responses unfortunately have become separated from the Chinese ink painting tradition and thus lack the fundamental support of the tradition. But it is in our times, under the influence of globalization in the postmodern consumerism society, that artists such as Wu Yiming have found an opportunity to settle the conflict between Western and Chinese painting traditions. Actually one can easily see the environmental concern of the Western society today has much in common with the naturalistic viewpoint expressed by Chinese ink painting tradition. We should note how many American abstract expressionist painters were greatly influenced by oriental Zen and employed Chinese calligraphy in their art works. This is another example of how we break the boundary between the East and the West.

Needless to say, Wu Yiming's new experiment with ink painting is firstly, rebooting a traditional form of Chinese art, namely painting as simply an amateur's approach to a scholar's mind at leisure in his natural living situation. Painting has become a type of diary similar to the diary form literature we see from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. They were filled with private experiences. The style of such painting seeks more an impression of experiences, instead of realistic depiction, often painted with strong personal characteristics or style. They record life's playfulness and enjoyment of leisure, such as looking at the branches of a blooming orchid, a corner of a water pond, a portrait of a friend or a pair of dancing swans in a lake. The subject matters of these paintings often reflected a Ming scholar's taste and style. In Wu Yiming's paintings, he has added plenty of contemporary elements from the life he lives in now: a car on an empty ground, the spectrum of a neon light, several landscape photographs, a still from a film sequence, designer playing cards.

The Ming and Qing scholars often projected their inner longings and spiritual pursuit through their obsession with such objects, which often acted as objective correlatives of their desires or state of mind. For Wu Yiming, his state of mind is closest to city impressions. His interest lingers more on the various subjects of urbanism instead of one specific object. Sometimes his cityscape is infused with his memory and reshaped in his mental world.

Nature is far from being Wu Yiming's only subject. Many times his paintings of nature touch other issues such as photography and city planning. Nature in his painting expands to a deeper level because it also has to do with artificial landscape, photographic image and specific setting. Through his impressionistic approach, Wu inserts phenomenological consciousness into our experience of nature. Thus Wu enters a new territory of negotiating nature's role in our postmodern urban life through ink painting. In Wu's world, nature experience has become metaphysical. He does not rely on simple form transformation with symbols of modern society and the graphics of industrial landscape, to reach nature's impact on human mind. His experience has to be physical and phenomenological.

Wu paints human figures with the same approach. In his figurative paintings, human gestures have dissolved into memories and impressions. The Chinese ink painting tradition started by dealing with nature at first hand. Nature is the constant centre in human relation with their surroundings - as Daoism emphasized. The existence of nature inside one's mental world as neo-Confucianism learning from the Song Dynasty proclaimed, has built the fundamental idea in Chinese painting tradition where the figure was depicted as another expression of nature. It was only during the late Ming Dynasty that figurative painting started to be more realistic though the subjects of such paintings often only existed in mythology, legend and ghost stories. In contemporary ink painting, elements of expressionist painting, concept art and performance art are being used as means to reform the ink painting tradition. As we can see in Wu Yiming's paintings, figures have much to do with images from the memory beneath his consciousness. While traditional Chinese painting sees an attempt to modernize the scholar's spirit world as an approach to modernism, Wu's painting turns more however towards the consciousness of the images in their natural condition.

From the traditions of western art, such as watercolor painting, conceptual art and even graphic design and monochrome background, Wu has picked elements that help him to shape the urbanism of our times. Yet still he pursues a color scale that is as simple and elegant as that in traditional Chinese ink painting.

Neo-Confucianist Song intellectuals believed in the spirit nature of human mind. The Ming scholars kept on developing the playfulness of learning in self-realization. Such ideology grounded the beginning of a capitalist city economy in Chinese history. In the world we live in today, we can find such an ideology reconnecting our past with our future, for example the environmental concern has become a major economic strategy in many western developed countries. The world we live in today is getting excessively open; such is one of the outcomes of globalization. This makes Chinese ink painting with its material that is so secret and its strong expression of self-awareness that is so private have a special significance.

The Chinese ink painting tradition has arrived in a new phase in our postmodern society. Instead of seeking conflicts with the tradition of modernism, we are back to where we started. This doesn't mean we are retuning back to conservatism, only it shows that by looking for deep roots in our tradition, we can find new ways of expression in this ancient medium. This is what Wu Yiming's new ink painting has proved.

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