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This page is a reprint of two articles about the painter and printmaker Yang Yongsheng - one by Yang Zhigang published in Spring City Evening from 1993. The second article was written by Ni Tao and published in Oriental Fine Arts (12th issue, 2000, Hong Kong).
Both articles are published on this page with friendly permission by Mr. Yang Yongsheng and are meant for private use only.
"They are significant in many aspects. That is my first impression about Yang Yongsheng's Insect Series black-white etching positive prints. Their existence as a fact constitutes a basis for the discussion of any of their significance. Their many-sided significance makes it hard for me to decide which aspect to start with or to focus on. Accordingly the result of a definite thing becomes indefinite.
That is why it is hard to talk about Yang Yongsheng's engravings. Many talk about him as a young engraving maker from Qujing, Yunnan, but few discuss his works. I think that is because before remarking on the best of his works a critic must answer a question: "who am I?" so as to decide which point of view to use.
There are few painters who can impose such a question on the critic. By usual standards, Yang Yongsheng's works belongs to abstractionism. His early works have roughly the same pattern: fishes, potteries, strange birds and variously colored clouds as the background, and lifeless, handcraft-like women in the front whose flowery costumes and adornments tell their ethnic origins. I consider that the subject matter of a work is unimportant, and what really matters is how the painter represents the world he understands. These works are nothing more than deposits of objects, displaying hardly any in-depth understandings of them. They are so superficial that I could see nothing valuable from them besides their decorativeness.
It is the responsibility of the painter to open the confined world. This is the supreme principle established by Yang Yongsheng around 1990. That indicates that he no longer wanted to make merely footnotes rather than meaningful works. His Insect Series have proved that. In addition, his "Wind from the South" and "Embrace" is a demonstration of his talent.
The themes of these works are still regional, but I am pleased to see from these that he has completed the transition from merely seeking novelty to pursuing real creation in a short period of time. If the abstractionism of his early works is based on the removal of the concreteness of the real world, then I would say, the abstractionism of his recent works is based on the establishment of the concreteness. This reminds me of a famous saying of Stevenson: "the highest level of abstractionism is concreteness".
What an artist needs to do is not to let people experience the complicatedness of the world through images of devastation, but to create new significance of this world through images of reality. In his "Wind from the South", all contingency is eliminated to the maximum extent. A stone wall like a harsh cloudy curtain of night serves as the background. Touch lines are used to outline the bust of a man whose headscarf is as harsh as a piece of bark and is indicative of the direction of a wind.
I am most impressed by the man's eyes that are as cold and tough as his face. I want to see something through that pair of eyes. Sometimes I think they suggest loneliness and bewilderment. Sometimes I feel they tell a focused attention and determination of a person facing a remote world. And sometimes, it reminds me of a timidity and caution of a person who finds a stranger in the midst of his way late at night. I think maybe this all-inclusive pair of eyes is a result of a calm and accurate stroke at the wooden plate by the knife in the hand of the engraving maker.
Perhaps the most concrete thing is the most complicated. Yang Yongsheng's recent works are an evidence of that. And the career of this young painter has just commenced."
By Yang Zhigang
(from the newspaper of Spring City Evening
January 15, 1993)
"Piled up before me are the photos of Yang Yongsheng's works, including engravings and color ink paintings. Slowly I feel a strong desire to explore the world of his works.
I knew that Yang had engaged in creating engravings for more than ten years. This is manifest in the fact that his engravings were for many times included in nationwide exhibitions of engravings and art works. To my surprise, however, I learned that he has made color ink paintings over years.
There is one thing crystal clear to me: from beginning to end an oriental artist always has an oriental attitude towards arts as well as an oriental type of life experiences, including an oriental character and an oriental sense of color. Yang is of no exception. It seems to me that before going to college, he had practiced his skills in traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy.
In addition, I have always believed that only the works displaying certain philosophical thoughts and ideas of ways of life are of true artistic value. In this sense, Yang's explorations of engravings and color ink paintings are unquestionably valuable. In large amounts of his works, scenes and people's temperament and interests are shadowed by the luster of various artistic forms.
It seems that the ultimate effects of his works are created in the course of destruction and reconstruction. In his color ink paintings, each plot of color is shining and flowing. The casual transition and combination of colors tends to maximize the tension of the picture and the inclusive capacity of the colors, creating an imposing visual impact. Even the people and objects in motion have no sharp outlines.
In his works are always the unique depictions of the feelings caught in moments. These are bright and convincing, and somewhat vague images. When he and his work truly integrate with each other, there in his pictures would be creations worth praise and admirations. Before many of his impressive ink paintings, I can hear that the enormous sounds of existence are accurately and sharply captured in the frames. In the general background of the existence, everything in the universe seems to have been well blended and in complete harmony, as a result of using extremely personal painting skills and ways of thinking. Such works tend to display great courage and persistence of human beings in controlling their own fates.
Nonetheless, I know it is not easy for him to accurately grasp the trend of the artistic taste of our time in which Chinese arts as a whole are suffering fickleness and excessive commercialization. I am worried whether his excessive emphasis on artistic forms and his excessive dependence on some casual artistic effects would weaken his seemingly congenital inspirations.
I hear that he has presided over an art academy in recent years. I wonder whether the busy administration and social activities that arise accordingly would hinder his fragile and sensitive nerves from serving his artistic creation. And I think this would pose a great challenge for his talents and endurance.
Fortunately, he is clear-headed as an artist. Since 1992, he has more than once traveled to Sichuan, Qinghai and Tibet to observe and experience the local ways of life. The journey of his with the longest time span is almost a daring exploration. Together with a few painters from Yunnan, he went from Yunnan to Sichuan, and then to Xinjiang, Qinghai and Tibet, having traveled more than 10,000 kilometers within three months.
As a result, he collected lots of valuable information and materials concerning old religions, harsh and mystic nature, exotic frontiers, and the magically fascinating Tibetan culture. All this have given him countless inspirations. I can imagine that the primitive religions, the millennia of human struggle against nature, and the mystic, horrible and passionate behaviors of pursuing eternal life must have considerably inspired his hearts and minds.
One time he talked with me about these inspirations, keeping a tone as calm as usual. He said that the great charm of the culture the west had conquered him, and that it was like a rich gold mine which would exhaust the rest of his life. No wonder in such works of his as "The Illusion Series", "The Miraculous Brightness", and "The Prayer", a spirit that appears and disappears from time to time is tightly wrapped, and uses colors to debate with death, instead of fighting against it. That is because for a pious believer in that religion, death is the only road leading to eternal life.
In many our conversations, he seems to have disorderly and unsystematic thoughts when facing the vast history of eastern and western arts. I know that he reads a great variety of subjects, including philosophy, religion, psychology, aesthetics, literature and history of art. He often meditates for a long time. He believes that an artist should do his best not to use those already known or commonly sensible, and to explore and use those unknown, unproven and novel. As a precondition for such exploration, an artist should have effectively grasped the achievements of great artists of past times, and objectively evaluated himself, so as to instinctively perceive the right way for him, and to become a successful interpreter of this world. All his works originate from that and find final expression in that repeatedly. In the world of arts, there are no ultimate boundary tablets, but only the next stage of exploration.
I think that Yang's works are very subject and subject to interpretations. I need to make some explanations of the term "subject" I use here. It is a common sense that art is subject, but it refers to a way of thinking rather than a specific operation or the selection and combination of known artistic forms. His long practice of traditional Chinese painting adds to his works a special imagist style of freehand brushwork that is typical of traditional Chinese painting.
Of course modern western arts have much influence on his works, which are manifest in the composition, painting techniques, the use of colors, and the overall implications. His strong desire to portray abstract images has lifted his works to a high aesthetic level as a whole. Another characteristic of his works is their subjection to interpretations.
In my opinion, some works require no interpretation, as they display plain styles and painting techniques. There are no uncertainty existing between the works and their viewers. But Yang's works are different. They are like codes that people need to crack before they can understand them. These "codes" include the large amounts of symbols, colors, lines, textures with particular meanings and suggestions, as well as explorations of new visual effects against the law of customary vision. But Yang argues that interpretations are needless, the paintings themselves are the things that really matter. I think that this point is a result of his arduous thinking about a series of questions about the purpose of art. So far such thinking has not stopped. I suppose it may be intensified continually in his future efforts for artistic creation, or it may offer valuable inspirations for his next work?
I will look forward to the answers."
By Ni Tao
(from Oriental Fine Arts (12th issue, 2000, Hong Kong)
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