Far- Leading Silence and Tranquility —The prints of Su Xinping
by Gao Minglu, March 1991, Beijing
In part due to my own experience of five years living on the Inner Mongolian Grasslands, I feel all the more intimate whenever I meet with painters from Inner Mongolia or see works that represent Mongolian subjects. Years ago, when I first saw the woodcuts of Su Xinping in the city of Huhhot, I was moved by his simplicity in style, power in naturalness and interest in life. At the tiem, Xinping was teaching at the Fine Arts Department of Inner Mongolia Normal University, and it had been two years since he graduated from the Prints Department of Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts. The next year, he was admitted to the Central Academy of Fine Arts of a M.A. degree. Since then, we have had the chance to have infrequent meetings, during which he brings new works for me to enjoy. His character is generous, amiable, and with a gentle disposition as he is also serious, quiet and slow of speech. While we are sitting together, every time he finds something in common with me, he smiles but does not say anything. This is quite like the way in which the Mongolians communicate. I sense that he is as innocent and quiet in spirit as the Mongolians. Though he is not a Mongolian in nationality, his work transcends the work of many others that feature minority nationalist subjects. This must be in part related to his character and personality.
The art works of Xinping are not, however, done completely at random. His course of artistic creation shows a strong sense of control and subjectivity. Both his approach and changes in style during his different artistic periods reflects a strong desire to continually surpass his current style in order to transcend himself. From the end of the 1970s to the beginning of the 1980s, Aesthetic and Mannerist styles were a popular style among Chinese painters, and exotic frontiers became a popular subject. Xinping was also a part of this style, as during this period he was at college and had just started to create, making a series of woodcuts with the subject matter being mainly of the Mongolian life. However, these woodcuts stood out in comparison to the works of others', as they were imbued with his own character, resulting in an effect of natural simplicity. This, compared to the works of his contemporaries who distorted for distorting sake, made a deep impression on me with its "transformable" significance.
In 1986, Xinping entered the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and from then on became deeply involved in the working of lithography. Strangely enough, the art of lithography has long been present in (though it is longer in existence in the international print fields). Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that it is a working process, which requires an investment of the mind as well as physical energy. This tends to amount to a lot of strenuous efforts with no results, which deters Chinese artists from pursuing it. After one year of this work, Xinping came to me with a series of lithography. His works had changed to ones that reflected a calm and profound artistic world. The subject matters of his works were horses, cows, sheep and shepherds, all were solitary, yet dynamically invested with much cultural significance highlighted by a deliberate use of light and dark. By 1989 Xinping had accomplished a series of works that continued in this way of deducing motifs and alternating space.
Xinping was born in Inner Mongolia and would go back there at least once in a year ever since he left. This experience gave him a peculiar affection, which differs from that of the shepherds who have lived on the grasslands for generations and probably from that of my own five-year experience on the grasslands. Yet I can still realize and understand the characteristics of the Mongolian attitude to nature, their state of mind and living space in his works. His work 'What Three White Horses' describes is not a horse, but a man instead. In the work, both are silently walking towards the far distance, neither quick nor slow, traveling both by day and night, not knowing the destination and looking as though they were quietly disappearing between the heaven and the hearth. This recalls to my mind the old saying that heaven entrusts man with an important task. Even though the work does not prove to be that rational, it reflects the consciousness of burden of nature and the horse symbolizes Mongolian nationality. Here the significance of 'horse' reaches far beyond the representation of sophisticated and vivid depictions of horses of romantic lyricism. Another work of Xinping's "Lying Man and Distant- going White Horse" appears to be instead of a philosophical sense. The distant-going horse and the distant-extending hike signify the laboring process through the four seasons, while the lying man symbolizes the inactive consciousness of nature. It is a sentimental view of nature, but at the same time, it is not a pessimistic philosophy of world-weariness. In the work 'In a Family on the Grasslands', the artist portrays all the members of the same family, but does not explain the communicating content among them nor offer an obvious plot. The composition appears to be non-centered and the focal points of the figures- their loose and natural quality- is just like the Mongolian idea of family.
The Mongolian nation does not have such a complete and long-running ethical concept of family as the Han. Their family idea is one of naturalism, which believes that the life cycle of man is in correspondence with the running of the four seasons of nature, and that man is the favored son of God rather than his subject. For this reason, the religion of the Mongolian- from the 'Saman' to the 'Mizong'- is one of living and deism instead of death and God.
Longstanding is the heaven and the earth, and the sun and moon are long-running. So vast are the space of movement and remote the stream of time that it is difficult to express them in any literal or pictorial means. In order to understand, observe and obey, the Mongolian nation assumes an attitude of silence to the universal progress of space and time. Su Xinping went to great lengths with his pictorial language- light and shade, perspective and modeling- in order to describe such characteristics.
The space in Xinping's works is imaginative and subjective, as the horizontal line is suppositional: the light and shade is invented, the direction and intensity of which depend on the artist's desire. The sky is always black while the ground is ever white, while three-dimensional perspective imitates the image. The modeling and projection can be shown in complete details, and there is the perspective is not in focus. The viewing points of the figures do not come to the centre, but tend to be irrelative to one another. All these result in an illusory yet realistic scene. And the confusion caused by the mixing of illusion with reality leads to a historical and transcendental association of the living condition of the Mongolian. Such an association may lead to a better understanding of the deeper consciousness of national culture.
However, an artist never wishes his work to function as a textbook. What he does is face his work with his own heart; therefore his is responsible only for his own heart, and therefore he is responsible only for his own work. In this way, the cultural and spiritual significances of an artistic work are communication between the artist and his work first. It is not a one-way relationship from the artist to his work, but rather an interactive progress of constant feedback and revision.
This is the key that leads an artist to success.
And it is this key that Su Xinping moves into with his next stage. Since 1990, he has made a series of lithographs, which, judged by their appearances, seem to be not quite different from those of the last period. But I find them to be in another psychological world of the Mongolian nation. If his works of the former period paid attention to 'objectivity' repeating the consciousness, the psychology and living condition of the Mongolian, these new works have more specifically penetrated into certain aspects of their real psyche. Simply speaking, the works of the last period are much simpler, while those of the new period are points of interest. In these 'points', I strongly feel Xinping's psychology and emotions towards them. What differs here from the last period is that Xinping no longer tries to avoid the self in his work.
Like in the 'Tired Man' (an image of Xinping dressed in Mongolian robe deep in thought with his face upward) there is a sense of absurdism and fatalism in all the new pieces. Every image seems to have been bewitched. The formal logic of continuity and complexity endows the image with rhythms of endlessness. Everything is destined and no individual is capable of action. Individuals obey their role, even though they are undergoing hardships. 'The Walking Man', No. 1 of the Open Grasslands series and 'The Passerby' seem to be declaring this, while 'The Shadow', 'A Summer Day' and No. 2 of the 'Pen Grasslands' series declare instead the absurdity of these facts. In some sense, absurdism and fatalism are products of an extreme sobriety. Fatalism never departs from absurdism. Fatalism means improvement while absurdism means resistance.
The space in Su Xinping's new works is more abstract and non-specific. No assumed distinction can be asserted between the sky and the ground or between the sun and the moon. Images of the figures are identical or of the same kind. Light and shade becomes more simplified and mysterious, with a sense of hollowness. What is more significant is an intensification of the internal continuity and logicality in the movement of the figures, which we have already seen in the last period. Now it seems that we can deduce certain rhythms from the gestures of continuous and regular crawling, standing or walking. Once it is deduced, it seems absurd.
Heaven and earth are eternal, and the sun and moon are permanent, this is the belief of the Mongolians. For those that live in such space and time, they often pay special attention to some natural but particular phenomenon, resulting in psychological feelings of fear, pleasure, wonder, nervousness and so on. This psychological phenomenon is present n Xinping's recent works like No. 1 of 'The Shadow' series and Floating White Clouds. Contrary to the Mongolian ideal of 'profoundly blending with the universe', it shows instead the idea of 'interrogating the Heaven'. To blend is to obey while to interrogate means to rebel. And to obey is not necessarily to be conscious of fatality, while to rebel is based on acknowledgements of this absurdity and fatality. To me, Xinping's new works display his reflections on the contradiction and confusion that this ancient nomadic nation is confronted with when entering modern time and space. What is really important is that Xinping's works themselves produce clues about these significant sentiments of the Mongolians. More importantly, these significances are enlightening for contemporary culture- which is a social responsibility of an artist. Once he fulfills this expression, the artist will attain significance and value in contemporary culture. It is this goal, I think, that Xinping's prints of Mongolian subject matters are devoted to.
Xinping is not the kind of painter who is keen on being widely known, and his works do not seem to be 'avant-garde' in their outward qualities. But he is at times designing his own realm of cultivation, and cares less about the artistic trends around him than about the logic of his own development. However, this makes him in fact- very involved in the currents of the time.
During the period of the years from 1985 to 1987, 'the New Trend Art' happened, but Su Xinping worked alone and in silence. But by the year 1989, his talent began to show him as a promising artist. In February 1989, he participated in the first 'China Avant-Garde Exhibition' and in April he was awarded the First Prize of 'the Grand Exhibition of Prints by Young Artists from the Mainland' which was held in Taiwan, and in July of the same year, he took part in 'the Seventh National Exhibitions of Fine Arts' and won the Bronze. In1990, some of his works were collected by the Museum of Great Britain and the Asian- Pacific Museum of the U.S.A, and in the same year, Xinping won the First Prize of 'the National Exhibition of Prints by Young Artists'. He is now known as a promising young painter of great achievements. The artistic activities of Xinping together with other young painters from academics constitute a kind of artistic phenomenon, which we may tentatively call 'the Reformism' in the modern art of . The main purpose of this group of artists is to preserve the kernel of 'the New Trend Art' but at the same time, discard its disadvantages for favoring romantic passions. They also strive to allow the subjective mind to expand so much so that it results in the conceptualization as well as crudity of works, and to create modern works by fully utilizing and developing the academic language. These qualities can be found in the works of Su Xinping, although his works, especially those of the early period, might cause a vague recollection of Kent and have the sense of surrealism and religion that is characteristic of 'Rational Painting' which emerged in 1985. There is of course, a limit to the perfection of formal techniques; otherwise it will destroy its significance and lose the idea of naturalness, the reason of which is well exemplified by the saying 'Stop where you feel perfect'. The main problem which will confront Xinping and those modern artists who are devoted to reformation, is this kind of limit. For this reason, we may say that in art, there is no 'eye of purity and innocence' but only the 'limit of nature'. If one uses this limit, he will arrive at a state of understanding and realization that 'Language is the significance, and significance is the language'.
I believe that Xinping is entering this state and looks forward to doing so.
It is hard for me to foresee Xinping's works in his next or future stages. Perhaps they will shock me, but at the same time be similar to the impressions I have from his existing works. Regardless, what Xinping impresses me with the most is his silent tension that declares his internal desire to transcend artistic styles and himself.
His transcendence relies on this desire as well as his capability.
Transcendence is the ultimate success.
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