Origin: I made Qi Lan’s acquaintance in Shanghai by the introduction of the painter He Gong about ten years ago. we lived far from each other, and occasionally met and talked for brief time. Over the past years we have been exchanging letters and opinions on art, academics, current affairs and people as two bookish men chatting for fun. Two years ago, Qi Lan invited me to his solo exhibition “Bye, Mr. Dong Qichang” at A Thousand Plateaus Art Space in Chengdu. His paintings and letters stood out from what I could normally see, impressed me a lot and triggered my thought of curating an exhibition for him. That is why “A New Step, A New Boundary”is held at the Guangdong Museum of Art.
Qi Lan is a versatile person. His profound knowledge in the western and eastern art history and his deep connoisseurship in antiques such as seal stones add to the special taste, character and spirit of his paintings and writings which are related to his life experience in Sichuan Province and Jiangnan Region, and are resulted from his sincere and bold exploration in art and his transcendence over painting skills.
Last month Qi Lan wrote me a letter in which he recounted his thoughts on life and art since he moved to Jiangnan Region 20 years ago. He said he was a person of low EQ and knew little about social networking, and that was why he could still keep a sincere and free heart. His reflections on the tough times in his life resonates with me, and deepens my understanding of how difficult it is to pursue art in the this restless and noisy contemporary time. Reading his letter gave me the impetus to meet him right away for a long talk, but unfortunately my health problem stopped me. What I could do is to have a aerial dialogue with him by stringing up my recent thoughts in this article.
“A New Step, A New Boundary”: Most of his paintings are landscapes, with a touch of antiquity which shows his relation to and emulation of the ancient painting masters. However, what can be felt more strongly in his paintings is loneliness and isolation that can be felt in the wilderness, which in fact is the manifestation of the painter’s mood. Since the time of Cézanne, the term “landscape” in painting history has evolved from the faithful depiction to the mixed product of light /shadow, texture,and form; while in Chinese literati paintings, painters make a name for the the mountains and rivers and endow the physical scenery with subjective feelings, and turn their paintings into the representations of their mood and their experience in the nature and in the world. Therefore, a new step would bring about a new scene and new mood, and the landscape is fashioned by the mood of the painter.
Qi Lan’s paintings aim for the high and the ancient. His challenge is that he not only respects the tradition and standards in painting history, but also breaks down the barriers through his own observation and study. This is as difficult as "dancing in chains", a quote from Wen Yiduo. I always think that an artist’s work must be graded by difficulty regardless of times and places. Perhaps we can examine Qi Lan's paintings in the language system of art history. In fact, “A New Step, A New Boundary” does not care so much about the theme of “scenery” as his own painting language and the new possibility in the context of painting history. The solitude revealed through Qi Lan’s paintings is the evidence of his persistent and painstaking art exploration like a lonely traveller trekking in the deep mountains or an old monk sitting in meditation. That somewhat explains the meaning of the exhibition title.
Mountains and rivers are distant: Qi Lan’s paintings, especially those before the exhibition of“Bye, Dong Qichang”(2013) are rough sketches of such natural objects as mountains and rivers, and clouds and trees, hovering between the representational and abstract poles. In those paintings, the physical appearance of things and painting rules can be detected, and the narrative outweighs language.They are more suitable for close look instead of distance view. His later works, still focusing on landscapes, features mountains and trees as if they can hardly be recognized. They remind me of the style of Huang Binhong and Paul Cézanne’s later works. They are abstract art without losing appearance of things. In fact, whether a painting is suitable to be viewed from far or near is decided by the interest and taste of the painters and the audience. The paintings which deserve a distant view usually have good overall structure and special artistic flavor, while those which deserve a close look must excel at color application and stroke techniques. A good painting must be able to withstand such scrutiny. His recent works, such as “Dongpo relics, paper-based comprehensive material, 90 × 138cm, 2016-2018 ”, “Shenshantu (The Leftover Mountains), Jiangnan 20 years, cloth surface composite material, 150 × 180cm, 2018”, are such excellent works. How can the mountains and rivers be "distant" without being stripped of their appearance? Because the landscape is somewhere else. The poet Arthur Rimbaud said, “The true life is absent; we are not in the world.”The landscape under the brush of Qi Lan is the world where the artist's poetic heart resides. By going in and out of this world, painters and poets can depict it and observe it. I wonder if Qi Lan agree with me on this point.
Cultivation, wild nature and “taking action without much ado”:In his letter to me, Qi Lan described himself as “low emotional quotient”, “lack of rational and calm thinking and judgment”, and said “his nature is not made for gentle Chinese painting.”He thought he was not suitable for the literati gentle tradition, and his wild nature sooner or later would show up. After years of studying traditional Chinese painting, he confessed, “Cultivation has not changed my nature. The inborn nature, the innate stubbornness, the rebellious,straightforward and even rude brush strokes can’t to be tamed.”Around 2004 he turned to experiment with comprehensive media.
The path and method of making the turn is to borrow from the western artists such as Giacometti,Georges Baselitz,Paul Cézanne, Chaim Soutine, Oskar Kokoschka, Marc chagall, and Piere Bonnard. Those “heterogeneous” visual resources are employed to disintegrate traditional Chinese painting, especially the overload of old ideological traces and affected rhetoric in the literati painting, with the purpose to reactivate and reconstruct the tradition. Qi Lan believes that the puncture, division, compression, the interlocking of trace and absence, the interweaving of order and disorder, the interplay of analysis and interference in the works of the western artists is a disaster for Chinese painting. However, they have brought to him so much stimulation, unfamiliarity, impact and discovery that make his heart beat fast enough to be on the verge of shock.
With a close examination of Qi Lan’s works after 2004, it is not difficult to see that the change is a language adjustment in terms of aesthetic taste, rather than Dadaist "anti-aesthetic" turn. As far as the aforementioned western modern classical artists are concerned, they are all "formalists", who show different inclinations in style: Giacometti, Bartholitz, Soutine, Kokoska tend to make their paintings expressive and corporeal, Chagall, Bonnard focus more on the pictorial quality and color, while Cezanne remains an isolated case.
The relationship between nature and cultivation is in fact a relationship between instinct and civilization. Civilization’s disciplining of instinct is deeply rooted in the undercurrent of art history. Qi Lan reads extensively and is well-versed in art history. For him, although cultivation is what he now resents, it still goes with his body and his growth, just like wild nature and the attitude of“taking action without much ado” go with his body and growth. This is a contradiction of “attacking your shield with your spear”. Perhaps this contradiction and entanglement will create a subversive tension, and open up a new painting language and new direction in art? Qi Lan is still a modernist with deep cultural root and artistic taste.He does not call for "anti-culture",and wild nature and the attitude of “taking action without much ado” is what he admires in his cultural pursuit and artistic ideal. “Going into battle stripped to the waist”means getting rid of all disguises and finally arriving at the realm of forgetting both oneself and the things, which is advocated by Chuang Tzu.
The relationship between heaven and man, and the change of the ancient and the present: We find similar expressions in In The Historical Records: Sima Xiangru's Biography and Hanshu: Sima Qian's Biography that“ It is important to examine the relationship between heaven and man, and study the changes of the ancient and the present before one can create a theory of one’s own”.
If a painter wants to establish his own theory in art history, he must examine the relationship between heaven and man, and study the changes of the ancient and the present. The former serves as the coordinate in space while the latter as the direction in time, and the convergence point of the two is the position of an artist. It is easier to discuss about Qi Lan and his paintings by turning back to the discourse of Chinese culture.
To construct the language logic in an artist's personal art history involves not only the restatement of history and the reconstruction of language components, but also his thoughts and expression on art and times through his individual art language. Qi Lan’s paintings are no exception, and his paintings try to respond to these questions.Specifically, reinterpreting and activating the corporeal "wild" tradition is one of his recent directions. He is not the first one to start this direction, since there has been much discussion on this proposition by many western and eastern artists. The crux of the problem is that if the dual opposition between "heaven and man", or "the ancient and the present" dominate the paintings of Qi Lan, then individual life and mind would inevitably degenerates into the ruins of the ancient and modern changes and the afterglow of civilization.The core of painting and poetry lies in the transcendence of man's imitation of nature. The propositions, such as the ancient and present changes, and the relationship between heaven and man, contain unlimited messages. In order to see the historical and practical problems in the development of Chinese contemporary art itself, it is necessary to look at Qi Lan’s paintings by stepping out of the dual context of Chinese and Western painting from time to time. Responding to these questions with personal experience and practice is the starting point of the logical construction of personal language. From this point of view, the artists who reject the trends of the times and return to painting language find a shelter for their individualism in painting language instead of any external thing. Qi Lan and the artists who try to escape from the trends of times are on the same path leading to language.
Approaching the Tao by honing skill: Skill can lead to the Tao, AND art can lead to the God. There seem to be a secret channel between skill/art and the Tao/the God.
Qi Lan pays much attention to painting media such as paper and pigments, as well as hand feeling. His so-called “hand feeling”, according to my understanding, is the muscle memory that has been acquired over years through professional training. It is clear that “form” and “heart” in the art creation are indispensable. In order to make mind operate well, the body must keep honing skills for long time before it can fulfil the task with ease. The longer you learn, the more specialized your skills will be. A story in Chuang Tzu: Health Keeper tells us that Pao Ding is an expert at slaughtering and chopping cows, and what he cares is the Tao, which goes beyond the chopping skills.
Huang Xiufu in the Northern Song Dynasty graded the paintings into “Yi”(ingenious), “Shen”(wonderful) “Miao”(excellent) and “Neng”(able), with“Yi”ranking above the other three. Of the four categories, “Neng”is at the bottom, which means a painter who is able to paint with skill is only a craftsman. “On Painting in Dongzhuang” written by Wang Yu in the Qing Dynasty pointed out that a painter should learn the essence of the ancient paintings by transcending skills.
Art begins where skill ends. Each of Qi Lan's paintings has its own logical relationship,piled upon one another like archaeological strata. He believes that sooner or later his paintings can be understood by the right persons. Many wonderful things in the world are not told, but discovered by chance: this is “communicating with God”, and “approaching the Tao”. People usually forget the means by which the end is attained, but the accidental and unexpected discovery depends on the secret channel of skill. Qi Lan’s path of approaching the Tao through practice and skill reveals his high artistic interest.
“Asking Heaven”: Qi Lan likes Taoism, and his paintings speak of Taoist spirit and the Taoist ideal of “leaving all things”.The philosophy of speaking to heaven and earth is called by Chuang Tzu as“transformation of material”or “equality of all things”. The purpose of “equalizing” is not to eliminate the opposition between people and things, but to open up the hidden channels between people and things. This spirit is to return to nature, that is, to resettle people between heaven and earth, so as to reach the realm of “forgetting oneself and things” and “the unity of man and nature”. Chuang Tzu’s theory aims to bring people back into the long-forgotten world of innocence and simplicity, and then arrive at the realization that everything is equal. For this I think Qi Lan must have empathetic feelings.
Of the ancient Chinese literati, probably Qi Lan’s favorite is Su Shi in the Song Dynasty, who becomes the theme of a couple of his paintings, including “Stone of Dongpo, comprehensive material of paper, 90 × 138cm, 2015-2018”. The creation time of these paintings, which spans from 2015 to 2018, lasts nearly three years, and is the proof of his perseverance. Unlike those paintings in which he pays homage to Bonnard, Turner, Giacometti and Gauguin, these paintings unfold a transcendental world where you can feel the painter’s pure heart and simple mind and his integration with all the things outside. The“individual”is not isolated, lonely, and all the objects in nature, such as mountain, bird, path, boat, river, are the proofs of how human existence could be eliminated by relocating hopeless individuals in the natural landscape.
Qi Lan’s landscape paintings are filled with full and brilliant images of rocks and hills, trees and clouds, where people have transformed into a part of this vast silent nature. It is free state of being if people can come and go at their sweet will, just like what Li Bai described in his poem “Visiting Tiannao Mountain in Dream”: “People put white deer between the green cliff, and then ride it to visit famous mountains .” It is the way to return to the heart, and then to the nature. Only in the process of returning to the nature can people find themselves, and only when they return to the nature can they find peace and goodness.
In the eyes of Qi Lan, the landscape of nature is a place more worthy of trust than the human society. When Chuang Tzu's wife died, he "sang with beating the basin". Although not understood by others, his behaviour suggests that people should have a broad mind when confronting death and should regard death as a return to life.
Life only exist briefly between heaven and earth,and it constantly “speaks to heaven and earth”. Qi Lan's paintings present his inner light and bring to the audience the joy of throwing off shackles of material things. We are now in an age when traditional ties have been broken, and body and mind have been alienated. Compared with the avant-garde pioneers, Qi Lan makes himself a misfit in this radical and restless world when he tries every effort to get rid of the cultivation he has acquired in order to defend single-handedly the memory tradition of painters’ visual experience. Such painters are morally more complex and aesthetically more profound. Qi Lan’s response to and dialogue with the great works and masters in art history are filled with sincere feelings. As the poet Wystan Hugh Auden put it, The human species is the most intelligent because it can express love with tenderness and affection. Qi Lan’s paintings, his efforts and his frustrations have provided us a precious visual proof of how love and wisdom can be felt in viewing paintings. Such witness and memory will become even more precious with the passage of time.
Postscript: I received Qi Lan’s letter “Jiangnan 20 years”, in which his opinions on art and life evoked my strong feelings. At his request, I wrote this article intermittently in the living-room, in bed,and in hotels during my trips. In the late autumn when I began to string up my writing fragments, I caught a bad cold, coughed a lot at night,tossed over on bed, and could not fall sleep. As this article was written in illness, it does not live up to my expectations. Most of it is about his paintings, and the rest goes to his life. The questions and challenges in this article are presented not only for my discussion with Qi Lan, but also for myself. It is up to you to decide whether to blame me or to praise me. Oct. 6 to Oct. 25 , autumn,the year of Wuxu, Bordering the Beast Studio, Kunming.
Translated by Mei Li