Ladies and Gentlemen, the temptation is great to view a young painter from a double perspective if, as in the case of Chen Ruo Bing, he began his art studies in China and concluded them in Germany. The path he took between 1988 and 1998 led him from the China Academy of Art in the southern Chinese city of Hangzhou to Gotthard Graubner in Düsseldorf. His biography reinforces this double take.
Yet why does splitting Chen Ruo Bing into two traditions remain unsatisfactory? Or, say, scanning his paintings for influxes, even though these have long been impossible to comprehend from a training-exercise standpoint but have found their OWN center not between, but out of, two worlds? Two worlds that flow insolubly together to one.
Thus, from the beginning, I insist on the aesthetic unity of these paintings before I – do after all – pursue their double origin. For the eye sees syntheses whereas language, this side of poetry, depends on analytic patterns and finds distinctions in what resembles a single breath.
Four and six slim upright formats. Seven smaller squares hung vertically to one side next to them; upright, square formats lined up at identical intervals. Each shows a vertical bar against a monochrome background. The brush style, the vital principle of East Asian painting, is determinedly subdued and pacified. With no faltering, stemming or speckling – applied with a flow of movement. Except that the red or green bars are enlivened by a clandestine flamboyance that seems to vibrate lightly, ever so slightly, in a glaze of orange over red, green over grey, a painterly differentiation made up of consolidation, clouding, lightening. Almost unnoticeably, the eye is set in motion. Yet even here there is no thickened brush stroke, no liquid outflow and, even more, no trace of the rapidity or the painting process that has so often been associated with Far Eastern calligraphy since Abstract Expressionism.
And yet: despite this rejection of readability, a tie-in with ideograms remains. As a western viewer, I recall from somewhere in the past that the Chinese language is made up of words of only one syllable. One syllable/one word. I am told that all the words in a sentence stand side by side, with no declinations or conjugations and no conjunctions. A syntax that isolates and aligns. The question inevitably arises as to whether this paratactic rhythm of the Chinese language thrives on picture sequences: one bar, one syllable, one word. Does the brush stroke from up to down not correspond to the verticality of the line, to which the sheerness of the narrow format in turn corresponds? Do these abstract, emblematic words not succeed each other like the gong strokes often heard in a Chinese cultural context?
But it is not only the proximity to calligraphy that recalls tradition. A Chinese critic gave his essay on Chen Ruo Bing the title of “Tao of Minimalism” and based his interpretation on a reference to the significant philosophy that is the fundament of China’s cultural worlds. Although this artist (as any good artist) resists any philosophic appropriation, I have taken the precaution to look up once again which aspect of Taoism – after a good two-and-a-half thousand years – could still be at work in the oeuvre of a contemporary artist. I come across the quotation of a Taoist scribe from the 6th century and recapitulate that writing in China has long been intimately linked with painting and even enjoyed a higher status. From calligraphy to painting is a short step. The master advises: “If you intend to write, you must suppress activating the senses of seeing and hearing. You switch off your thoughts and concentrate your mind. If you then straighten your heart, you are soon wonderfully in harmony with the given factors of painting. It is then that we manifest the highest empty state and preserve intense stillness.” Then do works of the greatest simplicity come about.
I can almost hear the voice of this ancient scribe when in a conversation Chen talks of how, while painting, he locks out all outside impressions, switches off any music and concentrates on the harmony within himself. Emptiness, stillness, simplicity are key concepts in Taoist thinking: the other, romantically meandering feature of Chinese culture next to the socially pragmatic conservatism of Confucius. Chen’s visible rejection of anything haphazard, coincidental, superfluous or only skin deep, the reduction and abstract “simplicity” of his paintings, give Taoist ideas a clear form.
In Tao-te Ching I find another quotation: “Tao begot one. One begot two. And three begot the ten thousand things.“ (translation Feng) The Tao, however, is the “the primal source of all being, the law of all laws, the measure of all measures,” as a German philosophy professor gauchely put it. Would it be going too far to point to a first, second, third and even fourth image in which – by virtue of its genesis of the fourth – everything is comprised, from its first origin up to the profusion of manifestations? I know that I am imposing a heavy burden on a random sequence of pictures, but it does elucidate a background that harks back to the depths of Chinese philosophy.
The artist’s biography provides step-by-step details. In the early 1990s Chen’s paintings very visibly reflected their roots in calligraphy. Then the painter continued via the stone rubbings of the Han period and their exemplary calligraphers. In a short phase of semi-abstract signs, memories of classical Chinese motifs – landscape and figures – seeped into his work. Chen used Indian ink above all, but also at times charcoal. What is characteristic is this restriction to black and white. In Chinese tradition, color is regarded with reservation, if not completely rejected. It is seen as profane and decorative and accused of reflecting worldly illusion.
So it was that Chen Ruo Bing, in a many ways a traditional Chinese painter, arrived in Germany in 1992. His native country lies in cloud-hung, fog-veiled Westlake (Xi Hu), its landscapes almost colorless. As luck would have it, at the Düsseldorf Academy he very quickly met Gotthard Graubner, one of the few great colorists in German art, a painter with an absolute chromatic ear. For Chen, coming from a culture that eyes color with suspicion, this must have been a revelation. Not that he became a disciple at one blow! He persisted in black and white for a long time, first began by taking up subdued colors, became adept at the technique of glazing, discovered the spatial values of warm and cool colors, cautiously tried out the mutual heightening of complementary effects and, recognized the link between color and light (which has become increasingly more significant and given this exhibition its name). In contrast to the tradition of slim, upright rectangles, he builds up a veritable bastion of square formats. He studies Mondrian’s constructivist equilibrium, explores the balancing act of relational composition and confronts the open, soft, cushiony canvases of his Düsseldorf mentor with paintings of rectangular rhythms and rhymes. He metes out intervals and in-between spaces, and this asymmetric arrangement of the bars is striking even in the Fuhrwerkswaage. Together with its gray or yellow background, an intense proportional configuration – or what Theodor Hetzer calls a “Bildleib” (picture body) – is formed, which probes the roots of a western-imprinted, modern picture.
But it is color that Chen works at most diligently. He uses its spatial and emotional energy, provides it with dignity, solemnity, monumentality and, yes, even elegance. He infuses it with light, makes it luminous and flexible. He overcomes the weight of the brushstroke by letting the bars – the paintings in the Fuhrwerkswaage – rise and fall. Thus he returns – in a new way – to an important entitlement of Chinese calligraphy. Approximately two years ago, in a recollection of styled writing, he became self-assured enough to place starkly upright canvases next to square ones. On the walls of the Fuhrwerkswaage you can see both: the breakthrough to sheer color and the course to his own tradition. Perhaps it now becomes clear why I had my difficulties in first speaking of a Chinese portion and then going on to speak of a western-tinted autonomy. Both influxes have mutually flourished, without loss.