Homology of Scenery and Soul: The Spiritual Map of “Far-seeing” Xu Jiang
Jul 28, 2023 TANC
“Like a far-sighted historian, the painter has been involved in the historical view of the city, the century retrospective of a generation, and the poetic and freehand brushwork of the Jiangnan landscape.” Artist Xu Jiang wrote in his “Far-seeing Landscape”. On the afternoon of July 15th, the “Far-seeing – Xu Jiang Art Exhibition” opened at the Jiu Shi International Art Center in Shanghai. The exhibition is divided into three sections: “Sea View of the City”, “Kui Garden Watch”, and “Mountain and Water Gaze”. Taking “far-seeing” as the clue, it presents Xu Jiang’s painting creation for more than 20 years, revealing his creative posture in different stages of artistic development.
Looking out through the window of the exhibition space on Zhongshan East Road, the iconic building of the Bund in Shanghai, the “Bund Signal Tower”, is clearly visible. The history of the signal tower can be traced back to the late 19th century, and in the early 20th century, the signal tower was the tallest building on the Bund at that time. In Xu Jiang’s “Great Shanghai – South View of the Bund” created in 2023, viewers can also find the trace of the signal tower in the picture. As revealed in this work, in the “Sea View of the City” section, Xu Jiang presents his far-sighted view of historical scenery from the 1990s to the present, spanning more than 20 years.
Xu Jiang incorporates his “far-sighted” view of the city into works of different sizes, reflecting his observation of the city from different focal lengths. The “Great Shanghai” series of large-scale oil paintings adopts a literal “far-sighted” perspective, looking into the distance from a corner of a high-rise building, with the line of sight blocked or shaped by the skyline of high-rise buildings. The buildings along the Huangpu River in the picture are stripped of their actual colors and depicted as rough brown, yellow, and black lines. In Xu Jiang’s eyes, “inside and outside the building, the city, the flow of people, and history come together. Within reach, the endless dust and smoke of the West Coast of the ocean can be seen.”
In the entrance of the exhibition, “Old Nanjing Road in Shanghai,” by Xu Jiang, viewers can see a relief-like hand holding a chess piece, seemingly about to place it on a building. Above the scene, another hand is poised to make a move. Since the late 1980s, “chess” has been a signature element in Xu Jiang’s works, starting with the playful installation “The Game of Gods” exhibited at the Hamburg Academy of Fine Arts in 1989. Over time, his works have become more spiritual, transitioning from installations to paintings on canvas. In his view, the aerial view of a cityscape is a way to observe the “vanished and vanishing scenery” of the city, and the history of the city becomes a landscape that is generated in the present. The two hands holding the chess pieces above the city seem to tell the story of the city’s rich history through the passage of time.
Xu Jiang’s perspective on the cityscape also focuses on the cross-section of the city. The smaller watercolor and oil paintings on paper in the exhibition depict the specific expressions of Shanghai. Similar to the “Old Shanghai” series, the “City and Wall,” “White Tile and Black Tile,” “Stone Archway,” and “City Sky” series still use colors that reflect the dusty and mottled hues of the city. However, the meticulous arrangement and blurred lines in the paintings capture the details of the city like a macro lens. In “City Sky,” the yellow-gray city sky is divided by intersecting black power lines, presenting a story that spans history in Xu Jiang’s brushstrokes.
The “Sunflower Watchtower” section showcases Xu Jiang’s 18-year process of seeking, painting, and praising sunflowers since the turn of the century. In 2003, Xu Jiang encountered a field of sunflowers on the Anatolian Plateau near the Mediterranean Sea, and since then, sunflowers have become his most representative creative theme. “Sunflowers are just like this. They are both the youthful memories that bring tears to our eyes and the daily renewal of life. All things and souls meet here, and sunflowers become our shared joy and sorrow,” Xu Jiang wrote in “Plants and Trees Speak to the Heart.”
Xu Jiang’s “Water and Clouds in Kui Garden” is a 180cm x 200cm oil painting created in the early 21st century. The painting depicts Kui Garden in a state of decay, confusion, entanglement, and struggle, resembling a ruin. The perspective point disappears on the horizon of the vast Kui Garden. Poet Yu Jian saw Xu Jiang’s expression of “square” and “ruin” in Kui Garden in his poem “Metaphorical Sunflowers”: “These huge sunflower paintings are like squares or ruins, only one step away from the square to the ruin. The former is a carnival-style performance of nothingness, and the latter is an abyss-style acceptance of failure. The author sees the tragic nature of life in our era, but this tragic nature is only metaphorically expressed. This is the sunflower on the earth, not the square in the era. It is not a sunflower in the botanical sense, but it is close to a certain spiritual realm.” The clear horizon is the landing place of his “far-sighted” Kui Garden, reaching the depth of the earth with the heart of plants. “The Kui Garden, which is the same color as the earth, brings out a kind of toughness and sadness that is born and dies with the earth.”
In contrast, Xu Jiang’s Kui Garden in the 2010s slowly began to show a seemingly “open and bright” trend. In terms of color, a large amount of fresh green and golden yellow cover the entire painting. Even the sky uses a clearer light green or goose yellow. In “Washing the Tassel,” under the sparse sunflowers, the soil of Kui Garden presents a flesh-colored tone. This color is different from the previous ruin-like Kui Garden. It represents the image of sunflowers that Xu Jiang considers as “youthful memories with tears in his eyes.” The posture of the sunflowers is not the “silence” and “quietness” represented by the ruins, but a dynamic resistance like facing the strong wind.
“Green Grass Flying” is a 100cm x 138cm oil painting created by Xu Jiang in 2020.
“Mountain and Water Gazing” is a representation of Xu Jiang’s state of mind during his travels through the mountains and waters of Zhejiang since 2020. After his “grand tour” of Europe at the end of the last century, the artist, who has undergone years of artistic refinement, has shifted his gaze from chess games, bird’s-eye views, and sunflower gardens to the mountains and waters in the “nearby” vicinity. According to Gao Shiming, the dean of the China Academy of Art, “Xu Jiang’s creative form has undergone a reverse development process: from space back to the canvas, from concept back to painting. He has shown us a personal retrospective art history.”
The imagery of the city or sunflower garden is an attempt to embed history in space, and the far-reaching view is as vast and long-lasting as history itself. On the other hand, the imagery of the mountains and waters from Tiantai Mountain, Yandang Mountain to Fuchun River, retracts the gaze and plunges it into deeper forests and quieter water currents, where the “horizon” is obscured by mountains, and people are already within the horizon. The “far” of “far-reaching view” extends from the physical distance to the pure distance of the soul. Gao Shiming said at the opening ceremony, “He often focuses on the most ordinary places in the mountains and forests, and starts from the non-painted places, but miraculously transforms the abundant painting meaning from the rough and messy nature – he is looking for a kind of ‘imperfection,’ which is the disorder and naturalness of nature, and the ‘unevenness in uniformity’ of creation. This is not only a reconstruction of oil painting language, but also a modern transformation of Chinese tradition – the brushwork and writing characteristics that are full of Chinese connotations, the literati sentiment of climbing and gazing, after his ups and downs and vigorous language transformation, shine as a modern style full of Chinese connotations and expressive tension.”
The first image is titled “Hui Feng,” an oil painting on canvas measuring 260cm x 180cm, created in 2017. The second image is titled “A Day in the Mountains,” a paper oil painting measuring 73cm x 50cm x 3, created in 2021.
In his artwork, “富春山旅图” (Travelling through the Mountains of Fuchun), Xu Jiang has presented his artistic expression path of over 20 years through the themes of “gazing,” “watching,” and “looking.” For Xu Jiang, “looking” is not only his artistic creation method but also his philosophy of life. Today, “looking into the distance” has become increasingly necessary for our daily lives and spiritual needs. According to Xu Jiang, “For us, ‘distance’ does not indicate physical distance or location, but rather implies a certain interconnection, potential historical opportunities, and the clarity of ‘seeing everything as one.’ More importantly, ‘distance’ speaks of the realm and poetic sentiment where we face each other with history.”