Essay and Interview



Yang Jinsong’s Paintings: Touch the Possible Shape, 2016–2018
By Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky

        The new paintings by Yang Jinsong on exhibit at White Box Art Center in Beijing’s 798 District (April 28 to June, 2018) are each dedicated to a single element of a landscape—close-up views of roiling waters in a simplified seascape or a windswept grove of willows—marking a radical departure from previous work. His canvases from nearly two decades ago, in a nod to Netherlandish painting, were densely packed, minutely detailed portraits of himself and his beloved wife Shecai in an interior space filled with brilliantly coloured renderings of everyday objects and things—furniture, kitchen appliances, books, food, dishes and more—where the character of the individuals portrayed is suggested by the plethora of consumer objects that surround them. Beginning in 2004 he commented on the corruption and pollution of the environment by adopting the metaphor of a cat, fish, or watermelon in large-scale, expressionistic paintings. In capturing the textures of cat fur or the bloody guts of a splayed fish, he employed unrestrained gestures and applied the paint with thick and thin passages of impasto on the canvas. Yang Jinsong then interjected into these scenarios details of discarded TVs, cell phones, and other broken consumer products, garbage, AK47s, barbed wire, earth movers, helicopters, and more. Later, around 2012, Yang Jinsong also took up landscape painting, making small, blue-and-green landscape-based paintings that were again dominated by portraits of himself and his wife, and, with the birth of their son, his image too was added to the compositions. But the most recent canvases have a subdued monochromatic palette, being painted on a light ground with subtle strokes of grey and black lines and occasional patches of a ghostly light ochre. And no figures are present.

Yang Jinsong, installation view of Touch the Possible Shape at White Box Art Center. Courtesy of the artist and White Box Art Center, Beijing.

Yang Jinsong, Bamboo, 2002, oil on canvas, 180 x 130 cm. Courtesy of the artist. 
         In addition to the iconography, the new paintings are also different in their painterly technique. From a distance they appear as naturalistic views that feature one aspect of the landscape, but upon closer observation, the subjects have a restless quality that arises from passages of lines, dots, drips, and slashes that are applied in an allover pattern. The importance of these new elements is the result of Yang Jinsong’s engagement with calligraphy, a passion he has explored for the past ten years. Gradually, through ongoing practice, his skill with the brush has improved, and his writing has taken on vigour, flexibility, diversity, and, at the same time, grace. These paintings are in oil on canvas, but now Yang Jinsong uses his calligraphy brushes to apply the paint. Traditionally in China, calligraphy has been greatly admired, and Yang Jingsong now partakes in that tradition, which is the hallmark of literati artists who, beginning in the Yuan dynasty, eschewed representational values for calligraphic ones; that is, the brushwork itself became the most important feature of the painting. Masters such as Ni Zan (1301–1374) are admired for their demonstrations of ink brushstrokes on paper, offering no pictorial elements beyond the indication of a hill on a distant shore or a close-up view of a small grove of trees. As the subject was relatively unimportant to him, Ni Zan rarely varied his compositions. Like Ni Zan, Yang Jinsong employs a range of brushstrokes to render the slender sinewy trunks or leafy branches of the willows. In Yang Jinsong’s work, as with literati painting, each line moves in counterpoint to the other, distinct in its thickness, length, curve, velocity, and direction: some are short dashes, some dots, and some string-like arcs that reach across the canvas. Each stroke is unique. Yang Jinsong largely rejects realistic effects and perspectival illusion in his paintings; rather, his strokes, like calligraphy, twist, turn, and overlap each other.

Yang Jinsong, AD 2001, 2001, oil on canvas, 155 x 200 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Yang Jinsong, Shang, 2008, oil on canvas, 280 x 450 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Yang Jinsong, Cloud No. 5, 2017, oil on canvas, 210 x 360 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

            As with calligraphy, the application of the ink strokes in Yang Jinsong’s paintings conveys a range of emotional moods. In China a literati’s calligraphy is thought of as a heart print that reveals his character and his state of mind. For example, the vigorous spirals and loops, as well as the thick and thin, light and dark lines of the Tang monk Huai Su (737–799), contrast with the fluid, measured, facile, and consistent elegance of the Golden Thread style of writing of the Song Emperor Huizong  (1082–1135).
         To illustrate this aspect of Chinese calligraphy, the esteemed scholar of Chinese painting Wen Fong attempted to date Ni Zan’s works according to the degree of emotion expressed in his writing. Aligning dated works with his biography, Wen Fong ascribed a slightly erratic and hesitant hand to the era when Ni Zan, around 1354, left or was forced to leave his country estate and dispersed all his possessions to family and friends. Under the Mongols, with whom he would not co-operate, life had become difficult with droughts, floods, and excessive taxation. The exact reason for his departure is not clear, but after this time he no longer had a home. As Ni Zan’s Confucian resolve was not to respond to the cruelty of his situation, only a slight tremor was recognizable in his writing and only experts like Wen Fong can clearly detect it.

Yang Jinsong, Willow No. 3, 2016, oil on canvas, 232 x 496 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Ni Zan, Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu, 1372, ink on paper, 96 x 38.1 cm. Collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Emperor Huizong, Finches and Bamboo, ink and colour on silk, 33.7 x 55.4 cm. Collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

            Yang Jinsong’s recent monochromatic paintings reflect his attempt to find peace of mind after the recent death of both of his parents. The seascapes were the result of a trip to the serene island of Putuoshan (Mount Puto) in southeast China, the home of the Buddhist deity Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion; it was a pilgrimage to bid his parents farewell. These grandly sized paintings could be considered quite Western in appearance; in one case we have the setting sun, another shows the horizon. Chinese traditional artists rarely portray the sea alone; it is nearly always part of a larger scene involving figural activity and with no indication of the time of day. Yang Jinsong, on the other hand, depicts, in pale to dark tones, the sea in a number of moods and times of day—from a placid pale morning sea to a dark and churning nightscape. The water is not shown in the context of the shore; instead, the artist focuses on defining the waves that eddy, pool, and swell. His brushwork lends a sense of volume to the water, which is then reinforced by a diffuse light that reflects off its surface and imparts a three-dimensional effect. Wang Jinsong in an interview explains,
I started painting new pictures continuing the South Sea series . . . the images grew weaker. In other words, the subject became less important. Lines seemed to grow by themselves, which is also a way of externalizing my mind. . . . Calligraphic exercising, painting, and reading are combined together, which calms my frenzied heart and makes a Bodhi of me.

Huai Su, Handscroll, ink on paper, 28.3 x 755 cm. Courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Yang Jinsong, Ocean No. 6,  2017, oil on canvas, 210 x 360 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

               Yang Jinsong found a gratifying distraction by meditating both on the subject of the sea and willow trees and a methodical application of the lines, all carried out to the accompaniment of the music of mostly Mozart and a few other classical composers.  Yang found the subject of the willows near at hand, outside his studio in Beijing:
I got a sudden impulse to paint the willow trees in front of my studio. The combination of willow branches, willow leaves and trunks in the pictures is just like that of traditional calligraphy. The image here is completely non-narrative, greatly different from my early painting, whose language was gradually getting less clear. . . . When a painting is finished, I have already forgotten the idea of it. There is a process of self-growth for painting, like my thoughts on death and rebirth several times in the moment.6

Yang Jinsong, Ocean No.10, 2018, oil on canvas, 210 x 360 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Yang Jinsong, Ocean No. 10 (detail), 2018, oil on canvas, 210 x 360 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
            With these recent paintings of trees and water, Yang Jinsong has at midlife found a balance of artistic influences. While in his earlier works he strove to meticulously render objects in the world in a Western style, he soon turned to a more expressionistic use of the brush. Now his compositions are simplified; his abstract expressionistic textures and the thick application of paint have given way to quiet monochrome compositions and calligraphic displays of brushwork. Searching for a new means of expression that incorporates his interest in calligraphy led him to explore the theme of “Touch the Possible Shape,” which also served as the title of the White Box Art Center exhibition. There is no resolution in the subjects that gave him solace in his grief; they represent the transience of nature—the wind in the willows, the endlessly roiling sea. His ever-moving brush and delicate monochromatic palette explores these forms, thus tentatively touching their possible shapes.

Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky, “New Works, New Directions in the Art of Yang Jinsong,” in Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art 7, no. 2 (March 2008).
Zhao Dan, “Drunk monk a master of cursive calligraphy,” ShanghaiDaily.com, March 28, 2010, https://www.shine.cn/archive/sunday/now-and-then/Drunk-monk-a-master-of-cursive-calligraphy/shdaily.shtml/.

Wen Fong, The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliot Collection, coauthored with Robert E. Harrist, Jr., et al. (Princeton, NJ: The Art Museum, Princeton University, and [New York  H. N. Abrams, 1999).

James Cahill, Hills Beyond the River, (New York, Weatherhill,1976) p. 114.

 Yang Jinsong, Touching Shapes in Uncertainty 2016–2018 (Beijing: Whitebox Art Center, 2018), 31