Arts Listings

Arts: Traditional Chinese FormsLinked to Eclectic Abstraction, By: Robert McDonald

Tuesday March 14, 2006

A passion for beauty impels Changming Meng to create his ink paintings on paper, 20 of which are on view in the public areas of UC’s Institute of East Asian Studies through March 24. The overall effects of these expressive reductive works—in the artist’s 51st solo exhibition!—are twofold. They free viewers of their preconceptions, cleansing their eyes and spirits, and they nourish them with a fresh energy, not just for confronting art, but life, as well.  

Born in 1961, Meng began at the age of five to study traditional Chinese calligraphy. Later he simultaneously studied the disciplines of socialist realism and traditional Chinese painting at the Nanjing Art School. The curriculum, as a matter of course, also included calligraphy and martial arts.  

The profound spirituality that Meng experienced during a sojourn of six months in Tibet awakened in him a sense that here was the authentic source of Chinese culture. It also awakened him to the limitations of socialist realism, influencing him to abandon it as a mode of expression for himself while he painted two hundred abstractions. Of this period Meng comments that his response to Tibet was what he imagines Paul Gauguin must have felt when he visited Tahiti, feelings that the French artist conveys in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? During the following years Meng traveled intermittently throughout China. “Your culture,” he learned, “runs in your blood.”  

The artist then spent two years (1987-1989) reading the works of weste rn philosophers and novelists, favoring, in particular, German philosophy and French literature. He waxes enthusiastic about philosophers Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche and novelists James Joyce and Marcel Proust, as much for the challenges they po se to his own attitudes as for the insights they offer to the human condition. 

In 1990, Meng, having only three phrases in English and 80 dollars in his pocket, moved to the United States. Commercial success gave him the means to travel. Everywhere he we nt—Greece, Egypt, Russia, France, Israel, the United States, Kenya, Sudan, etc.—he visited art museums, adding to his personal visual encyclopedia. In America he was particularly drawn to the works of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.  

From 1996 to 20 00 he painted his Heaven and Earth series, which was characterized by eclecticism in materials, imagery and forms. He paused to reflect, concluding that the Heaven and Earth series was too philosophical. Simply put, “Art is not philosophy.” Its proper con cern is beauty and he wants to make art that is original with himself and organic in spirit. “There is too much mechanical stuff in contemporary art,” he says. 

He turned to the traditional materials, imagery and forms of his Chinese heritage. A solo exhi bition at the National Museum of China in Nanjing in 2001 at the age of 41 made him the youngest artist as yet so honored  

Upon entering the exhibition space, a visitor sees two vertical panels whose abstract forms, in black, gray and red on white repres ent lotuses and goldfish in a pond. An essential lesson, when looking at this art, is to recognize that white space is not empty. In these panels, as elsewhere, it is essential to the overall composition—as much as the white space on a printed page of a p oem by Stéphane Mallarmé. Symbolically, Meng uses red to represent human life, black to represent earth, and white to represent the sky.  

Happy Fish, for all the ostensible naïeveté of its title, is a compositional tour de force with vertical red strokes ascending the right-hand side of the panel—Meng painted them intuitively to suggest an infinite number of fish—and one black stroke in a broad band of white on the left-hand side. Painting it was “like writing a poem,” he says. As with his other works, i t told him “when it was finished.”  

In Lotus No. 4 fish appear to be channeling themselves between two black forms. The composition was not so important to Meng in painting this work as was the spirit of play. This spirit predominates in other works usin g abstracted fish imagery, as well. Two mostly black Ink Works, dating from 2004, though non-referential abstractions convey muscular tension, bringing to mind some of the works of Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning. Expressionism also characterizes Fish, a very complexly composed work in red, black, gray and white that looks like reductive music made visible. (Music of Mozart, in fact, accompanies Meng as he works in his studio.) In four works on view, Meng has appropriated images from Henri Matisse: an odalisque, of course; a woman in puffy sleeves; two women in a patio with a guitar; and a still life of fish bowls. The artist explains: “I want ordinary people to be able to enjoy what is in museums and private collections.” Other vertical panels, with the addition of green ink, suggest gourds and vines. The most mirthful painting exhibited is Crane No. 1 crowded with solid black images of long-necked waterfowl. Their startling red eyes are essential to the synesthetic experience of their squaking. It is no coincidence that the artist, his wife and two sons live near Oakland’s Lake Merritt. Thus the incidents of everyday life, unique and organic, nourish the inspiration of Changming Meng. ªt