Shanghai Art Gallery - Chinese Contemporary Art

  Put Your Mind to It
by Li Xiaoshan

I feel as if, in this era of ours, so much of humanity’s efforts are put towards exceeding the limitations of human existence. Similarly perhaps exploration and creations made by artists are for expanding the energy and vitality of art. The better the artist is, the greater their desire to create and explore.
People’s first impression of Xinmao is almost always that of someone who’s extremely active. An artist excited by his own idealism, in a present marked by snobbery and an insistence on reality, he needs a heart and will that insist on idealism. This is something Xinmao should be proud of. He never agrees to something without giving the issue serious thought, and he never compromises. He stands firmly by his opinions and never follows trends pointlessly. Throughout the years, Xinmao has been constantly striving to progress. His dedication to his art has given him a merited position amongst his peers as well as their respect.

When I was Xinmao’s classmate in the mid 1980’s my impression of him was one of restlessness. Xinmao signed with emotion. His teacher was both impressed by his talent and, at the same time, a little worried about him because he kept on “crossing over the borderline”. I remember our teacher talked to him directly and indirectly, time and again about this. In Xinmao’s opinion, the most unbearable thing for an artist is banality. The explorer risks getting lost, but even when lost he is solemn and stirring. This is much more precious than producing trite creations that never risk making mistakes. I will argue with people directly when having a difference of opinion, but Xinmao isn’t like that. He may be of mild appearance but he maintains a sharp-cut character hidden beneath, certain that his will can never be destroyed. Thinking of the old times, Xinmao left me with a very vivid impression. Not like my other classmates and friends, I can hardly remember their faces, let alone their characters.
It is a cliché to say that all artists are products of their time. That said I’m unable to think of a more apt manner in which to describe the relationship between artist and era. If Xinmao’s works had come into the world several decades ago, they would have been considered those of a freak. Today who would consider his creations to be weird? Indeed, quite the opposite. By today’s standards Xinmao’s works are mature and calm. It shows how fascinating art’s destiny is in our time. Note that my intention in this last sentence is to refer to “contemporary art” and not “traditional Chinese painting”.

What kind of art is Xinmao working on now? Or perhaps to examine the question more broadly, why are his Chinese paintings “over the borderline”? For the most part I try to avoid this question. It’s too difficult, too complicated and leads you right into a conceptual trap just as you are screwing up your courage and formulating an answer. It is not important what kind of art an artist is working on. What matters is the quality, the depth, the uniqueness. Xinmao tries to build up a new art form against labels and limitations.
It is hard to define Xinmao’s art. People tend to see him as an artist who’s work tests different media. Many contemporary artists take a keen pleasure in this perceived ambiguity as it lets them feel free to express,to use different methods,to produce unexpected effects. What both fail to see is that it doesn’t matter in the least how artists use media. In discussing Xinmao’s work, we should not focus on how creative or special the art is; of course compared to traditional Chinese paintings he seems too “creative” to please his teachers. Xinmao never defined himself as a pioneer, which for us is to be admired most.

The fact that many of Xinmao’s artworks include elements of Chinese traditional art means that some consider them a little bit too prim and proper. But maybe this is indicative of how man's environment determines his consciousness. Many popular Chinese artists integrate traditional symbols into their artwork in order to play the “Chinese” card in front of foreigners and, simultaneously, play the “culture” card in front of Chinese viewers. It is seen as an obvious short cut to success. Some elements have been used so much that they’ve become meretricious for many viewers. Ultimately it is safe to re-arrange these traditional elements in a modern way. They’ve become images used by the artist to cover up the poverty of their imagination and creation.

It is certain that art is the token that reveals all the possibilities of an artist’s existence. From this perspective, as Xinmao himself says, each piece of artwork is actually a challenge towards the artist himself. Perhaps what I appreciate most in Xinmao’s artworks is that he rapidly discovered the pointlessness of a “convenient” method and reached his own point of understanding through consistent experiments. I know that Xinmao himself is always his most severe critic. He expects truth from his artworks and he is always urging himself to reach a higher level of artistic creation.

I have been always suspicious of critic’s opinions and their influence on artists, whether historically or in the present day. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, art is not to be talked about. So what can I say about Xinmao’s artworks? Any answer to this question cannot help but be ambiguous. Let’s just consider this article some personal opinions of an art researcher. I offer it to Xinmao’s audience for their reference.


Exploration of Crossing the Borderline - On Chen Xinmao’s Chinese Ink Artworks
by Lu Hong

The development and future of Chinese ink art is of great concern to many in the academic world. Some believe that the purity and tradition of ink art is the basic premise of its existence. Should we seek to modify the form in any way we will only destroy the unique charm of traditional ink painting. Thus it is better to leave it unchanged, a cultural relic of sorts, to be admired but rarely questioned. Others believe that the changes in ink art comprise an important part of Chinese cultural development and that it would be a cultural disaster were there no ink art in the contemporary field. They argue that the characteristics of a traditional literati’s painting need not dictate the future of the medium. As long as contemporary ink artists make the utmost of the elements provided by historical and contemporary culture in the creation of artworks, contemporary ink art can expand into a larger creative field and play an important role in contemporary art.
In his statement, Chen Xinmao argues that “although it’s true traditional Chinese ink paintings are wonderful, ink painting itself should be “expanded” to change with the times.  The person who “expands” is paving the path for those in the next generation. To judge if this “expansion” is proper is not within the ability or scope of our generation.” (from “Art Critic Documentary”, Page 39, Issue 18). This statement evidences his confidence that not only does ink art have a valid and rightful place in the contemporary field, but also that he is willing to be a paving stone in this process of “expansion”. An examination of the artist’s statements and work shows that Chen Xinmao’s exploration of the medium of ink art involves a process of gradually deconstructing the traditional form. He began in 1985 to mix the techniques of occidental abstract art and traditional Chinese ink painting. The resulting works were oriented towards a contemporary aesthetic while simultaneously reflecting to a degree traditional ink painting. Visually they were closely related to Zhao Wuji and Liu Guosong’s abstract paintings of the same era. Further exploration pushed him to the edge of ink art, to become a revolutionary pioneer in ink painting circles. Despite this “crossing the borderline” Chen Xinmao’s work nonetheless retains those characteristics that are identified as inherent to the medium of ink painting. This evidences his hesitancy to abandon his basis in ink art despite moving towards more mixed-media works.

From the vantage point of the art historian, the problem Chen Xinmao faces mirrors that of occidental cubist artists such as Picasso and Spanish artist Antonio Tapies. They too sought to resolve the issues involved in combining co-planate painting with mixed-media. Similarly, Chen Xinmao uses “non-ink” materials to conquer the soft characteristics of ink painting, creating an image that is at once both strained and more powerful. Furthermore, due to the cultural associations that are necessarily made with the medium of ink painting, the addition of other media to the artists works allows him to broaden its connotation. There is however one point that even Chen Xinmao himself may not have foreseen. Whether intentionally or not, by breaking the traditional concept of “pure ink paintings” with the introduction of new media, he has welcomed the idea of texture and touch into what has previously been seen as a uniquely 2 dimensional art form.

The invitation to touch has of course most habitually been associated with the medium of sculpture. Sculptures, through the use of volume and texture, have often sought to seduce the viewers to touch them. Sculptors themselves are obliged to recognize the tactile properties inherent in their choice of material and in so doing decide when and how to use these characteristics. This dialogue between artist and medium is of course as old as art its self whether consciously engaged in or not.  In order to emphasize the mental expression, renew the visual effect, and satisfy viewer’s visual needs, numerous contemporary artists are using an assortment of new media and methods to enrich the expression of co-planate paintings. Many Chinese oil painters are also exploring the progress possible through the breaking of the multi-media barrier including such artists as Shang Yang, Xu Jiang, Zhou Changjiang, Shi Chong.

Looking at Chen Xinmao’s art it is obvious that it is rooted in the above-mentioned context. Chinese literature, seals, and fragmentary epigraphs play an important role in his artworks. These are melted and woven into hemp and plaster, endowing the artwork with a texture like that of a cultural relic covered in cooled lava. However, in the process of combining ink and “non-ink” materials, Chen Xinmao does not transform occidental mixed media art directly but attempts to use materials and symbols with Chinese characteristics to celebrate the relationship and influence between traditional and contemporary art. The concept of endless time is also examined in his recent works “History Book Series” and “Heritage Series”. These artworks emphasize the effect of texture, material, and composition in painting, and build up the relationship between material and mental ingredients, giving the viewer a brand new visual experience. This unique mode of expression reveals something traditional ink painting is unable to show an audience, which is one of the reasons why Chen Xinmao’s work is garnering increasing attention in academic circles.

Chen Xinmao’s concept of “General Ink Art” has indeed “crossed the borderline” of traditional ink painting’s medium and technique. Although his artworks are controversial to some, none can deny that he has broadened and deepened the viewer’s comprehension and appreciation of Chinese ink art.



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Images of art by Chen Xinmao may not be reproduced without the prior
written presmission of Chen Xinmao or Art Scene Warehouse, Shanghai.