Understanding the complexity of the physical
world around us and the spiritual world within
ourselves often requires that we come to terms
with the very simple things in life. Shang Xuhong’s
recent Mountain series exemplifies this, as well as
the power of minimalist painting to inspire a
wide range of emotions and memories.
By Dr. Glen R. Brown
Through stark tonal contrasts and the play of crisp non-objective forms against faintly discernible abstract imagery, the Mountain series of paintings of Chinese-American artist Shang Xuhong reflects metaphorically on the distinct but complementary distortions that reason and imagination impose upon perception. For Shang the task of making a painting is consonant with the activity of balancing the pressures of logic, derived from a systematic analysis of past experience, with the infinite freedom of the mind to invent impossible scenarios every time we confront the problem of objectivity. Where does truth lie? For Shang, the question always involves a dialectical response. Somewhere between the indisputable facts revealed to us by the rational methods of science and the murky images and murmured oracles conjured in the back of our minds, a picture of the world emerges in perpetual evolution. Making sense of experience involves a continuous process of assertion and negation, out of which only tentative answers can be synthesized. Although Shang has quietly accepted this fundamental instability of objectivity, the attempt to approximate it in the concreteness of the material work of art has become an obsession.
In its internal contrasts, Shang’s current work undoubtedly reflects the diversity of influences on his education as an artist. Trained in social realism at Shanghai Teacher’s University, he earned his Bachelor’s degree in painting and drawing in 1984 and received an appointment as assistant professor at the same institution immediately upon graduation. In 1987, however, Shang accepted the invitation of some visiting American faculty to enter the graduate program in art at Illinois State University. Developing a style of figurative abstraction while a student there, he earned his Master of Arts degree in 1989. Shang then made a radical shift in focus toward strongly conceptual installations and completed a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, Philadelphia in 1992. After teaching for several years at a small college in New Jersey and the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, he accepted his current post as associate professor of painting at Kansas State University. The Mountain series, which Shang began in 1993, consists of exclusively black-and-white rectangular canvases that vary in length from two to eight feet. Whether oriented vertically or horizontally, the long and narrow shape of the canvases is clearly suggestive of traditional Chinese scroll paintings, a strategic characteristic that is directly relevant to the imagery elaborated in the black sections of the compositions. Drawing inspiration from classical landscapes, Shang fills the dark backgrounds with ghostly versions of the misty crags, wizened trees, and placid rivers of Chinese literati painting. These pale images emerge only tentatively from the black ground, the effect of their immateriality heightened by Shang’s mixing of wax with duflat pigment to create a soft, velvety surface that absorbs light rather than reflecting it. The luxuriance of this surface is important to Shang despite his largely conceptual bent. “It can be difficult working in minimal art forms,” he says, “because they’re always less attractive visually. But I think the visual aspect is important. It’s the first part, almost like a bridge for the audience, letting people into your work and then involving them with the conceptual content.”
The conceptual content of Shang’s work is partly conveyed by the relationship of the plush imagery to the sharp white forms that seem simultaneously to overlay the black backgrounds and to intrude into them, dividing them into irregular geometric sections. Taping off the edges before painting the white elements in an opaque layer of acrylic, Shang achieves a meticulous precision whose effects are generally estimated in advance through a series of small, detailed sketches. In some paintings, he leaves a flat black border around the background imagery as a kind of frame that mimics in negative counterpoint the white bands across the surface. The paintings without borders tend to suggest a more panoramic vision while those with borders function like windows, reducing but intensifying the field of vision. While painting, Shang is always conscious of this distinction. “When I’m working on a large one my whole body is involved with the picture,” he says. “It’s an interesting feeling. And when you look at the piece it’s almost as though you could walk into the painting, except that the white elements interfere. In contrast, the small paintings have an intensity. There’s less of the physical, tangible feeling, but you have a more concentrated vision. Varying the size varies both the experience of painting them and of looking at them.”
The self-imposed restriction to black and white in his compositions is something to which Shang has given a great deal of consideration. Observing the increasing complicated nature of the contemporary world, Shang has turned to a minimalist aesthetic not in order to escape complexity, but, ironically, in order to understand it better. “Simplicity is linked to complexity,” he says. “They’re nice complementaries. So I have always preferred to keep color to a minimum in my works. Everything I do with form in my paintings is part of an attempt to defend my content.” While black and white visually provide a contrast that can be striking in its clarity, Shang is also interested in the metaphorical use to which black-and-white composition has been put in cinematography. “Often in the movies there are flashback scenes in black and white,” he observes. “We immediately recognize that this is the past, because in our own memories there’s always less color than there is now. But don’t forget what people always say about the ‘good old days.’ We tend to remember the past as better than the present.” The combination of black and white, as a consequence, has for Shang associations with memory as a process of reworking the past toward an ideal vision; in a painting, black and white evoke nostalgia and symbolize the state that we associate with an idealized past: a perfect harmony in which all the distressing details have evaporated.
The detachment provided by the black-and-white projection into an imagined past is reinforced in Shang’s painting by the ambiguous sense of space in the background imagery. Although Shang is clearly representing the space of a landscape, it is less clear where the landscape itself exists. Noting that traditional Chinese landscape painters tended to produce translations of nature rather than documentary depictions, Shang makes references to their works as a way of incorporating the idealization that can occur in abstract representation. “These artists,” he says, “went out to the mountains and observed them from the foothills to the peaks, but then went home to draw. When they made the images they created composite views, not unlike the multiple perspectives in Cubism.” The space of these landscapes acquires a mysterious cast that is linked as much to a contemplative daydreaming as to a material reality. “I make reference to traditional Chinese landscapes in order to evoke this special sense of space,” Shang says. “It has the qualities of a dream that you’d like to preserve, but when you wake you can no longer grasp it. In the dramas of Shakespeare there’s often a similar kind of mysterious space created for the audience. It’s not a definite space, a concrete space. I don’t even know whether it exists. Maybe we just expect it to exist. We have faith in it almost as a spiritual space.”
The illusiveness of this dream-like, quasi-spiritual space is heightened in Shang’s paintings by the flat white elements that abruptly interject themselves between the viewer and the abstract imagery. The result is a barrier that not only obscures the view but negates the illusion of depth necessary to sustaining the effect of space; the flatness of the white shapes return the viewer’s eye relentlessly to the literal surface of the canvas. With precise edges and angles that can be measured with rulers, protractors and the logic of mathematics, the white elements suggest a more rational orientation toward experience, one that Shang considers an essential balance to imagination and even spirituality. “I’m not a Buddhist,” he says, “because I’m living in the real world. I’ve always believed that the real world is a requirement for artists. And the reality of our contemporary life is defined by the rationality of science and technology. I don’t deny the important role of imagination. There is a duality to life. We always exist on two paths. One is tangible and the other less so. We all dream but we still have to live in reality.”
Although, at first glance, Shang’s paintings might seem to parallel the contrast of Western analytical metaphysics and Eastern philosophies of the void that inspired Robert Motherwell’s famous Open series of the 1960s, Shang denies any direct connection and argues instead that his works are intended to explore the complementary views of experience that he finds increasingly inherent to people on a global scale. “I am really more influenced by the examples of Andy Warhol,” he says. “The form and the subject in my work only follow content, and the content is conceptual. It’s about how we observe out life, what life is like today, and how we create our sense of reality.” Clearly, this involves a process, a constant dialectic between the desire expressed through imagination or the cultivation of a spiritual life and the demands of the rational mind as it battles to bring about expedient change in a material world through a logic increasingly related to science and technology. “My work is about the relationship between these two perspectives on experience,” Shang says. “In one, the sense of space is expansive; in the other, there is a highly focused view that is subject to a specific order. Because these cannot be fully reconciled, we can never really discover the complete truth about the world. We continually search for it by can never achieve it. Instead, we continuously discover. This is how I feel about my paintings. I’m always open to things I never expected. You do your work and it becomes a life-time experience.”
Brown, Glen R. “Minimal Magic.” Asian Art News (March/April 2000): 56-59.