XUHONG SHANG’S MOMENT
By Kevin Sharp, Curator of the Cedarhurst Center for the Arts
If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all.
Pablo Picasso, 1923
In 1986, a young art professor walked into a lecture hall in Shanghai to hear the English painter David Hockney deliver a talk about his work. An international art star at the height of his fame, Hockney peppered his remarks with art world gossip and personal anecdotes, starting most of his sentences with the first person singular pronoun. The young professor had never heard anyone, artist or otherwise, speak of his or her work on such individualistic terms. Hockney, like most Western artists of the late twentieth century, associated visual art with personal expression more than with subject matter or technique, and he spoke of it comfortably in those terms. But to at least one member of his audience in Shanghai, the very idea was a complete revelation.
Xuhong Shang was born in 1960 and came of age in a social climate still fermenting in Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and its call for a great proletariat society. Shang studied art in a Chinese academic system that stressed social responsibility over originality, and thematic realism over abstract principles, and he had flourished. But by 1986, he was beginning to chafe at the aesthetic limitations and the programmatic nature of social realist art. Art as propaganda. As he listened to an interpreter translate Hockney’s lecture into Mandarin, Shang was already looking for new ways to express creative impulses that refused to stay tamped down.
Hockney’s lecture pried open a window. Only weeks later, Kenneth Holder and Harold Gregor, painters and art professors from Illinois State University in Normal, traveling through China on a cultural exchange program, visited the young professor’s studio in Shanghai. Impressed by the work they saw, Holder and Gregor suggested that he continue his education in the United States. Now, the window stood open wide, and Shang climbed out through it. He arrived at O’Hare airport in Chicago on New Year’s Day 1987 with thirty dollars in his pocket, a comparatively tidy sum in the history of émigré artistic arrivals. But it was not even enough to buy a bus ticket to Normal.
Somehow, Shang made his way to Illinois State and to graduate study. Two years later, he was in Philadelphia, at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. He was still looking for his voice, for his identity, still trying to express himself in the first person as Hockney had done so effortlessly. But it was more difficult than he imagined. In Philadelphia, he abandoned painting entirely, depriving himself of its familiarity and comfort. He was determined to break away from his own personal history and the history of his craft to find a moment in the present tense that he could call his own. For the two years that he was at Tyler, Shang did nothing but create installation pieces, works made from disparate parts with their own particular histories, works that came together in a single resonant moment, and works that vanished into memory as soon as they were disassembled.
Shang’s installation work continues (including three pieces for the current show), but in 1993, it was a catalyst for change more than the end product of it. Before leaving Philadelphia, he would go back to painting. He began a group of canvases he called his Mountain Series, which, like his installations, seemed to live simultaneously in the past, the present, and the future.
In the Mountain Series, Shang self-consciously appropriated the delicate landscapes he found in traditional Chinese scroll paintings, particularly the work of Sung (969-1279 AD) and Ming (1368-1644 AD) Dynasty masters. On fields of canvas painted matte black, Shang produced subtle variations of stylized peaks, undulating mounds and fissures, dissolving into clouds and tumbling into rivers.
To some, Shang appeared to be returning to his origins in the Mountain Series, but they were no origins he had directly experienced in Shanghai. For Shang, his Sung and Ming mountains were part of a phantom or alternative history, one he might have grown up revering had he come from another time or even another place. He painted mountains from paintings, never from life. They were real as art, but they were wholly invented. He began to see his art as reverberations between two opposing forces: intuitive and rational; ancient and modern; representational and abstracted.
Overlaying the soft black and grey mountains borrowed from another age, Shang placed stark white rectangular forms that frame, interrupt and sharply contrast with the shadowy landscapes, receding ever deeper into compositional space (and suggestively, ever deeper into the past). The crisp geometry of these white pathways across the surface of his paintings refers to the visual language of Western modernism—to its reductive nature and its austerity, but also to its idealism and utopian ambitions, always pointing to the future.
Shang worked on the Mountain Series for twelve years, until 2005. In that extensive body of work, at once connected to the past and to the future, Shang found his resonant moment in the present. While the Mountain Series is filled with three hundred paintings that are autonomous works of art, they took on their most meaningful character when they were hung together as individual pieces of larger installations, arrangements that come and go, that are never repeated in exactly the same way, and that live more in the moment than any single canvas can. They are individuals within a collective. He was nearing his moment.
Xuhong Shang points to a Mandarin character in a book, abstract calligraphy to me but serviceable language to him. As he pours us cups of tea, he describes how the brush never leaves the surface of the paper, never stops repeating itself. It has all the fluidity of language, he says, but it is somehow different in ways that I don’t fully understand. Something in its form alone speaks to an experiential quality deeper than language, related but more profound. It is language that occasionally becomes fixed in time, but never permanently. It is momentary.
For the last two years, Xuhong has worked almost exclusively on a series of paintings called Momentary. Standing before any one of them, the title seems utterly appropriate. Vaguely suggestive of landscape or perhaps seascape, these large color field paintings appear to capture fleeting moments of transitional light, verging on darkness. The work is never so clichéd as a sunset or freighted with the historical baggage of the American twilight, but the canvases of the Momentary series nonetheless capture a sense of yearning, a longing for something that simply will not stay.
The large canvases of the Momentary series are perhaps the most compelling. Their pristine glazes are subtle and beautiful. All surface, all perfect surface. Standing before them, they envelope you in their gentle modulation of color—dark green to light, deep blue to something transcendent—even as you find your own reflection in their glossy surfaces, bouncing back at you. Xuhong’s work will always operate within some dichotomy, some conversation between opposites. It is just more understated here.
As we sip green tea in Xuhong’s studio, he talks about Daoism, this untranslatable concept hardwired into the consciousness of so many and unknowable to so many others. It is most often described to those of us who will never understand it as a steady movement toward enlightenment, but Xuhong bristles slightly at that definition. He says that it is something more like a moment transformed by an expectation never answered. It is a progression, but not a sequence. Glancing at one of his canvases, he utters the word, gradation, and then drifts back into his tea.
I ask Xuhong how long he will work on the paintings he calls Momentary, a ridiculous question, I know, but I have to ask. I remind him that he worked on the Mountain Series for twelve years. Is that what he has planned? He smiles and tells me it is impossible to know. He is quiet for a moment, but then he looks up and says, “For me, every painting is a new beginning.”
Sharp, Kevin. “XUHONG SHANG’S MOMENT.” Xuhong Shang Momentary, Illinois: Cedarhurst Center for the Arts, 2007. 3-7.