Picturing Heaven & Earth: The Continuation of the Chinese Landscape Tradition

Landscape [2013.5] by Arnold Chang, 76.2 x 141 cm, ink and colour on paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

ONE OF THE first things you learn in Chinese art history is that Chinese landscape painting is a form of artistic expression that was once regarded as the highest form of Chinese painting, and generally still is. Each shanshui hua, literally ‘painting of mountains and water,’ is deeply imprinted with images of the natural world and the ideologies of a nation, as well as the thoughts and nuances of the individual painter. Chinese literati painters had released painting from its descriptive purpose of serving political and religious functions as early as the tenth century, thereby encouraging expressiveness and freeing creativity from having to resemble reality, and fostering the idea that painting landscapes could be for self-amusement and self-cultivation. It is these principles of self-cultivation and learning that distinguish the works of two contemporary artists, Arnold Chang and Tai Xiangzhou. In our modern, post-literati world, these two contemporary artists choose not to rebel against or abandon tradition, but to cultivate creativity and originality through structure and disciple.

Arnold Chang and Tai Xiangzhou share a somewhat unlikely path to becoming two of the most accomplished shanshui artists practising today. For some, Arnold Chang (b. 1954), a New York-born Chinese, is something of an outsider. He may never have lived in Mainland China, but Chang has spent his entire professional life ensconced in the world of Chinese art, and his Chinese painting practice has reached a level of understanding unmatched by many Chinese artists practising in China today. His works can be found in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the British Museum among others. Chang is also a Chinese art curator, researcher, scholar, and perhaps most importantly, a teacher of Chinese painting and its connoisseurship. In the early ‘80s, he established the Chinese Painting Department at Sotheby’s in New York, and served as its director for over a decade.

Unlike Arnold Chang, Tai Xiangzhou has spent his entire professional life in China, but he also took a rather circuitous path to becoming the ink painter he is today. Born in Yinchuan, Ningxia, in 1968, Tai Xingzhou studied calligraphy as a child, rooting himself in the Chinese brush tradition. In 1999, Tai went to New Zealand to learn about digital media, in many ways the antithesis of ink training, and when he returned to China in 2001, he became design director at HDT Media, and later CCTV.com. After having won much praise for his creative ideas, Tai could easily have continued down the path of mixing art with new technology, but he felt something was still missing in his artistic practice – tradition. Tai has spent the last decade dedicated to Chinese landscape painting practice and its scholarship; today his work is not only in the collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, the Sackler Museum, Harvard University, and the Princeton University Art Museum, Tai also holds a PhD in Art from Tsinghua University’s Academy of Arts, having dedicated his scholarship to researching the roots, patterns, and philosophies of China’s ancient landscape painting tradition.

Like their literati forefathers who studied under accomplished masters in their pursuit of understanding the Chinese ink painting tradition, both artists discovered and were greatly influenced by important mentors. Arnold Chang befriended the renowned late artist and collector C.C. Wang (1907-2003) and studied ink painting with him for more than a quarter century. Under the tutelage of C.C. Wang, who owned one of the world’s greatest private collections of ancient Chinese paintings, Chang was given the invaluable opportunity to study masterpieces up close – not only to visually experience the vastness of the ink painting lineage, but also to appreciate the individual nuances of painted brushwork. Such rare experiences are similarly afforded Tai Xiangzhou, who to this day remains the dedicated student of renowned artist Liu Dan (b. 1954). Liu Dan, whose painted rocks, flowers, and landscapes are all meticulously conceived, has developed a theory of painting he calls a ‘micro exploration through macro understanding’ –whereby a painted subject extends beyond imitation of nature and into the metaphysical realm, where a new painted order is reconstructed apart from the physical object itself. As his protégé, Tai’s painting technique has quickly evolved, and this once digital media-artist has also discovered a means to self-cultivation through traditional brush painting. By studying traditional Chinese painting in depth with these mentors, Chang and Tai have both inherited a rich artistic pedigree that places their own landscapes within a broader art-historical context.

We can trace the influence of both modern and ancient masters within their works; both Arnold Chang and Tai Xiangzhou have taken their own interpretation of the shanshui tradition and translated it into a unique contemporary mode of expression. While each artist’s oeuvre is highly distinctive, they are similar in that both artists maintain that Chinese shanshui is ‘representational’, but their paintings do not represent discrete places or phenomena, but rather the natural universal law, order, and logic of the cosmos. At the same time, their artwork is ‘expressive’, though what it expresses is not just individual subjective emotions or personality, but also universalised emotions that harmonise with and grasp the virtue of ‘heaven and earth’.Specifically, in recent years Arnold Chang’s landscapes have evolved from the traditional atmospheric depth perspective into an abstract and multi-dimensional vision. His painting Landscape [2013.5], for example, takes an aerial vision of mountains and water that the artist simultaneously morphs and flattens in his mind, creating a familiar yet entirely new feeling of space. With gestural and self-assured brushwork, Chang encourages onlookers to explore his conceptualized vision of shanshui from different angles and perspectives.

Tai Xiangzhou’s recent works are also new conceptual expressions of traditional shanshui themes. Often interpreting the style and brushwork of historical masterpieces, Tai confidently assumes different brush and layered ink-wash techniques to form spectacular mountainscapes that provide a backdrop to detailed mist, rocks, trees and waterfalls. Emphasizing the mastery of artistic form over pure naturalism, Genesis [2013.2] is a deeply evocative representation of the artist’s inner world; the composition is built up from layers of dense monochromatic rocks, pure and ethereal. Similar to other works in his Genesis Series, Tai’s emphasis here is on the underlying search for order—the external natural landscape and artist’s internal emotions are suffused and blended with intent to capture the natural universal law, order, and logic of the cosmos.

Both Arnold Chang and Tai Xiangzhou are proponents of tradition at a time when much of the contemporary Chinese art worlds seems to want to deny it. As the global art discourse becomes increasingly homogenized and commercialized, both artists are passionately committed to the Chinese shanshui heritage and the refinement within. By embracing tradition and learning from the past, they continue to create and innovate within a clearly defined stylistic language that forms a harmonious and evolving discourse with the past. It is a rare thing for two artists from such different backgrounds to come together under a uniting vision of Chinese ink painting. Picturing Heaven & Earth is an opportunity to explore the essential and timeless qualities of the Chinese landscape tradition through the paintings of two modern masters.


Picturing Heaven & Earth is at the Bridge Gallery in Beijing’s 798 Art District, to 31 January, 2014