1. Where does a painting normally start?
Sometimes from the middle. Take Nanjing 1937 for example. In the middle of the paper that is patched together forming a 400×400 surface, where the paper is a bit ruffled, I first drew a skull and it all originated there. The entire picture springs from the middle point and yet does not progress directly toward a clear goal. At times, I would open up a new area somewhat removed from the painted area and wait for a later confluence.
2. It all sounds very spontaneous, but is there a conscious drive behind it?
I am not sure, but one thing is clear, that is, when it starts, I would become very careful. A slip of hand will lead to gross errors, and you don’t even know what is wrong and what is right. Everything is uncertain. You often end up getting nowhere with a slight deviation from the correct path, and the situation always gets worse as you proceed. There is no hope of relief. You often come up with only a few touches in a long sitting.
3. Do you feel hard-pressed when a tightly woven structure is needed for such a large picture in which individual parts resonate with each other?
This difficulty needs to be overcome. Indeed a large portion of artistic work is about overcoming difficulties. A larger picture does not suggest an arithmetic increase, but rather a change in nature of the visual information taken in by the eye. The result is a visual revolution.
4. Dunhuang frescoes are even larger, covering the walls of the caves, it that true?
Thematically, Dunhuang frescoes often tell stories of the Buddha or stories from Buddhist sutras that often have concrete characters, a plot, and other details. These concrete pictures move naturally in a visual sequence, telling a story from beginning to end. Today painting is no longer a practical thing. Instead of having a moral purpose, it has become a purely visual acquisition. What then is the guiding principle for the control or governance of perception?
5. Why do we not continue to impress the eye with concrete imagery?
The plastic power seems to have reached a peak in the Renaissance and resources for plastic arts are already exhausted. We must open up a new path by an attempt to occupy vision with the dividing and contrasting of lines, spaces, and colors. This requires the establishment of a mechanism that is greater than the natural logic of concrete imagery. In fact, the abandoning of concrete form puts a strain on the relationship between the eye that sees and the object seen. At times there is a true need for outward support. In the exhibition hall, for example, it is very likely that the environs of an artwork can strengthen or significantly weaken visual attention. Large pictures are a special challenge. It is often hard to exert control over the entire pictorial surface. Take Yi for example, it took me too long to paint it. I was at a loss and could not make escape. When it was sent to be mounted, I was still not sure of the result. But when the mounted picture was sent back and put on a stand, my mind was put at ease.
6. Back to concrete work, what is the guiding principle for the structure of Yi?
Here I make use of the traditional Chinese method of multiple perspective. The use of multiple perspective—looking from above, below, and from whatever angle—creates a sense of instability. The pictorial components are still human bodies and animal skeletons that are based on photos of the skeletons of primeval creatures from natural museums. In comparison with Nanjing 1937, the lines in Yi are more thinly distributed and the picture has greater transparency. The tension it produces is not a result of a closely knit structure, but something that springs from structural instability. It feels as dangerous as when ‘eggs are piled one upon another.’ I want the picture to arouse a sense of danger. The mythological tale of Lord Yi shooting suns suggests danger, and I have a special liking for the word ‘danger.’
7. Do you aim at a change and a progress from Nanjing 1937 to Yi?
No. It is impossible to think about it. My job is to paint, to do painting one by one. Anticipation of the future is impossible. Apart from this, change and progress are by no means easy to effect. One may remain in one state in a lifetime. A quick look at art history shows that change, even over a long period, is ever so slight. One need not direct this demand at the painter; neither need the painter force himself to meet this demand. As for Yi, what I consciously aim at is how to handle the lines, spaces, and colors of the human bodies and skeletons. I want a bronze color, which is a different requirement than for Nanjing 1937.
8. Can you say something about lines and colors?
Drawing lines is the essential basis, the most important means, for Chinese painting. It is in accordance with the two-dimensional nature of pictorial art. Dividing the pictorical surface into areas with lines is a technical question and painting is technical. The training I received since a child is focused on imitation, repeated imitation of Huang Zhou’s paintings and Nicholas Fisher’s sketches. One must be conversant with drawing lines. As for colors, I am not quite content with the colors of Chinese painting. The familiar statement that ‘the ink used for painting has five colors’ is too abstract. As an abstruse theory, it hides its inadequacy in actual practice.
9. Is this not the art of Chinese painting? Ambiguity with flexible margins—
In this respect, I am probably an ungrateful heir to a long tradition of Chinese painting, for I always aim at a positive representation. Xuan paper is the most suitable medium for Chinese painting. Like treatment in a kiln, the effect produced on Xuan paper is unpredictable, because the paper tends to change beyond your control. I just wonder to what extent I can master the paper and put it to use. I always attempt to exercise control. With this ability, I can know what I am able to do.
10. What in the end do you want to do?
I wish my subject has a great capacity, which explains why I always turn to history for subject matter. I am obessively fond of magnificent, sublime scenes. History has this capacity, for it is a compact expression of human activities accumulated over time. I believe it can hold up my pictures and my job is extracting simple structures composed of lines and spaces from complex dramatic scenes, overcoming difficulties, and improving painting skills. What is often said is still true. Painting skills are first reflected in the ability to achieve verisimilitude, and then a gradual departure from verisimilitude. Painting is different from cinematography which makes what is false appear to be true. We make what is false into something that is also false.
11. ‘Making what is false into something that is also false’ is an interesting remark. Could you expand a little bit? Could you say something about the first ‘false,’ which concerns material?
Sure, let’s make an inventory of stock on hand. First, Xuan paper. Xuan paper distinguishes itself by its misty quality and its ability to allow ink to sink and spread. It is a different material than canvas. Everything on the canvas is certain and unalterable, but Xuan paper is ambiguous, and the ambiguity is in agreement with the Chinese penchant for restraint and implicitness. Xuan paper is a thin material, and its insubstantiality makes it hard to show depth through the use of perspective or to create a three-dimensional visual space. Consequently, one has to carve a new way by means of multiple perspective and put a greater emphasis on the two-dimensional nature of pictorial art. Picasso, according to my understanding, also wishes to make what is three-dimensional two-dimensional, that is, to represent three-dimensional objects on a flat surface in order to meet the visual demand for passion. Indeed he also uses multiple perspective but he arranges it from a positivistic, scientific standpoint. Multiple perspective, I wish to demonstrate, is congruous with painting as a two-dimensional art. Our second possession is, therefore, multiple perspective. It originates with the limitation of Xuan paper, and thus is compliant with it. There is no question of overcoming it. Third, lines. Oil painting also makes use of lines, but is not dependent on them to the same degree as we are. Oil painting has a sketchy quality. Its painted surface is filled with colored areas. While on the subject, people like us who start their career without any formal training have tried their hand at everything. During the Cultural Revolution, they drew portraits of Mao and various posters, that is, oil paintings. On hand were so many colors that one did not even know where to start. There is an infinite amount of contrasting colors. A certain red provides a contrast with a certain green which is in turn set off by a certain brown, as if seen in a kaleidoscope. This brings us to our fourth possession—colors. This inventory of stock is always disappointing, as every item appears to be insufficient. The colors available for Chinese painting always fall short of demand and yet efforts have been made to meet the need for colors. Progress in productivity is achieved through a revolution in instruments, which can also be applied to art. Propylene already has legal validity and is in common use. But what about oil colors? Xuan paper is not a suitable material for oil colors. Mr. Zhu Naizheng suggested I use water mixable oil paint, which turned out to be a success. The paint was absorbed by the paper. Everything, you can see, has to do with Xuan paper. It is our first possession and yet is also a significant limitation. I have to, as my mentor has put it, ‘touch it up seventy-two times’ by using landscape painting techniques, to fill up, to darken, and to add a background. The background was not a concern of Chinese painters, especially literati painters. I also break the taboo that forbids the use of white, attempting to give the picture a sketchy quality and to create spatiality.
12. You have just said that it is hard to produce a three-dimensional feel on Xuan paper and have emphasized the two-dimensional character of pictorial representation, but as a matter of fact, you also aim at a breakthrough. Is there, so to speak, a limitation one must comply with? What principles do you abide by?
First of all, I use a frame for painting. I always paint within a frame, that is to say, I always create something that is objectively there.
My second principle is that of self-independence. I am not dependent on anything else. When literati painting became predominant in China, poetry, calligraphy, and painting were seen as part of the same tradition. For me painting is nothing but painting. It makes of some false material something that is also false. My painting certainly springs from my personal feelings and experience. This is a spiritual heritage of literati painting. But at the same time I am interested in the world of objects and want to represent things of every description in the world. The ‘Shanghai schoo’ of painting must be credited with this choice of subject matter. Every ordinary person, be it a street peddler or a cart-driver, every lowly and trifling thing can be the subject for painting. That which appears in a picture will have a different look. It is for these reasons that I insist on the independence of pictorial art.
Third, I abide by the general rule of Chinese painting. I comply with the special quality of Xuan paper. Even though it brings a lot of inconvenience, it is still the foundation of my profession. I am familiar with its quality. It can deeply absorb what is given it, and expand in an unexpected way. I need to comply with the uncontrolable spread of ink on paper, put my ability to use and realize my purpose under the given conditions. I also comply with the nature of lines that can be used to purify the pictorial structure. Yet I am not content with purity. I need something else. This is like, as the proverb goes, ‘looking into the frying pan while eating from the bowl.’ But when I have filled up and darkened certain portions of the pictorial surface and effected a sketchy quality, I find I have merely filled up with lines, darkened with lines, and effected a sketchy quality with lines. Lines are everywhere and come automatically from my hand like a silkworm spinning a cocoon. It is no longer abiding by a principle, but a kind of reliance.
Nonetheless, we can hardly resist temptation. I like de Kooning’s painting. His heavy touches and lavish use of oil are also frequently used techniques in Chinese painting. At this moment I feel as if I can begin to transcend material like an animal becoming reckless when confronted with danger. When you violate common practice, you have also abandoned certain advantages. There is something, we have to acknowledge, we are unable to achieve, for example, the light effect of oil painting—
13. Oil pointing has a lustrous surface, what about Chinese painting? Sounds like God creating the world...
It is fated. I have noticed Mr. Fang Zengxian’s attempt to add luster to his painting. In his Laughter in a Tent, for example, human faces are hidden in darkness, and by contrast, there is light. But this light, unlike the sheen of oil painting, is different in nature. Oil painting has very small structural components. Like a physical object, the greater its density, the easier it is to change its form. One can use oil painting to imitate any form. But our material has individuality, for every stroke takes on a specific form. My amateur experience in doing oil painting during the Cultural Revolution made me aware of its pictorial and creative aspect. Chinese painting, on the other hand, because of its reliance on technique, requires arduous training in the painter’s craft, as if one has to spend a decade sharpening a sword. Whatever falls on paper is done and finished. Oil painting techniques are reflected in the linkage between and accumulation of different components. All in all, it is about fashioning. The material we use can hardly adapt itself to the object portrayed due to its strong individuality. It is the object that accommodates itself to the material. As a result, the object drawn is removed from its original form and takes on another material form. The picture, therefore, lacks verisimilitude.
14. This leads to the second ‘false.’ You simultaneously obey and break the rule, and then comply with the rule again. What is it you want to present to the eye? Is it falsity?
Falsity is art. I don’t think art is imitating truth, but making falsehood, making what is truly false, not a falsehood that can be easily confused with truth. Let’s argue from scratch. What is it we want to present to the eye? The original purpose is to entertain the eye with beautiful forms, and the standard for beauty is resemblance. The highest standard for portraying living things is “it’s so true to life,” and “it resembles natural life.” Comic strips are representative of this resemblance. It is not a momentary resemblance, but a sequential resemblance, whose requirements are not as rigid as those of the former. Much content is contained in a momentary resemblance whereas the sequential resemblance appears gently in regular succession by virtue of its temporality. The next step is to be emancipated from a comic strip, to be an independent picture, that is, to achieve momentary resemblance. When this is accomplished as in impressionistic paintings that capture resemblance of a split second, you will find next that the surface resemblance has an underlying order that is detached from natural appearances. This order is the starting point of any natural affinity. I wish to present the inner unlikeness, i.e. falsity, by casting off the outer resemblance.
For me, this unlikeness, that is, falsity, hides beneath it a rich, complex structure. This makes me aware of the restrictions of Chinese painting, of the incapacity of Xuan paper to hold, to put simply, of its thinness and insubstantiality. My efforts over recent years are directed at a solution to this question. I force myself to paint on a large surface. The first step is to enlarge the size of the picture, then to fill up the surface, and to create a three-dimensional feel by means of a sketch technique. As for colors. Once I added a green color to the dark surface of one painting in the series Figures and Cloth Tigers, and was delighted by the unexpected result that the picture showed greater depth. It is dawned upon me that Xuan paper still has room for further exploration, and that deep within it is hidden a falsehood with a greater capacity.
15. What is the order that underlies outward appearance?
I will not have a clear idea of what it is until I start to paint. In the beginning there are only concrete objects on the painted surface, and when it is ‘touched up seventy-two times’ with ink, details of concrete things disappear, their contours are blurred, and finally they are hidden in pure lines and spaces that occupy the pictorial surface. Indeed these lines and spaces are also in control of the concrete objects depicted. For me the extraction of lines and spaces from concrete objects is always a question of balance, a question I have always been trying to tackle. These pictorial components are not born of themselves. They originate in concrete things and hence are restricted by them. There is a solid relationship between the two that finds its validity in balance. Ancient Eskimos think of carving stone and wood as removing superfluous parts. It is a truth. I also want to remove superfluous parts that disturb and upset the balance. “Terra Cotta Warriors and Cloth Tigers” in the series Figures and Cloth Tigers, for example, was thrown into disorder, but I was not aware of it when doing the painting. Something seemed to be out of order when it was mounted. I spent the whole evening patching it up without stopping till over 11 pm. Revisions were made here and there for the mere purpose of striking a balance, but it seemed to be a vain effort. The balance was broken right from the start. The warriors and horses are a whit too small, and consequently seem to be out of proportion with the size of the picture.
16. Is there a touch of rhythm in this?
Could be. Anyway, both change and balance are required. Without change, balance is easily kept, but the result would be stagnation. Once change is introduced, however, there is the risk of losing the balance.
Recently I took a trip to the Northwest and saw the frescoes of the Yongle Palace. I have seen the frescoes in print before and have copied its “Majesty Movement,” and often talked to lay people about its technical aspect, say how a roughly three-meter long line runs continually and gracefully from one end to the other. But this on-the-spot experience makes me amazed at something else, at the overall design of the frescoes. The gods of the twenty-eight constellations on one side, for example, have their faces painted black and on top of their heads are twenty-eight lamps. On the other side is a palace woman whose face, lips included, is not painted. The juxtaposition of contrasting colors is exemplary of change and balance. Is this something that might be thought of as rhythm?
17. It seems that rhythm is created by means of contrast?
Now we can provide an easy explanation. What we need are pairs of contrasting things, such as black and white, circle and square, pointed and rounded, dense and sparse, male and female bodies—the male body contains many detailed parts, and its muscles appear as separate spaces whereas the female body has long curves. In Figures and Cloth Tigers, the human bodies are realistic whereas the cloth tigers are expressive of the painter’s ideas. All this is directed toward building up a contrast. All things in the world appear as contrastive pairs that attract attention. We are always looking for pairs of contrast. I like to paint ‘three heroes in the world of martial arts’—Li Jing, Hongfu, and Curly Beard—a subject that is rich in contrasts. A handsome young man and a beautiful young woman are juxtaposed with a grotesque figure and a horse that provides a conflicting as well as a harmonious contrast to the human figure.
18. As for paintings with a specific subject like Wannan Incident where pictorial components like people and objects are relatively fixed, how do you use contrast?
This is my design: Xiang Ying and Ye Ting, two main characters of the incident, stand stalwartly in the foreground. It is a scene of stasis where blank spaces and clear-cut contours are plainly evident. There are dark passages in the background where human figures take on a mobile form. In this way, the contrast between black and white, line and space, stasis and mobility, leisurely and restless is brought to light.
I want to give the picture another shot, with a different design on a larger surface. Specifically, I want to enrich the picture with a lavish use of contrast. It would be a difficult project, a big challenge so to speak, to realize an aesthetic aim in a painting with very concrete subject matter.
19. What we have been talking about seems to have become increasingly detailed and concrete.
Painting is concrete work, very similar to decorating a house. One has to face questions like how to end a line. At times, in a touchy situation, one dare not move and stops to think. To think means to pause for a while and then to continue. If it does not work, there is a need to pause and continue again. If this still does not work after several attempts, one may well rip up the picture and cast it away.
20. Is thinking of use to you?
I think with my hand. When I was done with Military Salute, for example, I added something of a square in the lower right of the picture that serves as a display screen on which details can be presented. This new area, like a country within a country, gives additional support to the picture and helps stabilize the lines and spaces that are intricately intertwined. The result is a new order. What do you think is this type of thinking?