Part III: A Shanshui Story – Origins of Chang Yi’s work

Part I: Chang Yi's "Touch of Red" Touches Hearts in France

Part II: The Evolution of Chang Yi - A Shanshui Story

Part III: A Shanshui Story – Origins of Chang Yi’s work

Part IV: In Your Heart, a Touch of Red

The Collection: A Touch of Red

YouTube Video: A Touch of Red

A Touch of Red Exhibition

Venue: LIULI Gallery at South Coast Plaza
Exhibition Date: 08/25 - 10/22/2017

The Deep Origins of Chang Yi's Contemporary Shanshui Art

In My Heart, Shan Shui  
Chang Yi 

Join shan (mountain) with shui (water) and the outcome is a unique genre of landscape painting with an unparalleled history.

The paintbrush has been used in China for over 2,200 years and its relationship to academia is inseparable.  When a scholar dips a maobi (brush) in mo (ink) and applies it to paper, the work is inevitably elevated. Students during China’s scientific revolution of the Tang and Song Dynasties knew that a passing grade in their exams depended not merely on their essay but on the calligraphy itself.

All Chinese are taught how to use the maobi for calligraphy from a young age and its profound cultural influence is connected to the tradition of calligraphy as a tool of academia.  To be familiar with using a maobi is to understand the relationship between brush, ink and water. The maobi is a tool through which the construct of Chinese characters flow and these characters have in turn shaped the unique style of traditional Chinese art. All Chinese academics possess the faculty to create wen ren hua, or scholarly paintings in which bamboo, flowers, birds and shan shui are core subjects. The ritual in which a maobi and mo are primed for use, the command of the maobi and the spatial design of the work draws parallels to the lifestyle aesthetic of the Chinese people and culture.

China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was not considered a world power because the leadership stressed culture over arms. Calligraphy and painting reached exceptional heights - even the emperors of Northern Song were exalted for their prowess with the brush. The general consensus among scholars of Chinese art is that the Northern Song was the golden age of Chinese shan shui in both technique and concept.  The paintings created during the period remain today as the benchmark for all Chinese shan shui. The dynasties that followed were not void of talent however as Tang poet Sikong Tu presented in his celebrated Twenty-four Properties of Poetry, the ultimate goal is to attain “the image beyond images, the landscape beyond landscape” and Northern Song shan shui has already fulfilled that aim.  The aesthetic of “the image beyond images, the landscape beyond landscape” has evolved across thousands of years as a medium through which passion and emotion is pursued to infinite consequence. The critique of Chinese shan shui is rarely concerned if the mountain or water in the painting is true to life. Rather, it is with the philosophical proposition of the landscape.

Chang Yi did not grown up in a scholarly home but his father, a businessman, possessed a punctilious hand when it came to calligraphy. This had its advantages as he was not constrained by classic Chinese theory nor by Western Enlightenment philosophies. He was allowed the space to explore his precocious nature and curious mind.

When he turned 5, Chang Yi’s father started teaching him how to “xie da zi” or, write large characters (this term is a literal one given that young children are typically incapable of writing small characters so the average size per character when children first learn calligraphy is a large 15 cm). He made Chang Yi practice 100 characters per day- one can imagine how difficult it is for a five year old to focus on this task.  Chang Yi found himself unable to do the work yet unable to disobey his father. More often than not, he would put it off just before his father returned home at night, speed-writing 100 characters by the light of the setting sun.

It appears today that this unorthodox early exposure to calligraphy has Chang Yi feeling both familiarity with and aversion toward the art. He has also discovered that among his contemporaries, there are few who know calligraphy.  Affinity with the past is often lost in this modern age and it is increasingly rare to find someone who can write decent calligraphy, let alone reflect on it.

When “writing” is accomplished through a keyboard and no longer by hand on maobi to paper, a part of the traditional Chinese aesthetic fades; it is a natural progression.  The concept behind Chinese shui muo (ink wash painting) is probably even more obsolete.

Chang Yi has never played by the rules. His voracious appetite for knowledge has taken him across literature, film and presently and most lasting, contemporary glass art. However through this evolution, he has found himself haunted by an unanswered question, a question that must be presented in parts:

The Song Dynasty is undoubtedly the apex of Chinese culture, especially in shan shui painting. Fan Kuan’s masterpiece Travelers Among Mountains and Streams displayed at the National Palace Museum draws crowds worldwide and is the pride of a nation. But this painting is three thousand years old - who is today’s Fan Kuan?

As Modernism becomes the norm in Western countries, contemporary Chinese painting has responded in kind.  Talent abounds but if you were asked to name the one contemporary artist who embodies the essence of shan shui, could you?

Embarking from the standpoint of cultural heritage and in observing the development of Modernism across the world, Chang Yi has, in his thirty years of working in contemporary glass art, discovered a unique symbiosis between glass and glaze and one that painting is not privy to: between control and chance exists a never-before-seen “brushstroke” and “space”.

It reminds Chang Yi of Jackson Pollock and abstract-expressionism. Through a tortured creative process, Pollock’s unique style was realized in ‘drip-painting’.  Drip-painting is unique as it does not comply with any learned technique.  Rather, it is all circumstance, random.  Yet Pollock mastered control of this unprecedented “brushstroke” and made his mark on the history of contemporary American painting.  Chang Yi’s takeaway is this: Jackson Pollock happened upon this technique and the result holds a mirror up to our often chaotic society. Pollock is a visionary and his paintings, to a certain extent, represent him as a person. One who exists in the truth of this time and space must be recognized.

How does this influence Chang Yi’s analysis of the motivation behind A Touch of Red?

Not many people have the resources that come with being married to glass art for thirty years. Kilns, glass and glaze are Chang Yi’s daily work.  By consolidating the cultural and artistic knowledge he has accrued over a lifetime, Chang Yi has untapped the possibilities of glass from a Chinese aesthetic.

Chang Yi, who sixty years ago balked against his father’s appeal to calligraphy, has realized that calligraphy is today, a lost art.  In an age where few honor the sanctity of culture and tradition, Chang Yi finds himself extracting memories from his past and combining them with glass art to rediscover the meaning of “shan shui”.  Sixty years later, Chang Yi insists on the presence of a touch of red. No matter how it metamorphoses under the extreme heat of the kiln, there will always exist, in whatever form, a touch of red.



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