Apparently, Xiao Fangkai's works always bring a feeling of chill and solitude to the audiences, just like the atmosphere that Li Qingzhao, a poet in the Song dynasty, created in Inebriated in the Flower Shade. Xiao is obviously no stranger to traditional poems, and he is quite familiar with traditional culture as he studied calligraphy and Chinese painting in his boyhood. The different experience prompts him to attentively select and create sceneries instead of depicting the external world blindly. It was a bit unusual that Xiao didn't adhere to traditional Chinese painting. But just as he said, "What to paint matters much more than how to paint!" That is to say, he cares more about the concept he intends to express than the media he uses to paint. Xiao is quite sure about his choice in oil painting and determined to become a pupil of Shi Chong, a banner figure of contemporary Chinese art in Tsinghua University, whose characteristic lies in his integration and uniqueness, especially the balance control of the distinct expression of concept and the delicate presentation of pictures. Xiao definitely benefited much from him, and additionally due to the study of calligraphy and Chinese painting in his boyhood, he found his own path in art creation soon after entering the university.
Painting gardens is a significant choice of Xiao, who used to travel to the south of the Yangtze River several times and visit those famed gardens in Suzhou, not only to observe the current situation of the gardens on the spot, but also to sense the profound history and culture with heart. At first, Xiao preferred natural gardens with historical and cultural atmosphere as well as a touch of rustic charm, such as Canglang Pavilion. His expression of these gardens was quite lively and vivid, with ample and delicate interaction with nature. Soon, he skipped the theme based on true gardens and started to focus on how to set the scene and build the situation in his own pictures. Apparently, he is reluctant to present the actuality of the gardens with his works – only depicting the real situation of them. Therefore, the artist even consciously abandoned the flashy aspect of the gardens, but carefully depicted the desolate scenes. "Ruins" is a contemporary topic of culturology study, which covers the ceaseless evolution and transformation of history and culture and is also closely related to contemporary culture's cognition of history. Certainly, Xiao knows well about those descriptions of "ruins" in Tang and Song poems, as well as how they become a classical cultural tradition during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, but the artist is currently more zealous in transforming these culturological conceptions into some visible conceptions.
At the beginning, Xiao values much the creation of the artistic conceptions of his works, introducing the principles of "creating the situation with repeated words" in Song poems, that is, to create the beautiful situation with the accumulation of words. Then, the overlapping lakeside rocks, houses, flowers and trees in Xiao's paintings produce the atmosphere of being sheltered and winding away. In addition to the stress on the overall atmosphere, Xiao also attaches much importance to the expression of details. He tirelessly presents his own perception of these details distinctly and accidentally pleases and amazes the audiences. However, he immediately changes, gradating the matter-of-fact way of "creating the situation with repeated words" into creating the situation with selected scenes by depicting "desolate" gardens. In art creation, Xiao consciously strengthens or weakens the objects of expression in the picture by casting light, which is not the random natural light, but the contrived stage-lighting. Actually, the artist strives to build a more subjective visual structure to distinguish from the real vision of the gardens and to intensify his own spiritual appeal and conception expression.
As a matter of fact, Xiao's depiction of the "desolate" gardens implies the artist's attitude toward history and view of the present in a sense. He respects history and tradition, and on many occasions, he always faces or tells about culture and history with a respectful heart. However, this respectful heart is by no means conservative imitation. The rupture of history and tradition and current culture has already been a reality, just as he regards "gardens" as "ruins". With the "desolate" handling, Xiao intends to establish a self-narration between history and reality, discussing the current cognition and value of contemporary culture. If we concern more about his art creation, the "desolate" scenes he deliberately creates are actually the innermost beings of us contemporary people – something bizarre that is composed of assumed history, fractional reality, commercial infiltration, chilly social relationship and barren culture – although it seems giant or ingenious, it is rather fragile in essence.
After painting the "desolate" gardens, Xiao seems to adjust himself to a more powerful way recently. In contrast to the emphasis on "creating situations", the artist is more dedicated to a freer expression of the subject and picture, and therefore, there is a character of dispersion in his art creation. "Dispersion" is a significant way of solving the complicated relationships and inducing them to define, dialogue and communicate with each other. He has realized the trouble and tangle brought about by the emphasis on "creating situations", that is, it's impossible to cover or even coordinate and integrate these complicated relationships in one picture. As a result, by the endeavor of introducing the principle of "dispersion", the artist extends his own painting to the diverse coexistence of the complicated relationships. On a deeper level, the change of Xiao's art is obviously the issue in contemporary culture. Actually, "the dispersion of culture determines the difficulty and complexity for modern people to experience culture", and Xiao exactly presents and expresses our dilemma with such a visual structure of self.
Xiao proposes that "brushwork is idea, and presentation is concept", which undoubtedly relies on his own art production, but I believe it will have an effect on the whole art creation in the future. Even if Xiao has zeal for theoretical thinking, an artist's responsibility lies more in gradually transforming all the ideas and concepts into specific production. Xiao progressively abandons the integral expression of gardens, but captures ideas freely and deconstructs the original features of the gardens purposefully so as to achieve a new visual perception. The cast of light no longer aims for creating situations or detail description, and it's obvious to see its benefit because light and shadow has transformed into the organic way that Xiao controls the levels or emotional space of the pictures. It shuttles between the pictures and enables the levels to communicate and interact with each other, which composes the whole vivid picture. The brushwork is the core subject of Xiao at the moment, and its significance is that the artist has refined "brushwork" from a painting technique to a painting manner. Xiao emphasizes the calligraphic "brushwork", extending it from one corner of the picture to the whole and finishing it at a heat without any assumption. Apparently, in Xiao's eyes, "brushwork", rather than a pure technique, is the core theme of creativity, that is, the "calligraphic feature" of "brushwork" is no longer the writing characteristic of the "brushwork", but the traces of the artist's emotions, spirits and life, which coincide with his visual expression and spirit.
The calligraphic feature and sentiment of the "brushwork" brings not only the "obverse" visual creation, but also complicated entanglement to the picture. Actually, the overlying and interference of "brushworks" blurs, rather than clears, the whole picture. Colors used to be strictly controlled in Xiao's works, and he even consciously diminished the diversity and richness of colors to achieve the gray and white effect with a sense of history. But they are now unexpectedly active, which creates a subtle complicated feeling of multi-colors together with his brushworks. Actually, the hazy and subtle feeling of the picture is obviously Xiao's practice of the principle of "dispersion". Therefore, when our sights move on the picture, the complicated relationships and subtle feelings are always intoxicating, inducing the desire for introspection and reverie of escaping.
Zhao Li / Professor of Central Academy of Fine Arts, Doctor of Art history, Doctoral supervisor
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