Herbs, 2010, Oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm

Perhaps not even Tu Hongtao himself anticipated that the transformation of his painting— which he had been repeatedly putting off—  would culminate in this solo exhibition at Iberia Center for Contemporary Art. During the unusually long preparation period for this exhibition, instead of knocking out paintings to fill a large space, as he has was forced to in the past, Tu carried out a series of fragmented linguistic experiments in search of a new self-affirming practice. The hazy objectives from which this exhibition develops may not be of primary concern to the artist, his priority perhaps less presenting mature painterly approach than presenting the atmosphere of instability that characterizes the transformative process itself, and whether the outside world is able to roughly gauge his new train of thought and direction.

The title “The Desire of Plants” may bring to mind that best-selling work of American pseudo-science The Secret Life of Plants, but as key words, they serve to mark out the dimensions of the transformation of Tu Hongtao’s work that can be traced to 2009. For Tu, botany has gradually become a central subject matter, while desire has become a theme of sorts. Even if he is now trying to articulate a relationship between the two, the depiction of plants and expression of desire in fact appear repeatedly in Tu’s work prior to this transformation, for one in 2009’s “Snowy Forests” series, the works therein sharing one key characteristic in their use of imagery.

When desire is turned into an easily decipherable symbol (like Tu Hongtao’s well-known piles of humans) and embedded into various staged depictions of reality, then the linguistic object becomes a slave to the image, reducing it to a re-fabricated form lacking subjectivity. Thereafter, its value only derives from viewers’ familiarity with the painter’s style. Tu is evidently aware of this imbalance between image and language. The new works on display at this exhibition show that the painter is in the process of constructing his own intrinsic connection to language, even if at the moment it only seems to emphasize the qualities of agility, grace, and speed that have long constituted the overall style of his painterly language. All this aside, Tu’s picture planes have changed remarkably.

The most obvious change is in the absence of desire symbolized by “human piles,” here replaced by trees and undergrowth spread across different depths. Tu Hongtao’s consummate experience in still-life drawing is one reason for his decision to focus on plant-life, though another has more to do with intuition: his recognition of the consequence of color on beauty. Indeed, Tu’s plants possess an indescribable energy, and also display the “unrestrained growth of desire”— to quote the exhibition’s curator— though at the same time are born out of his own persistent willpower. In the center of the gallery, while the painting Remembrance (2011) clearly commemorates Lucien Freud, it is the withered tree in bloom on Freud’s side that makes it remarkably thought-provoking.

Although Tu Hongtao works in the distinctly un-Chinese tradition of oil painting, the breakthrough brought about in his transformation came in confronting the Eastern aesthetic deep inside him. Just as his admiration for Japanese artist Noboyushi Araki led him to reexamine the ways in which traditional Chinese aesthetics differ from those of the West, an obvious example of this is held in the paintings that here pay homage to the Song-dynasty writer Su Dongpo. Thus, whilst “The Desire of Plants” could simply display the home-grown consciousness of a young Chinese painter, its subtleties rather lie in its relation with something concretely corporeal. In short, this show never contrived to exhibit any kind of cultural appeal, instead displaying the painter’s personal inquiry into the self. Sun Dongdong (Translated by Dominik Salter Dvorak)