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CLP 175: 1990 "The Paintings of Yang Yanping." exhibition catalog of her works, and printed in Hsiung-shih mei-shu #238, Dec. 1990.

The Paintings of Yang Yanping

Yang Yanping is one of the most accomplished and interesting among the Chinese painters of her generation who are taking innovative directions within the great tradition called guohua. The term guohua is variously rendered as "national painting," "traditional painting," and (especially misleading for her) "ink painting"; it designates painting done in the old media of ink and colors on paper and silk, painting that represents time-honored subjects--in her case, mostly landscapes and lotus ponds. Until recently, such a capsule definition of guohua would have read: "ink and colors applied with a brush to paper or silk"; but lately a variety of "brushless" techniques have been employed in guohua. Yang Yanping has been a pioneer, among the artists in P.R. China, in developing these techniques, and in making them serve, at their best, representational and expressive purposes that do not seem so much breaks with the Chinese past as continuations of it.

I first met Yang Yanping and saw her work in 1982 when I was living in Beijing. I was working on, among other things, an exhibition of contemporary Chinese painting for the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco, in collaboration with its Executive Director Lucy Lim and my colleague Michael Sullivan, an exhibition designed to introduce new trends in guohua to U.S. audiences, and also to introduce young artists, women artists, artists exploring new styles and techniques. It was immediately apparent, when I saw Yang Yanping's paintings in her Beijing studio, that she was not only one of these, but ranked high among them. The kinds of pictures she was doing at that time included some rather thin and recherche figure paintings; some more promising pictures of lotus (perhaps the "first shoots" of the genre she would later develop as a specialty); and some quite original landscape pictures. One of these, her "Towering Mountain" (undated, but done ca. 1981-82?) I urged on my collaborators for inclusion in the exhibition, and it was shown (Contemporary Chinese Painting: An Exhibition from the People's Republic of China, San Francisco, 1984, no. 53.) I was happy to see it become one of the most admired works in the exhibition, featured on the cover of Art International to accompany an article by Michael Sullivan. Its popularity was well justified: the combination of fine drawing in a kind of stuttering, dotted-line manner with mottled, mysterious suffusions of ink and color seemed then, and still seems, to constitute an original style capable both of great sensitivity and of a brooding power.

I hasten to add that Yang Yanping was already at this time well-known, especially to foreign residents of Beijing (one of whom introduced me to her), so that I can make no claim even to being one of her early "discoverers". She has had one-person shows in China, Taiwan, Japan, the U.S., Austria, and West Germany, and her paintings are now in many public and private collections.

I re-encountered her work in 1988 in the twelve-artist exhibition of "Contemporary Chinese Painting'" organized by the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois; on that occasion two of her pictures of lotus ponds, dated 1985, were shown, and revealed the direction her work was taking (as it seemed to me): from a private, reserved, rather intimate art to a more public one. These were large, strong paintings, which seemed to make more use than before of the new "brushless' modes of ink-and-color application. Lotus plants are an old subject in Chinese painting; they sometimes stood for purity (the unsullied blossom rising above the mud of the mundane world) in Buddhist contexts. They were usually depicted either in an outline-and-color mode (as in Song painting) or in broad, wet ink monochrome (as in the paintings of Xu Wei in the 16th century and Bada Shanren in the 17th.)

Yang Yanping's lotuses are neither of those; the shapes that make them up are richly colored but are not bounded by linear outlines. Just how they are produced is better known to artists than to art historians; I would assume that like others who use these techniques (Chen Chikuan in Taiwan, Liu Guosung in Hong Kong, C. C. Wang in New York) she soaks ink and color from the back, or through paper overlaid on the painting surface, or applies the ink and colors with crumpled paper, exploiting also the puddling and reticulation of the ink and the fibrous character of the paper. Color usually serves, in this mode, as a non-representational ground or stain over which the proper painting is done.

However it is accomplished, the effect in her pictures is her own, and is very successful in suggesting the mottled, unpatterned look of natural surfaces ("Glory be to God for dappled things" writes the poet

Gerard Manley Hopkins), the autumnal decay or powdering of wintry snow on the lotus leaves, the scattered light on water surfaces. Her lotus paintings have been compared to Monet's, and it is true that there is more of Impressionism than of Buddhist iconography in them. But they also reflect a long personal engagement: we read that there was a lotus pond near her home in Beijing, where she observed the vicissitudes of the plant in all seasons and weather, observations later to be recaptured in her paintings.

Her lotus paintings in more recent years (1988-89) have become wetter, with less of descriptively-directed control and more that is left to semi-accident, less of drawing and more of color-staining. The color, moreover, is less faithful to the natural hues of the plant--more of red (autumn?), less of the cool blue-greens and white. The still-illusionistic water surfaces of the earlier pictures, sometimes defined by reflections of bent stalks, largely dissolve into flatter patterns, richly coloristic but achieving whatever depth they display by overlappings instead of true recessions.

From these compositions made up of big, amorphous, colorful shapes to landscape imagery suggestive of looming mountains and distant vistas is not so great a leap as a bare statement of it (lotus to landscapes?!) might suggest. The seasonal sub-theme continues, as does her fascination with textures and colorism. The semi-random techniques she uses serve also to give volume to massive boulders and fissures to rocky cliffs. A distinctive feature of her recent landscape paintings is the retention of a distant horizon line, located typically near the top of the picture--a survival, perhaps, of the very old shenyuan or "deep distance" mode of composing landscape pictures in China.

But even if this is true, there is in the end little of old Chinese method in these paintings. As Yang Yanping moves closer to abstraction (a move often related in a facile way with expatriate artists, as though all Chinese painters would choose abstraction if they were free to do so), and line drawing disappears from many of her works, her ties with traditional guohua are attenuated. I hope they will not break; but in any case, I will continue to watch her development with great interest, confident that she is one of the living Chinese artists for whom any attention given will be fully rewarded.

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