The Painting of Liu Guofu: Vibrating Double Shadows
Painting is always awaiting a moment of its own, awaiting that moment when it can reawaken, waiting with both joy and trepidation, the quivering in its heart manifesting as vibrations of brushstrokes. Then, almost imperceptibly, time and paint overlap. Painting is waiting for us to enter into painting, to breathe within painting, to enter into another form of existence.
Every time we come before the painting of Liu Guofu, the space opened up by the surface of the painting retains the many shadows of time’s passing. Through countless brushstrokes, the painter stacks their imprints onto the painting. Those layers and layers of beautiful, transparent shadows are like the appearance of the spirit.
I remember one time in Shanghai, in 2013, shortly before the death of the great Chinese art historian Michael Sullivan. We had invited the esteemed gentleman, then over ninety years old, to attend our exhibition, which included works by Liu Guofu. Liu was also in attendance. The three of us discussed the value of Zao Wou-ki’s works and how they were different from others, especially those works from the 1960s and 70s, which somehow appear abstract and more than abstract at the same time. Mr. Sullivan held that this was the result of a distinctly Chinese “natural element imagination.” It seems he had granted Chinese art a precious legacy for the future. This element imagination left a profound impression on Liu Guofu. He believes that this may be the “root nature” of Chinese painting, and the fundamental element that can allow for the modern transformation of the root nature of the East. Could the painting of Zao Wou-ki perhaps constitute a new beginning?
Painting waits. It waits for a new beginning, especially oil painting. With its long history, how can it begin anew? How can it begin anew in China, with the methods of Chinese art? This is not the so-called nationalization of Chinese painting, nor is it westernization of Chinese painting. Instead, it is the original creativity of a form of artistic language.
When we look at Liu Guofu’s new painting since 2012, and especially when we visit his studio on the outskirts of Nanjing, we gain a very special impression. In the ground floor studio there are paintings of various sizes, but most of them are incomplete, because each must be painted over dozens of times, some of them taking several months, with layers stacking on top of each other, each layer kept transparent. This is a virtually impossible task for oil painting. If one is pursuing transparency, then there cannot be multiple layers, and if there are multiple layers, how can there be the sense of breath of natural elements? This is a paradoxical task. As philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty said, Paul Cézanne’s work began in a paradox—he wanted both solidity of form and the vividness of nature.
Painting always begins with an inner conundrum, namely the simultaneous pursuit of solid form and the vividness of serendipity, of the presentation of a fragmented state, as well as the sense of timelessness of the classics. This seems to be the innermost conundrum of modern painting. Anyone who touches on it will provide their own answer, and in doing so, may open up a new possibility in painting. Zao Wou-ki touched on this conundrum, but after 1980, he shifted toward expressive color field abstraction, which was too abstract. How to have abstraction without abstract painting was the question that marked the beginning for Liu Guofu, how to avoid falling into the abstract thinking of the West, without returning to the conceptual imagery semblance of Chinese tradition, all while maintaining the breath of natural elements, while maintaining the generation of difference in form. How is this possible?
Painting begins anew within the anxiety over paradox. How to extract timelessness from the fragmentation and impermanence of modernity? How can something be more elegant the more fragmentary it becomes? How can the accumulation of more useless brushstrokes come to form a more magical image of life? This is the artistic conundrum that remains unsolved throughout modern art.
In his studio, Alberto Giacometti once gave his own answer to this question to the novelist Jean Genet, saying he wanted to bury a statue for a century and wait for it to reemerge. What about Liu Guofu? After he found his own water-like or ink-like oil painting technique in 2012, he began striving to retain each stroke of the brush or trace of paint. To do this, he had to let the paint fully dry before covering it again, retaining each stroke of the brush, but as virtually useless, fragmented strokes, stacking transparently. This requires sustained waiting, a level of patience unprecedented for painting, waiting amidst the sustained, useless labor and endless cultivation for the final emergence of the image.
Painting waits, waiting until a painting disappears, or even dies, but it remains there in the “ancient paintings,” reawakening and beginning to breathe once again.
Every remarkable contemporary Chinese painter certainly has in their heart a beloved “ancient painting.” It is only in the heart, or even only in dreams. This is the mystery from which Chinese painting truly begins. That is the case for Qiu Shihua and Shang Yang, of an older generation, and it is the case for Liu Guofu and Cao Jigang, of the younger generation.
For Liu Guofu, it could be a famous Song dynasty painting, such as the cloud and smoke paintings by Mi Youren he so loves, or it could be a painting that has not yet been painted, a “double shadow” still waiting for Liu to paint it: this is the use of oil painting methods to paint a Chinese classical landscape painting that has “never before” appeared. It appears similar, but it is actually completely changed, but between the overlapping brushstrokes, the shadows of clouds and hills from ancient landscape painting emerge almost imperceptibly, just a glimpse, still in a state of dispersal, like the shadow of a veil, like Su Shi’s inscription on Wang Shen’s painting Stacking Mountain Peaks Along a Smoky River: “On the river, the mind is drawn to the stacked peaks, floating in the emptiness like jade in the clouds.” This is the spirit summoned by Liu Guofu’s new 2018 series Double Shadows. This is painting about painting, painting reawakening itself, a return of the spirit amidst trembling and chaos.
This particular instance of painting’s waiting is especially different and especially exceptional. In Liu Guofu’s studio, when you see the contemporary reproductions of ancient Chinese masterpieces he rolls out on the floor, you can gain a sense of his vast wellspring of inspiration.
Facing these works, Liu Guofu enters into a state of meditation, listening to the sound of southern rainfall as he begins to paint. It is as if he wishes to grasp onto these thousand-year-old ghosts from Chinese antiquity. In this way, oil painting becomes a secret transmission of the ancient heritage of Chinese ink painting. Those ink and color paintings from nearly a thousand years ago, through the accumulation of time, have absorbed the spirits of history. The air and aura of brush and ink radiate with a dark halo, giving glimpses of the scorching gazes of countless men of letters through the ages. Even in these reproductions, the patina of accumulated time is tangible. Now, these elements, multiple elements of temporality, all await reemergence in Liu Guofu’s own painting, through the means of the “double shadow,” both the faint “shadow of breathing” of ancient Chinese painting, as well as the “shadow of mindscape” that the artist imagines in the solitude of his heart.
This time, painting’s waiting has an exceptional “ancient elegance.” It seems to have set out from a piece of yellowed old scroll paper, over a thousand years. Chinese contemporary painting, oil painting, no less, causes this thousand-year-old paper, this thin piece of scroll paper which has absorbed temporal elementality, to breathe once again, to reawaken, and it has done so through oil painting methods. How can the oil paint and canvas of the West absorb such rich tones? This is not covering up a painting, but instead imbuing a contemporary oil painting with a thousand years of time, making it absorb multiple temporalities, and to become so many transparent, infra-thin layers of veil, so that time can leave behind its ancient elegant veil shadow. Our lives are all so fragile and fleeting, like apparitions in the smoke. How can painting avoid absorbing these painful spasms, while also bringing comfort to the soul?
Painting’s waiting, such patient, sustained waiting, fills it with the aura of time. It absorbs a thousand years of time, and possesses the elemental breath of nature. This is the eternity that is lacking in modernity, another form of aura.
The artist sits in his studio. It is almost nightfall. The rays of the setting sun cast through the window onto the canvas. It is as if nature itself is painting. This is nature’s presence, as well as nature’s absence, because nature, in the brushstrokes, has already been abstracted and fragmented. In different seasons the mist of the southern rains will also seep in, as if to become a part of the painting, but when the smoky shadows reemerge in painting, they condense into transparent crystal slices. Of course, there is also the historical and cultural atmosphere of the ancient city of Nanjing, which surges forth, but can only do so through the fragmented and permeating modern means, yet once again regains its classical elegance; those black and ochre oil glazes possess an aura that tradition did not. Then, when the sounds of classical music waft up from high-end speakers in the basement, the scattered brushstrokes begin to take on a sublime, timeless rhythm, the sacred solemnity of holy chants.
Painting waits, and through its patience, gains hitherto unseen luster and bearing. An old piece of scroll paper has regained vitality thanks to oil painting. This is a transplantation of the soul, a face change of the soul, the inner fusion of the “vaporization” of tradition and the “sense of light” of the West.
In the painting, countless transparent brushstrokes are left behind, and as they overlap and intersperse, they form exceptionally subtle layers of folds. The brushstrokes seek each other out, and cover each other one after another, slowly seeking, through different colors and different directions of the brush, breathing together, again and again, and still transparent even after dozens of applications, and then, as it nears the final layers, a possible image emerges within a possible unitary atmosphere, a magical infra-image naturally and gradually emerges.
What first appeared as abstract, random brushstrokes have now generated an allusion to a visual scene, perhaps resembling an ancient shanshui (Mountain and Water) landscape painting, but merely just a “semblance,” an illusory projection. Of course, this is also a spiritual landscape, some vision of the soul formed from countless useless brushstrokes gathering the aura of time and air of ancientness. This is the “double shadow” of the ages. Or it is many layers of veil, each bringing its own shadow to form an alluring veil shadow, each bringing its own breath, bringing the resilience and emotion of each brushstroke, drifting, rising or falling.
This is the veil of nature, as “nature loves to hide,” but it is also the tension and conflict that arises when nature shows itself in painting. It is at once so absent and so present, the element of eternity transformed into countless brushstrokes, in each instance of writing, in the frenzied arrival of the brushstrokes, perhaps coalescing internally, or perhaps forming a “spine” of a living being, appearing like the center of the world, like a living “pillar of light,” or like the holy chalice. The “infra-image” that shines from these images is just an unexpected spiritual aura, a sudden realization as the viewer passes by, a glimmer of aura seen when glancing back. Since it has musical melody and rhythmic brushwork, and a faint fusion of light and qi, its turning and rising contains its own elegant veil, revealing the “shadow” of the soul.
Painting waits, waits to become a veil with infinite folds, the most beautiful veil, to become a “double shadow” that receives countless shadows. When you are in the south, in the season of rain and mist, when the light of spring casts itself through the window and on to the canvas, is that not Wang Wei’s poem, “Light returns to the deep forest, to shine again on the green moss”? Yes, a painting as veil of green moss with light, these paintings by Liu Guofu stand here in front of you, breathing, the brushstrokes quivering, drawing you into a detached and poetic atmosphere, those drifting layers of veil carrying their own inner textures, falling, moving in parallel or rising, unfolding their own rhythm.
These veil shadows and double shadows of natural elementality possess their own entanglements and spasms. The countless useless brushstrokes are arriving and rising, bringing their own twists and turns, bringing bitterness. Between scorching hot and silent cold, in the interplay between oil and water, between stacking and transparency, the veil has even been torn apart, and carries the spasms of its own pain, like an elegy to nature. But in the rending and fragmentation, there is a force of resilience gathering within, forming an inner band of light, one which rises as it turns inward.
The paintings in this exhibition show us a new fusion between abstraction and nature. In the countless fragmentary brushstrokes, in the depths of the painting, there emerges a faint shadow of an ancient landscape painting, but it is merely a “semblance,” because what the painter aims to capture is the hidden “soul” of ancient painting, and to cause it to magically reveal itself through abstract and poetic means, through means of the “infra-image,” and through musical, rhythmic brushwork.
This is the rebirth of Chinese painting. This is the absent presence of nature, the infra-image of nature. As Walter Benjamin said, “The beautiful is neither the veil nor the veiled object, but rather the object in its veil.” Liu Guofu’s painting sets out to discover this object in its veil for us, to present to use the most beautiful flatness of painting. The beautiful is revealed through its own veil, through its own covering, and this veil at once protects the fragility of our life, while also catalyzing the elegant beauty of the eternal.