It was two years ago when I firstly saw Chen Ruo Bing’s works. Those small paintings were placed in a corner, unusually silent, almost attracting no attention. When arranging the exhibits, I still felt somewhat suspicious about his works until they were finally hung on the wall. The impact came at the instant of his works being put onto the wall. His works suddenly glowed. Then I turned to look at Ruo Bing, he was just smiling with confidence and candidness from the bottom of his heart. His abstract works greatly challenge my visual appreciation, causing me to reflect on the interpretation of Chinese abstract painting in the current debate in Chinese art community. To clearly recognize the uniqueness of Chen’s creation, we have to comb the understanding of Chinese abstract painting to provide a reference for approaching Chen’s paintings. Among the numerous interpretations, there are mainly three kinds of opinions.
The first kind of opinion inclines to “restore ancient ways”, that is, attempting to discover the source of modern abstract painting from ancient Chinese culture. This interpretation could also be divided into two sorts: the first emphasizes seeking the roots in the concept of creation, and the other accentuates retrospection of the formal elements. The former usually establishes a connection between contemporary abstract painting and the ancient ideologies of Zen and Tao, to search for a foundation for the artist’s own creation with a cultural reference and philosophic significance; the latter tries to discover the clues of contemporary abstract painting’s form from ancient art, to “seek” the symbolic counterpoint of painting’s form. Some abstract painters “defending” traditional culture question the significance of “Similarity’s” existence with the nihilistic attitude in Chinese Zen and Tao towards “Being”, thus pointing towards “Nothing” – the abstraction of painting. Also some painters borrow certain concepts (such as “the rhythm of Qi”) from traditional Chinese painting theories to explain their own creation. In these ways, art creations in ancient and modern times seem to link up with each other, and the ancient painting theories just become the reason for the existence of contemporary abstract painting. However, during the process of the development of painting over thousands of years, Chinese painters have never really gotten rid of similarity in shape, always swaying between similarity and dissimilarity. I don’t deny the possibility that ancient theories may be proved in modern times, but I object to the vague interpretation of abstract painting. The philosopher Xu Youyu’s standpoint of “abstract painting needing boundaries” is the straightforward response to the abstruse and nihilistic interpretation of Chinese abstract painting.
The second opinion inclines to “admire the western”, that is, seeking out the similarities between western abstract art and Chinese contemporary abstract painting. Some theorists spare no efforts in introducing western abstract painting and its theoretical system, expecting to find the appropriate reasons for Chinese contemporary abstract painting from the perspective of western academic theories, and actively advocating western abstract painting’s value and significance in China’s reality. Such a doctrine of adoption is quite unconvincing. Besides, this sort of interpretation faces such a predicament that the study of abstract art has been absent from Chinese art education for a long time. The consequential result is that the ordinary audience, the art students and even many Chinese critics lack the visual ability to appreciate abstract painting, which is a wide gap unable to be overcome in a short period of time.
The third opinion tends towards looking for the real context and reason for the emergence of Chinese abstract painting from the existing foundation in reality. Such a tendency is also divided into two kinds. The first regards abstract painting as the token of liberalism, considering it as an art genre resisting China’s reality, mainstream painting and even the current phenomenon of overwhelming art commercialization, and emphasizing the artists’ liberalistic wills. The other takes Chinese abstract painting as a more truthful description about Chinese modernity. A critic making the first judgment inclines more to take the side of liberalistic intellectuals, regarding abstract painting as art demonstrating the force of social criticism; the latter emphasizes more the spontaneity and independence of abstraction, believing Chinese abstract painting is closer to the spiritual existence of China’s reality and the artists engaged in abstract painting should be more able to reflect on modernity and develop independence in their creative work.
I agree with the interpretation of independent abstract painting. Since the 20th century, the continual discussions on the problems about the ancient and the modern and about what is Chinese and what is Western in Chinese cultural community has changed public ideological patterns. During the process of emphasizing the similarities and differences, the invisible wide gap between the ancient and the modern and between the Chinese and the Western has been deepened and widened by incessant repetitions and narrations. Already used to thinking in the pattern of comparing the modern to the ancient and the Chinese to the Western, the interpreters have been unable see the essential problem of art any more, but are entangled in the dualistically opposite confusion and passion. Such an ideological pattern is very common and stubborn in Chinese art circles. Losing the ability to focus on the key questions in art, many Chinese artists only sense compulsion and virtual resistance in the dualistic opposing ideologies that presume “the western enemy” or “the western friend”, and “China” is also simplified into a symbol in their minds.
Chen has transcended the conflicts and alienations in time and geography and the alternatives of restoring ancient ways or admiring what is western. Facing these problems, he treats them in an easy, natural and harmonious way, producing another sort of sound with his philosophy of life and individual creation, processing his insistence in a different way. The sound and insistence are patient, understated and calm. Chen’s life and experiences provide the opportunity for his unique art creation. Before going overseas in 1992, Chen had absorbed the nourishment of traditional Chinese culture for a long time. With deep comprehension about ancient Chinese culture, he feels close to traditional culture. In the 1980s, when Chinese were excited about the modernistic dreams, Chen was enjoying himself in the world of traditional culture. From his childhood, he learned the bold, unrestrained and spontaneous calligraphy of Su Dongpo’s style, which seemed accidental but actually quite inevitable. He grew up through the course of numerous subconscious choices and conscious judgments. His early experiences obviously influenced his later creation. I could vaguely sense his accumulated skills in calligraphy training from the brushstrokes of his current abstract paintings.
In the beginning when he learned painting in Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany, Chen was confronted with the quite different culture and environment and the strange and alien western art system without other choices. Probably his familiarity with the traditions bestowed on him the courage and confidence to accept this new challenge, to seek the breakthrough and to move beyond the previous creation pattern. It is not easy to find the next new oasis during the long trek after leaving one’s former cultural seedbed. During the creative process of long-term experimentation and practice, he gradually found out the core ideology of western contemporary art was like the spiritual essence of traditional Chinese art, as, in the end, art is concerned with the human being’s existence and spiritual pursuit. He felt he couldn’t regard the eastern and the western art as opposites. Cognitive transcension did not mean the immediate breakthrough in art practice. Until the end of the 1990s, he finally retrieved his state of free creation once bestowed by ancient Chinese culture. Turning from discovering the diversity of possibilities to recognizing the uniqueness of necessity is the key point for him to really enter the new art world, and thus the goal of his creative work became clear. “Having searched for her hundreds and thousands of times in the crowd, suddenly you turn back, and she is there by the dim light.” The new rules in painting led to new achievements in his works. From the new concept to the new materials and new forms, all these things were represented in painting to find the reason for existence. Then Chen also obtained new understanding of the aspect of color. His sensitivity for the relationship between colors was awakened, replacing the Chinese previously isolated focus on single colors. The specific color relationships in paintings create certain visual effects, therefore forming the multiple levels in painting space, and the spatial sense of movement incorporates the concept of time into the two-dimensional painting. Chen’s painting is lightened up.
The sudden comprehensions of the two aspects of form and color provided the opportunity for Chen to thoroughly understand the relations between the ancient and the modern and between the Chinese and the Western. Traditional Chinese education has established the foundation of his life perception and art pursuit to a large extent, shaping his selfless attitude and mild way of living. When facing the impact of various western art forms, he meditated once again on his attitude to life and concept of art formed before he went to Europe, incorporating them with his newly found forms of art expressions to lead him towards the new world of creation. These two experiences constitute his life. Today, Chen is already able to transcend the alienations caused by the problems of time and geography. His works, attitude to life or observations of society, all manifest a worthy calmness and tranquility, forming a distinctive contrast with present art community which filled with constant news and forms of restlessness.
The objective of Chen’s art creation is to achieve painting’s independence and spontaneity. Just as when he says, “My happiest time is the moment of finding the painting’s glory. The glory should be dazzling. Painting can freeze the magnificence of the moment. A painting becomes independent when it starts to glow, no longer needing the painter to exist in the world.”
Appreciating Chen’s works needs an open mind and patience. It is rather difficult for many in the audience to accept Chen’s works, as they look upon the art works with their own prejudices and set patterns of appreciation. However, before Chen’s works, they would find that the artists’ works are new challenges forever. The challenge is silent. Only when you drop all the burdens (such as the dualistically opposite mental state and ideological pattern) to accept the challenge, you may be able to really see the works. As an individual artist, Chen believes artists and art works cannot be forced. He hopes that artists will undertake their responsibilities, face life without ostentation, and become whole-heartedly involved in their creation. Retaining the ancient interests and aloofness in modern painting, his works are simple, elegant, tranquil, understated, with Chinese spirit and will permeating under the western form.
Facing not only the problems of art and life but also the ills of society and culture as a whole, Chen Ruo Bing remains resolute and demonstrates his own perception. As if easily lifting a heavy weight, he wanders among all the times and all over the world in a neither humble nor arrogant way with his individual creation.