THOUGH SHANG YANG enjoyed great success with his series “The Dong Qichang Project,” he has far from rested on his laurels in the decade since. In his latest solo exhibition at the Suzhou Museum, “Shang Yang’s Art in Suzhou,” he has displayed a group of works made from materials entirely new for him— including steel, mud, silk, paper, and bamboo—most of which were sourced in and around Suzhou. His intention is clear: to combine modern industrial materials with traditional silk and bamboo (both of which symbolize the traditional culture of the Jiangnan region). These materials amount to a cultural clash, and also create the potential for a new painterly vocabulary. In this series, one of the most successful works is Washing Bamboo, which features bamboo burned onto a waterproof canvas completely covered by tar, the organic material melding into the industrial. The choice of material is deliberate. The relationship between humans and nature has always been at the heart of Shang’s practice.
IN 1981, SHANG Yang’s graduation work Boatmen on the Yellow River won universal acclaim from the official art establishment, and was described as “a tribute to his mentors.” However, he quickly abandoned the Soviet oil painting he learned at the academy and turned to mixed media. His breakthrough came when he let the choice of materials inform the content and visual style of his work. His “State” series (part of the “Eight Oil Painters” show held in Beijing in 1989) was highly successful in its use of media and visual impact, with State 4 already acknowledged as a classic. Its background is made from nine sheets of newspaper modeled on moveable stereotype (created by embossing several layers of paper which have been moistened and laminated together, a method no longer in use). On the oxidized surface you can still barely make out the old printed text, and printed on the paper is an image of silk cloth. In the late 1980s the whole of Chinese society was going through a very sensitive time politically. The materials used in the “State” series were related to paper or ink—the tools of propaganda. Although Shang insists that the inspiration for the series was “insignificant” experimentation with media, and was a departure from his usual painting style, this “insignificant” choice of material led him to a new phase both stylistically and in subject matter. Abstraction and mixed media are crucial elements in his later work.
Collage and pastiche are common methods in postmodern art. Before the “Dong Qichang Project” Shang Yang made a series of Pop works, including the collages Bride, Mona/Monroe and Large Portrait. The first two directly appropriated the image of the Mona Lisa. In Bride, the Mona Lisa is traced onto the canvas, then pieces of transparent food wrappers are applied. The classic smile of the Mona Lisa in the painting is mixed up with the slogans and brand names “Happy New Year,” “Good Fortune,” “Quality guaranteed or your money back,” “Marlboro,” and so on. Before 2000, rather than directly referencing Pop in his artistic language, Shang constantly changed with the fast-moving consumer society, in search for the right means of expression.
“NATURE” IS A core concern of Shang Yang’s work. When we look back at his series of large landscapes we can see the progress of his dialogue with nature. Throughout the 1990s Shang Yang depicted the broad swaths of the northern Chinese landscape in what is known as his “Grand Landscape” series. Shang’s monochrome explorations of spatial relationship on a flat surface has been compared by several critics to Cézanne. It is worth pointing out that Cézanne’s innovations in painting technique owed to the feeling of space created between the smoothness of classical oil painting and the exquisite play of light. Emphatic brushstrokes and color relationships are extremely important to Cézanne’s aesthetics, but the subject does not have any particular psychological meaning in Cézanne’s paintings—his landscapes, still life, and portraits are no more than vehicles for formal study.
For Shang Yang, the subject has a clear purpose. The works in his “Grand Landscape” have very similar titles (Grand Landscape, Grand Landscape with Light 1, 1995 Grand Landscape 1, and so on), so that the use of the word landscape loses any concrete meaning and becomes an abstract term. “Modeling oneself on nature” is a tradition in East Asian art. Even though Shang studied Soviet realism while at the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts, the technical skill he learned gave him a way to have a dialogue with nature. He did not pursue formal innovation as in Western Modernism, or the study of light like classical painting, and he is not just representing nature. In “Grand Landscape,” you can faintly make out figures and vehicles among the fields and mountain ranges, some solitary, some in motion, and most in an unstable or precarious state. Although there is an abstract aspect to the landscapes in this series, more important is the implied description of contemporary society.
From 2000 in the “Dong Qichang Project” Shang Yang even more explicitly took traditional mountains and rivers landscape as his subject. “In 1994, I planned to use Dong Qichang’s landscapes as the background schema for ‘Grand Landscape’ but I later shelved the idea. For years I have been using ‘grand landscapes’ to express my concern about the relationship between humans and our environment and about our future survival as a species. In 2002 when I finished the ‘Introduction to Landscape Painting’ series I wrote the following: ‘The canon of landscape painting has already changed beyond recognition, where do we even begin studying it?’” “I came back to Dong Qichang. Under his brush came together the different expressive styles of the artists of the middle ages on this single subject—nature at one with humans. Now they no longer exist and have been replaced by a fake nature” (Shang Yang’s Views on Art). What the artist means by “nature” is a combination of agriculture and modern industry, a concept ripe with modernist metaphor.
In the “Dong Qichang Project” Shang Yang addressed both the contemporary condition and issues in art history. He found a logical way to try to solve the major problem of painting: subjectivity. The best-known starting point and large canvas, Dong Qichang Project 2 (148 x 699 cm) shows the artist’s thinking clearly. The first painting in this triptych depicts Dong Qichang visiting [son of Northern Song painter Mi Fu] Mi Yuanhui, the second Dong Qichang visiting [Yuanera poet and painter] Ni Yunlin, and the third is a landscape created with digital modeling. From left to right, it moves from the Yuan dynasty to the present day. Subsequent
works in the series are generally of a similarly large scale, with ever greater pure technical skill apparent. For example, Dong Qichang Project 12 consists of a single large mountain, its painted peak emerging from a landscape of spray paint. Visually it looks like both a classical landscape and, just as recognizably, symbolically industrial. On the one hand, Shang is from a generation of socially-conscious artists who often relate their work to contemporary events and in this respect his artistic practice is grounded in realism. On the other hand, he has not abandoned the problem of when Chinese art, in the process of modernization, encounters Western Modernism. Although he has not carried on traditional ink painting, he is currently using collage to evoke a traditional Chinese “nature.” In this respect his creative methodology is postmodern.
Clearly, Shang Yang does not view his latest work as finished. The 30 or so works on show at the Suzhou Museum are only another experiment following on from the “Dong Qichang Project,” on which the artist himself is still reflecting. One of the works, Leftover Mountain, was made by tearing apart Dong Qichang Project 33 and putting it back together again. And then there’s Washing Bamboo—who knows what sort of landscape Shang is next approaching?