Travis Jeppesen on Gao Xingjian

That the Nobel Prize–winning novelist/playwright Gao Xingjian is also an accomplished painter should seem less remarkable when his work is viewed within the Chinese tradition. The division between word and image was less severe in ancient China than in the West, and the literati who formed the Chinese classical canon tended to be equally adept at painting, poetry, and the art form that so sublimely combines the visual with the written: calligraphy. Gao was born in 1940 and personally experienced the tumultuous events of late-modern China up until his exile in 1987. Like that of many intellectuals of his generation, much of his work has involved a why-and-how struggle to reconcile traditional Chinese aesthetics and Western avant-gardism. This synthesis reached its apotheosis with his 1985 play Wild Man, his last to be publicly performed in his native country, which fused rural folk theater with the theater of the absurd Gao had reveled in as a student of French literature.

Gao handles the brush with a similar sensibility, working in the Chinese medium of monochromatic ink painting, often taking landscape, a traditional motif, as his subject and melding it with Western abstraction. To be clear, such borrowings have been reciprocal, to an extent. Artists in the West—such as Henri Michaux and Romare Bearden—have also sought a conviviality with Chinese and Japanese ink painting. If Gao has his technical counterpart, it would be Helen Frankenthaler, whose extremely thin washes of paint absorbed by canvas have their parallel in Gao’s frequent dilution of his ink. His varying shades of gray promote the illusion of color and depth, undermining monochromy. A vivid example from “Where spirit dwells on,” an exhibition bringing together fourteen of the artist/writer’s paintings from the mid-1990s through 2018, was State, 2003, in which thin deluges of ink absorb the substance of the paper, leaving only a faint hint of gesture in the painting’s bottom section, where the blackest shape emerges. It could be a clawlike tree grasping toward the silvery lake—or not. The marriage of landscape with abstraction allows for endless interpretations, putting the viewer in the station of the pondering poet.

In this vein, the show’s masterwork was undoubtedly the large vertical painting Miss, 1995, a symphonic visual composition that can be read from top to bottom. The work’s top panel is marked with thick curling lines implying mountains. Beneath that, a series of menacing black splotches could be storm clouds or else a herd of buffalo. These are underlined by a narrow white stream—white, the space left intentionally blank, often seems to signify bodies of water in Gao’s paintings. Below this band, lushly but illogically, hovers a thin layer of cloudy night sky punctuated by three moons. Beneath that, a patch of black ink seems to take the form of a bowing woman wearing a baggy dress, situated on a rock above a lake, in the middle of which are two black dots: rocks? floating turtledoves? It all narrows out in the bottommost layer into a liquid-gray road, culminating in the painting’s most dramatic element: a double cross shape that is perhaps the bare inference of a utility pole. Mystic and otherworldly, with their evocation of the most ordinary elements of landscape in perceptual disarray, these paintings certainly generated their own electricity.

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