Chinese Abstraction Series: Huang Rui – Ways of Abstraction
Boers-Li Gallery New York presents an exhibition of paintings and works on paper by Huang Rui, dating from the 1980s to the present. This is the first U.S. exhibition of Huang Rui’s most recent series, “Zen Space”.
Huang Rui ⻩銳, Grey and Yellow Abstraction, Oil on Canvas 布⾯面油畫, 130 x 97 cm
Huang Rui ⻩銳, New Woman 新⼥性, 1979. Oil on Paper 紙上油畫, 545 × 395 mm.
Huang Rui 黃銳, Yuanmingyuan: Rebirth 圓明園新生, 1979. Oil on Canvas.
Huang Rui, Female Body, 1980. Oil on canvas.
Huang Rui 黃銳, April 5, 1976 – 1976年4⽉5⽇, 1978. Oil on Canvas 布面油畫, 1200 × 895 mm.
Huang Rui 黃銳, Infinite Space 無限的空間, 1979. Oil on Canvas 布面油畫, 550 × 740 mm.
Huang Rui 黃銳, Four Seasons – Autumn 四季-秋, Oil on Paper 紙上油畫, 720 × 540 mm, 1980
Huang Rui 黃銳, Democracy Wall ⺠主牆, 1981. Oil on Canvas 布面油畫, 1570 × 1940 mm.
Huang Rui 黃銳, Space Structure 84 -18, 1984. Oil on Canvas, 53 1/2 × 32 7/10 in. 136 × 83 cm
Huang Rui 黃銳, Chai-na/China NO.7 拆 – 那/China NO.7, Silkscreen, 2005. Oil on Canvas 絲網印油畫, 125 x 154 cm.
In this country, strange things happen every now and then, and they happen quite a lot in art circles too. Perhaps the least important and what nobody cares about is the “Abstract” fervor that is quietly becoming popular. The fact that we just started talking about this subject as we enter the 2020s is puzzling, making one wonder if there were many problems. There are even talks concerning things that happened to me. Regarding the abstract artworks that I did at that time, some critics thought they were political, and some people considered me as a little broken child looking for leftovers at the doors of Western art. After 40 years, I wrote down some of my creative experiences of those years. I should not have said much, but I still need to make an effort to talk about this today, like shouting from the other side of the wall of time and space that separates the past and present.
In 1978, the French Rural Landscape Painting Exhibition was held in Beijing. The exhibition brought to China the art of Barbizon school, Millet, Impressionist artists as well as Cézanne and Van Gogh. Themed as “Rural Landscape Painting,” the Western capitalism art entered China for the first time. Also for the first time, we had a close look at the authentic Western paintings, and we met the creations of Cézanne and Van Gogh, the founders of Modernism art movement.
The academic painters in China began to evaluate the colours and techniques of French paintings and found a common language in Courbet and other realist paintings — that is the founder of Central Academy of Fine Arts, Xu Beihong, a tradition half of which must be hidden from reality after learning from France. The Chinese artist Chen Danqing was shocked by Corot’s paintings, and I always lingered in the last unit of the exhibition: Cézanne and Van Gogh. If I have to be honest, I felt amazed at Van Gogh’s enthusiasm and madness, but after viewing Cézanne’s art, I immediately plunged into it and started a dialogue for the next 40 years. A conversation with which we can use an open, understandable, and straightforward language. Your language is not the same language that anyone can understand.
At first, it is about the use of the brush. Previously, what I learned from the teachers of the Academy of Fine Arts was that as paints were mixed under the brush, we should look for any overdoing of the colour or the brush strokes, and the unnecessary traces needed to be covered up. In the landscapes or figure paintings of Cézanne instead, the brush strokes are placed, not brushed or smeared, on the canvas. The strokes are independent spaces, which are square-shaped but not square. This space is repeated continuously, forming the volume of space and expanding the openness of space.
What is real painting? There were many realistic paintings before Cézanne, but he turned reality into a process of development and exposure. Realistic paintings progressed to become reality of paintings. The academic painters will never understand how the space manifested in the painting will become part of the brush, and how it is enlarged to become the time of the evolution of the creation process.
Picasso said that Cézanne was his “one and only” mentor, and I would say likewise, not intending to bask in the light of Picasso. Whether they were artists and works of art 150 years ago or 100 years ago, 50 years ago, this fact is real. This phenomenon is Modernism.
The experiment started by Cézanne and the progression to Cubism has become a reality. Cézanne is a pioneer, and Cubism is revolutionary. It is the revolution of the spatial dimensions. Cubism, since Cézanne, discovers the possibility and rationality of the destruction of the principle of perspective. The painting has created another dimension of the plane that has become three-dimensional. This is the discovery of the artists in the new era: multi-dimensional visual perspective.
In any case the academic art, not only in China but also in the rest of the world, is not contemporary art conceptually, because it overthrows the tradition of Cubism from the dimension. Moreover, Cubism is not a tradition, but a principle that undermines the perspective and reconstructs dimensions. Respecting this principle, I believe that Cubism is the essential way for contemporary art creation and experimentation, or to say, Cézanne’s painting is a contemporary art bible laid at open.
In any of the landscapes of Cézanne, whether it is the woods or valleys in the distance, you will not see any clear shadows as they disappear in the neutral brushstrokes. This is a kind of interlacing of brushstrokes as if it were in thick forests where the sun shines on the green. The average person will see that warm green as an attribute of the work, but I see the passage of time. I didn’t think so in the first place, but the space between brush strokes gives me room to breathe, transforming into a freedom beyond imagination. This sense of liberty persists in me. I can still look at Cézanne’s paintings repeatedly, and perhaps the artworks by Picasso too. While Cézanne’s pen is implicit, Picasso’s is mass produced passion. The latter uses space to split objects, while Cézanne uses objects to split the space. The reason why their works are still contemporary is that they open up the dimension of time.
If the artwork enters into time dimension, especially maintaining the integrity of the graphics work, it rises from the two-dimension to four-dimension yet reduces to a at visual sense. This is transforming from the ordinary world to become a genius. It can be said that such process is the complete process to tame, train and transform Abstract.
Several features can be said:
1. Create a space object, and not create an object in a space;
2. Break the principles of perspective and reconstruct the perspective;
3. Use the material to open up the space and repeat an openness;
4. The logicalization of Abstract.
More than a hundred years have passed since Cubism, and this generation of artworks has shown an old colour in the transition of time. But what I am saying is that they will always be fresher than the artworks of Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, because they create and present a dimension that benefits time and reality. And the group of people nowadays is closing the dimension of creation to benefit themselves.
Some young critics have asked me: Is it possible for one to go without learning and experiment of Cubism? My answer is it depends on what you need: if you are pursuing success in the consumerism era, you can take the road of Andy Warhol where everyone can enjoy success for 15 minutes. If you want to acquire the spiritual cultivation of contemporary art, it will take much longer time. You have to go through a long road to train yourself once again in the reconstruction of dimensions, go back a hundred years in time, and return to today’s position, be earnest and honest, and pay attention to your footprints. After such an effort, you may not be able to tell a logic of creation, but will be sure that you have entered a reality.
This reality is hard to come by because you are in a studio that no one knows where it is, and your hand suddenly touches the warmth of freedom, which is the sunshine that Cézanne gave you.
Take the Path of Abstraction
I regret writing this title because what I want to say is more than what it expresses. This title is for the others; it is not my ultimate purpose.
Yet I can’t write my ultimate purpose, should this short phrase be the end remark for the rest of my life?
Everyone has a pair of eyes, everyone has a working brain that can think, and everyone has a heart that is eager to enhance life. There are a million ways to express these words but they would always start with your eyes. We use our eyes to start an observation, grasp and percept the appearance of things, only then we build a relationship with the world. The visual artist who starts with the eye and ends with the work of the eye is the lucky one in the human community.
But the ability and nature of the eyes are very different from one person to another, after all there were very few people who discovered the revelation in Cézanne’s paintings. Knowledge, habits, emotions, concepts and environments and the uncertainty of life could influence how much you observe. As I said earlier, Chen Danqing fixed his gaze on Corot’s work in the French Rural Landscape Painting Exhibition and I only looked at Cézanne’s because our genes and life context are very different.
I was not a newcomer in the art world at the time, not even a budding artist. When The National College Entrance Examination was resumed in 1977, I tried but failed to get in the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and the following year I didn’t get into The Central Academy of Drama neither.
I was still wearing the blue uniform, riding my bicycle every day from Xicheng District through Xuanwu District, and then rushed to work at the Beijing Leather Goods Factory in Fengtai District. In the second half of 1978, I basically decided I was done with factory work and I wanted to be an artist outside the system. In autumn and winter that year, I also participated in the creation of the magazine Today. We didn’t have any income. Fortunately, we could eat free meals at home. The most bizarre thing was that I had been absent from work for half a year the bureaucratic factory still paid me as usual. Do not underestimate the [work at] leather factory, we were quite high-paying staff for our enjoyment of the smell. My salary was 46 yuan a month, I gave 10 yuan of my salary to my mother, but she would return 5 yuan to me. I spent all my money on art making, at that time was a very cool and an extraordinary thing. In that poor nation during poor times, among poor people, I suddenly felt myself lucky to be engaged in oil painting. I could afford to buy most of the materials, just that the two poor shops (there were only two art supply shops in Beijing) were often out of stock. In 1981, the white and black oil paints were all out of stock. Following Ma Desheng and Zhu Jinshi, I picked up Chinese ink paintings once again, and began to paint in both oil and ink paintings.
After Cézanne’s artwork left China, no one can inspire me or teach me anything anymore. I was using memory and imagination as my means of observation while I could only miss my “one and only” teacher as I worked. Brie y after such “parting”, I also created a lot of works with symbolism because of what I’ve assimilated. For example, Yuanmingyuan, April Fifth, 1976 and so on. I had understood and reflected the world around me before, but Cézanne gave me an insight like Newton’s apple fell from the sky, with its weight and quality, thus began my realization in creation.
In October 1979, I drew Infinite Space, which was the first work in my life space series, perhaps my first completely abstract work. I included it in the resumed Star Art Exhibition in November of the same year. It should be the first abstract work that was publicly exhibited in China since 1949.
In the following year of 1980, our “Stars” got the opportunity to hold an exhibition at the National Art Museum of China. I chose about 13 or 14 works for the exhibition, half of which were abstract works, such as Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Untitled, Mother and son, among others. That year I began my research and study of Cubism, originating from my own abstract formalism.
The series Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter also has the concept of space. I drew some twisted shapes looking like a group of differently stressed muscles attached to the bones. In the three paintings, Spring, Summer, Autumn, I cast a frontal light, but in Winter I divided the painting into two parts with a black mass, the white is slowly stained with gray. The completion of this series gave me confidence; I completed the Cubist practice and could now start on another series of themes.
The artwork Autumn was published in the January 1981 issue of the Meishu magazine, edited by Li Xianting. However, the photo was published reversed. I sent a letter of protest to Meishu: “Even if it is an abstract work, there is only one direction for viewing.” As a result, Meishu magazine corrected it in the next issue and published it again.
After 1981, the strange country turned around once again. The vibrant exhibitions that appeared in the first year were also banned. The visits and gatherings between us were monitored, and the neighbors became poker-faced with vigilant eyes. Beijing was once again full of repression and tension. There was no more possibility to open any exhibition in the name of “Stars”.
I went through a year of hard work to hone my skills, my technique and paint became as thick as the bark in Cézanne’s paintings. I began to challenge myself to depict Beijing’s streetscape with a new technique. This technique has to be Cubist, but at the same time also personalized, flatter than Picasso’s at plane, and more turbid than his turbidity. I tended to unfold the objects from the side angles of the perspective and compact them into pieces of colour shades connected by motions, the objects are then brought together from the scattered actions toward the center and yet they are still identifiable.
The supply of pigments in the art supply shops was like the Cubism art movement, always switching direction. The canvas was becoming more and more sizzling and smooth like glass. It did not matter. The factory where sister worked happened to have a sturdy fertilizer packaging made with Japanese woven fabric or their weaving method, making the resistance of the canvas precisely the one needed for the speed of Cezanne’s brush style. With such technical aspects, that year I probably produced more than 20 artworks of Beijing Streetscape in Cubist structure. And at the beginning of the year, I also completed the largest piece on the Democracy Wall. I enshrined my poet friends on the canvas, and this most beautiful portrait and moment that I made became a rare-seen creation.
Although I was feeling at ease, I was worried about the fertilizer packaging that also has begun to stop supplying. Inspired by the beautiful French woman, Claire Denis, I did some collage experiments with some of the cheap materials. I guessed I had made about 30 such works, and I eventually destroyed half of them. I felt deep inside I still lack the spiritual foundation to handle such arbitrary abstract expression.
Perhaps due to other situations, life has changed in many directions. During that time, I sold many works. One client once bought the three Yuanmingyuan paintings. Then one day, a client decently asked to acquire three to four paintings from the Courtyard House series, for which I was shocked. In the end I promised to give him only one piece – I painted him a new one, as the last deal before I covered my eyes. Although this series continued until most part of 1982, I had to make up my mind. Otherwise, I couldn’t escape the acclaim and popularity of mine that was beginning to spread among the Westerner clients in Beijing.
I started to study Laozi which was taught to me by Zhong Acheng. It was good, the world here is less noisy and more solitary. Laozi took me into the Space Structure series, me to continue on the experimental road. The same result, the Courtyard House series did not enter the market at the end; they still have my own symbolic system in creation.
In the second half of 1983, I became a determined Abstract painter. In other words, when I tried to do sketches, paint streetscapes, still life and portraits, never in my life before had I felt so unfamiliar with. I am already on this road. Although the future is unclear, this is the final decision – I also comfort myself.
Huang Rui’s laws:
1. When reality is particularly dark, the Abstract world has the light of freedom;
2. Abstraction is neither unique nor bright, it is dark yet with light like the starry sky;
3. The world has been dominated by materials and even jokingly controlled by the information power that manages materials. No one is concerned with the knowledge of attribute or nature of things. And in here there is a primary language of creation;
4. There will be no action if there is no opposition.
About the artist
Huang Rui is one of China’s most highly regarded artists and was one of the main protagonists of the first non-conformist art groups in 1979 China. A leader of the Stars Group (Xing Xing) art exhibition, he was pivotal in the art movement that initiated some of the first free art expressions in the Post-Mao era bringing together like-minded artists such as Wang Keping and Ma Desheng. As a seminal figure of the Dashanzi Factory 798 Art District, Huang Rui has sought to express art’s function as a reflection of society and its strength in addressing contemporary concerns.