By Dr. Glen R. Brown
Since the early days of modernism, when painters began seeking convenient devices for suggesting the conceptual import of their representations, the tendentious restriction of compositions to black and white has been an acknowledged sign of the desire to convert painting into a process of rigorously controlled analysis. Elimination of the vagaries of colour not only reduces the range of variables for which the painter much account, but, more importantly, it detaches the composition definitively from the outside world. The consequence can be a useful paradox. The black-and-white painting is an obvious departure from reality, yet as such it is free to return to issues of the real in as intimate a manner as the painter may desire without relinquishing any of the benefits of its detachment. This kind of ambivalent relationship with the real – a perpetual separation from and simultaneous engagement of, even identification with it – is a distinguishing characteristic of Xuhong Shang’s Mountain Series paintings. The duality inherent in Shang’s works is indicative of his belief in the fundamentally binary operation of consciousness in its relationship to the real. For Shang, consciousness is perpetually split between reason and imagination, and reality can never be anything more than an effect of the convergence between the two. Reason posits an objective world and imagination simultaneously casts that world in doubt.
If the contrast of crisp non-objective form and vague abstract imagery in Shang’s paintings serves as a metaphor for the continual play between opposing modes of consciousness, the contrasts inherent in his education as an artist have undoubtedly influenced the construction of his compositions as juxtapositions of antithetical but complementary elements. Trained in social realism at Shanghai Teachers’ University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in painting and drawing in 1984, Shang was hired to teach at his alma mater immediately after graduation. Three years later however – after meeting some visiting faculty from the United States and receiving an invitation to enter the graduate program in fine arts at Illinois State University – he made the decision to continue his studies abroad. While earning his master of arts degree at Illinois, Shang altered his style from realism to figurative abstraction. Later, while completing his master of fine arts degree at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia in 1992, he made the even more radical transition to non-objective art, producing a series of Minimalist-like installations. Today, each of the disparate traditions in which he was trained – realism, abstraction, and non-objective art – is referenced by Shang’s work.
Realism as a style purports to reflect the world in its pure objectivity by stripping away the ideologies that normally distort experience. It may therefore be inferred that in renouncing his affiliations with realism, Shang revealed a certain skepticism toward the possibility of an objective vision. The real, however, clearly remained the focus of his work. His turn to abstraction merely signaled an attempt to intuit reality rather than to extricate it definitively from a tissue of socially constructed fictions. Abstraction, after all, is a form of representation, and to practice it requires a belief in the work of art as an analogy to rather than actual embodiment of the real. As Shang quickly came to understand, however, abstraction inevitably corrupts the former conception of the real, eventually supplanting it entirely. But if the real could not be embodied through straightforward representation or even intimated through analogy, what strategy remained? Shang hoped to find an answer through a kind of pure rationality, representing the real not through mimesis or analogy but entirely through conceptual information. Ultimately, this too proved unsatisfactory, leading Shang to the conclusion that reality is not, after all, something to be grasped in objective terms but rather is an eternal construct at the point where intuition and rationality, abstraction and pure reason intersect. For Shang, painting would become a medium for testing this hypothesis.
In 1993 Shang began his Mountain Series, a body of work in which self-imposed parameters would be strictly observed and a carefully controlled number of variables would be successively introduced. The black-and-white palette is perhaps the most obvious constant that Shang adopted, but the narrowly rectangular format of his canvases has been an equally distinguishing characteristic of these works. Sometimes vertically and sometimes horizontally aligned, the shape of the canvas makes subtle reference to traditional Chinese scroll paintings, a ramification that is particularly relevant to the representational imagery that Shang incorporates into his compositions. Appropriating the style of classical Chinese landscapes, he renders it as a ghostly inversion, like a photographic negative in which black replaces white as a ground for faint intimations of the misty crags, gnarled trees and meandering rivers of literati painting. To heighten the intangibility of this abstract imagery, Shang paints his grounds in a combination of wax and a black duflat pigment that approximates the capacity of velvet to absorb rather than reflect light. The effect is a visual lushness, an illusionistic textural opulence that Shang cultivates as part of a strategy to seduce the viewer into involvement with the conceptual content.
The obvious counterpoint to Shang’s representational imagery is provided by the stark white bands, painted in opaque acrylic that simultaneously overlay the black backgrounds and dissect them into irregular geometric forms. The precise edges of these forms echo the sharp boundaries of the stretched canvas, and, in some paintings, have an additional counterpart in the flat black borders that Shang creates to frame the background images. When borders are incorporated they serve to concentrate the viewer’s gaze, but when these borders are absent the field of vision is unrestricted, even by the parameters of the canvas itself. Employing the flat white areas strategically, Shang creates a visual continuity between the painting and the surrounding wall. As the eye moves laterally from one surface to another it enters naturally into the spaces defined by neighboring paintings, which are equally flat. The result is a shift in the activity of the viewer from the traditional probing of illusionistic depth to a gliding of the eye across opaque surfaces that are very much a part of the viewer’s own space. Shang’s paintings are therefore experienced both literally as objects of perception and metaphorically as successive moments in a continuous perception of the real. Each painting, rather than opening an illusionistic hole in the wall, implies a more conceptual construction of space.
In itself this shift in orientation is relatively subtle, but Shang conceives of simplicity as integrally linked to complexity. His determination to limit his compositions to black and white is also a consequence of this line of thought. One the one hand, nothing could be visually more concrete than extreme contrasts of tone; on the other, the strictly black-and-white field of vision is metaphorical, serving, for example, as a conventional signifier in cinematography for a temporal shift in narrative, a flashback implying that meanings in the present have their roots in the past. The black-and-white composition, as a consequence, can simultaneously provide an immediate experience of stark clarity and suggest a more complex dispersal of meanings across time. In Shang’s work, this integral relationship between past and present is identified as an important factor in the construction of the real. Because hindsight permits us to rework actual sequences of events into more perfect scenarios, memory is a form of abstraction, and as such it can exert an idealizing effect on our conception of reality. Memory can resolve the conflicts of present experience into a perfect harmony. Conversely, the stability of present reality may be disrupted by recollection of past emotions. The fact that no amount of reasoning can entirely dispel this effect suggests that the imagining mode of consciousness is integral to all present conceptions of the real.
The influence of the past in every experience of the real is implied in Shang’s Mountain Series paintings not only by the exclusively black-and-white palette or the historicity implicit in his references to literati painting, but also by a certain spatial ambiguity in the representational imagery. There is no doubt that Shang’s images refer to the space of landscapes, but it is far less obvious where these landscapes themselves might be located. Shang’s choice of classical Chinese painting as a source for his imagery is motivated by the fact that the style is understood to be an obvious translation of nature rather than a strict documentation of it. The idealizing influence of memory is implicit in the work of the literati artists who ventured out to observe mountains, forests and rivers but then returned home to paint them. The resulting compositions were composites of impressions, artificial configurations that Shang has likened to the fusions of multiple perspectives in Cubist paintings. For Shang the space of Chinese literati painting is both abstract and conceptual, a constructed space that reflects a particular vision of the real. The elusive nature of this space is something of which we are so keenly aware specifically because it does not correspond to our own expectations of the real. That our own sense of reality is just as much a composite and every bit as subjective is, of course, Shang’s point.
In the Mountain Series paintings ambiguity of space is intensified by the flat white bands intervening between the viewer and the abstract imagery. Not only do these elements create a barrier to vision, they counteract the illusion of depth that is essential to maintaining a sense of physical space. The flatness of the white bands is a perpetual reminder of the material flatness of the canvas and everything on its surface, while their precision – the exactitude of their edges and the mathematical regularity of their angles – suggests a highly rational orientation toward design. Shang treats this calculated articulation of space as a necessary complement to the imaginary quality of the landscape imagery, a kind of anchor that draws imagination back to a convergence on the real. For Shang, imagination and rationality are contrasting modes of consciousness, but to rely exclusively upon one at the expense of the other is to lose all conception of the real – in fact, to descend into madness. Even the artist, in whose practice imagination has traditionally played a predominate role, cannot entirely renounce rationality without succumbing to this danger. It is not, Shang asserts, the departure from objectivity that invokes peril, since the imagination is constantly engaged in precisely this activity. The disruption of the complementariness between reason and imagination is the true threat to the real, since only in their convergence does the latter emerge in consciousness at all.
The contingency of reality upon a dyad of reason and imagination would seem to insure the perpetual intangibility of the real, and Shang in fact espouses this view. Black and white, so long as their separation is scrupulously maintained, may form a contrast suggesting the epitome of clarity, yet the product of their synthesis is grey – a symbol of the tenuous nature of the real. Sandwiched between the flat white and densely black planes of the Mountain Series paintings linger the appropriated landscapes, composite apparitions of the exterior world whose faint grey features seem to tremble on the verge of dissipation. That these landscapes are obvious vestiges of the past reinforces the sense of their contingency. The black ground on which they are painted and the white bands that overlay and dissect them serve as a kind of odd frame, suspending them in an airless space parallel to the picture plane. A slight shift in the precarious balance of black and white, and the nebulous imagery disappears altogether. In Shang’s paintings reality is a fragile construct, a concept wholly dependent upon the momentary intersection of modes of consciousness. To invert a common figure of speech, truth is not discerned in black and white but is only intuited in a far less tangible grey zone. For Shang, the real emerges through the convergence of reason and imagination, but, precisely because these disparate faculties are irreconcilable, reality lies forever just beyond the reach of objective representation.
Brown, Glen.R. “Reality in Black, White, and Gray.” Representation/Reality Xuhong Shang. Plum Blossoms (International) Ltd, 2001. 9-11.
黑, 白, 灰中的现实 – 商徐宏
自現代主意初期, 當畫家開始尋求一些適合的方法去表達作品概念化的含義時, 將畫面刻意限制在黑白色調內的做法就儼然成為一種公認的象徵, 代表畫家意欲將畫面轉化成一個受嚴謹控制的分析過程. 畫家屏除了顏色的多端變化後, 在作品中須考慮的變數隨之減少, 而且, 畫面也因此而自然地抽離於現實世界. 結果, 作品中便出現了一個可圈可點的矛盾. 雖然黑白的畫作顯然是脫離現實, 但正因如此, 作品才可以隨畫家之所欲， 真切地表達現實, 而又能保存其因脫離現實而產生的種種效果. 換言之, 畫的內容既獨立於現實, 但同時又於現實絞纏, 甚至認同現實. 這無疑是一種互相矛盾的關係, 也是商徐宏《山》系列作品中的特點. 其作品體現的雙重性顯示了他對意識和現實的理解, 也就是人們的內在意識於外在現實之間的基本二元運作關係. 對於商徐宏來說, 意識永遠是分裂成理性和幻想兩方面的, 而現實就是兩者聚合的結果. 正當理性規劃著客觀世界時, 幻想卻同時讓人對世界產生疑問.
假如商徐宏作品中清晰而非客觀的形象, 跟模糊而抽象的意象之間的對比, 是隱喻著人們意識中兩種相反模式的對衡, 那麼， 毫無疑問, 商徐宏多年來所受的藝術教育一直影響著他的創作， 令相對而又相輔相成的元素能並置在構圖上. 商徐宏曾於上海師範大學接受寫實主義的繪畫訓練, 於一九八四年取得繪畫輿素描學士學位,畢業後隨即獲聘於該校任教. 三年後, 他獲幾位美國依利諾州大學教員邀請, 入讀該校的藝術研究院, 負箕海外. 在依利諾州攻讀藝術碩士學位時, 商徐宏的繪畫風格漸從寫實轉為具象性抽象. 一九九二年, 他在費城的泰勒藝術學院取得藝術碩士學位. 那期間, 他的藝術風格銳變, 轉而創作非客觀藝術, 並製造了一系列簡約裝置作品. 現在, 商徐宏的創作總有著他所曾學習的各種藝術風格的影子.
寫實主義強調撇除所有不輔合實際經驗的觀念, 而力求以純客觀的角度反應世界. 但人們真能有客觀的視覺嗎? 商徐宏對寫實主義的遠離, 正好顯示他對這種觀點不敢苟同. 然而, 現實仍是其作品的焦點. 至於他對抽象風格的傾向, 則只是標誌著他嘗試以直覺感受現實, 而並非以一套社會建制下的虛構規範為出發點. 抽象主義畢竟是一種象徵, 要實踐抽象主義, 就必須先相信藝術作品是旨在比喻現實, 而非體現現實. 商徐宏也意識到, 抽象的手段難免會令原本的現實概念變形, 到最後全然被取替. 但若現實不能以直接的具象描繪去體現, 又不能透過比喻去摹仿, 商徐宏就捨模擬比喻之法, 而取全然概念化的材料, 希望透過一種純粹的理性尋求答案. 最終, 這樣的方法也行不通, 讓他意識到現實畢竟是不能具體地掌握的, 反而是永恆地存在於直覺和理性, 抽象和邏輯的焦點上. 對商徐宏來說, 繪畫就成了引證這立論的工具.
一九九三年, 商徐宏開始創作《山》系列. 這系列的作品充滿嚴謹的規範, 並包含細心設定的變數. 作品中最明顯的固定元素, 也許是畫家採用的黑白色調. 此外, 畫面的長窄形狀, 也是此系列的特點. 那些長窄的畫面, 或直向或橫向, 在有著傳統中國掛軸和卷軸畫的意味, 而這傳統的畫作類型正好跟畫家所描繪得意象不無關系. 畫家借用中國古代山水畫的風格, 但以黑替白作為畫作的底色, 呈現一種有如攝影底片且氣氛幽幻的影像, 而繪於其上的景物則隱隱酷俏文人畫里霧中的威嚴, 曲扭的樹木和蜿蜒的河流. 商徐宏把蠟和黑色顏料混合, 在畫布上造成一種仿如丝絨般的效果, 讓原來反光的表面吸光, 從而加強畫中意象的無形感. 整幅畫不僅在視覺上有更豐富的效果, 更添上一層如幻的質感. 這也正是畫家吸引觀眾投入作品思想內容的一種方法.
在作品中, 以不透明塑膠顏料描繪的白色條子與具體的景象產生了明顯的對比. 這些白色條子繪於黑色的背景上, 將背景分割成不規則的幾何形狀. 形狀的邊緣線條分明, 與清晰利落的邊框互相呼應. 畫家也在部分作品繪上黑邊, 與白條子又有著相應的效果. 這些黑邊將作品的背景事物括限其中, 讓觀者的視線集中起來:但沒有黑邊的畫作卻又好像能突破畫布本身的規限, 呈現無邊的視野. 畫家更巧妙地運用白色的部分, 在作品和作品周圍的牆壁之間營造出視覺上的聯繫. 因此, 觀者的視線便自然地從畫的表面, 遊移到畫與畫之間跟作品表面同樣平滑的空間之上. 本來, 觀者和作品的交流多規限在作品中如虛如幻的空間裡, 但商徐宏的畫作卻能牽引觀者的視線, 跨越畫面而到達觀者身處的空間. 因此, 他的作品即可如實地從觀察的角度去看, 也可引伸成一種對現實的知覺的延展. 這些作品並沒有在牆壁上開出一個藏著虛幻景緻的空间地带, 反而暗地裡建構起一個思想上的空間.
雖然這種視線傾向的遊走是頗為含蓄, 但商徐宏認為簡單與復雜總是不可分割的. 他把構圖限制於黑白色調之內的做法也是以這種想法為依歸. 一方面, 極端的色調對比在視覺上提供一種明確的體驗, 但另一方面, 全然黑白的視野卻充滿隱喻性, 就像在電影中慣常用來表達故事的暫時性轉折的回鏡影像, 暗示今刻內容的根源乃出自過去. 因此, 黑白色的畫面既提供著一種明確清晰的即時體驗, 同時又意味著一個較為複雜而跨越時間的經驗. 在商徐宏的作品中, 現在與過去之間無可分割的關係, 是他建構現實的重要元素. 由於對事物的事後認識讓我們得以將真實的事情重塑成更美好的情節, 回憶也是一種抽象化的過程, 能轉化我們對現實的概念. 換言之, 回憶可將經驗中的矛盾粉刷成一幅美好和諧之象. 相反, 重拾回憶中的情緒就可能會破壞目前現實的隱定. 事實上, 無論人們是何等理性, 也難免受此影響, 所以我們此刻對現實的概念總離不開意識裡的幻想模式.
在商徐宏的《山》系列中, 除了黑白的色調和源自文人畫的歷史感外, 景物所處的含糊空間也暗示著過去對我們體會現實不無影響. 毫無疑問, 畫家所畫的是山水景緻, 但那些山水景物所在何處, 則不太明顯. 畫家在描繪這些景緻時, 選擇借鑒中國古畫, 正是因為這種風格顯然是一種對大自然的演繹, 而並不是自然景貌的記錄. 中国古代文人畫家的作品多隱含著回憶中理想化的效果, 最終的構圖和畫面也就是印象和刻意佈局的混合體,而畫家更將之比作立體派繪畫中多點透視的結合. 對於商徐宏來說, 中國文人畫描繪的空間是為某現實景象而虛構的, 即抽象而又概念化. 這難以分辨的空間跟我們所想的現實不乎, 也正好能引起我們的注意. 我們眼中的現實其實也是這樣的混合體, 包含種種主觀的因素, 而這也是畫家旨在表達的一點.
在《山》系列畫作中, 平塗的白條子介入在畫象與觀眾之間, 誠然加強了空間的含糊. 這些元素給整幅作品構成視覺上的阻礙,更抵消了畫作深度上疑幻疑真的效果. 平塗的白條子將畫布和布上材料的平滑質感一併地凸顯起來, 而白條子和構圖布局上精確利落的邊和角, 則意味著一種近乎設計的高度理性傾向. 這空間的精心計算和表達, 跟山水景象的幻想意味有互補的作用,就像一個錨, 牢住幻想, 好讓它跟現實會合. 對商徐宏來說, 幻想合理性是根本的意識類型, 單靠其中一方而忽略另一方的話, 會令人對現實失去觀念, 甚至令人陷入失常的狀態. 因此, 幻想在他的作品中總擔演著吃重的角色, 但他也決不能冒險, 全然摒棄理性. 然而, 他肯定這其中的危險並非因遠離客觀現實而產生的, 因為幻想本身就離不開客觀現實. 由於幻想必須在其與理性會合後才能形成, 因此破壞兩者之間的互補性才是對現實的真正威脅.
基於理性和幻想的二元關係, 現實往往會出現意外. 但正如畫家所相信, 這種偶然性似乎確保了現實永恆的無形狀態. 在嚴謹的分割下, 黑與白之間的對比代表著條理清晰的典型, 但兩者融合而成的灰則象徵著現實的脆弱. 在《山》系列作品中, 黑與白的平面之間既夾著借鑒而來的山水景緻, 有混入外在世界的意境 ——- 一些色調灰暗的看來要即將消散的地形面貌. 而這些景物對過去歷史的借鑒, 又進一步加強了事物偶然性的意味. 山水景貌後方的黑色背景和前方的白條子構成一種不协調的框架, 使景物浮移在一個跟畫面平衡的空間上. 只要黑白之間的平衡稍有改變, 朦朧的景象便會一併消失. 在商徐宏的作品中, 現實是一種脆弱的虛構, 也是一個全繫於意識形態頃刻會合的概念. 把一句慣用的話倒過來說, 我們總不能在黑與白中看到真象, 反而只能在無形的灰色地帶中體會. 對商徐宏來說,現實是因理性和幻想會合而出現, 但正因為兩者根本上的不同,雙方總難以協調, 故此, 現實永遠只能存在於客觀地表達之外.