Tina Keng Gallery | Vignettes about My Paintingby Peng Xiancheng

Tina Keng Gallery
Apr 14, 2017 2:50AM

About "Flowers and Birds"

Paintings of flowers and birds often flow unrestrained from my brush when I sense that the seasons have imbued all things with their splendor. Inspiration moves me to paint, and I return home only when that inspiration is fully exhausted. — Notes on Painting of Cotton Rose and Waterfowl, autumn, 1998

Spring awakening, summer thriving , autumnal withering, and winter waning; joy, anger, sorrow, and happiness; delightful reunions or sad goodbyes — each conjures an ineffable sense of melancholy or delight. These sentiments are not easily conveyed through a paintbrush, and so they ferment in the heart until I pick up the brush, then myriad emotions flow through its tip, onto paper. Artistic conceptions require both Qu Yuan’s sublimated psychic struggle and Zhuangzi’s pansophical purity of soul in order to achieve “the void at the core that transcends all reality,” or, in Buddhist sutra, “Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form." The realm of painting is a poetic realm. “Set ink traces the river’s flow; a frayed brush conveys the soul of rocks.” (Tang Zhiqi in Profundities of Painting). The brush does not linger on objects. It is in the spaces left blank that the brush becomes simultaneously receptive to the ethereal and grounded in reality, and is able to convey objects in vivid life and express the vastness of thought and marvelous departures in the heart.

When the heart is moved, one must calmly observe in quiet contemplation until the object becomes secured in the heart. That which has been secured in the heart becomes more than the shape, color, light, meaning, breath, soul, and rhythm of its existence; it can captivate the finest tip of the brush, beyond the mulberry silk.

On walks through the ancient woodland of Baihuatan, seasonal changes and all things in the scenery are tangible. The rustle of wind through bare branches on a winter's day; the shapely dragon trunks of trees offset against bitter greens and maple reds; the thin misty veil bringing out the coquettish beauty of a frosty late autumn evening. The ancients wrote of using the paintbrush, "A brush too dry portrays only gusty autumn winds, while a brush well-moistened captures the dewiness of springtime." The sight of this landscape was an epiphany that inspired me to paint.

The coiling dragon of twisted branches

in the sparse smoky mist of a winter woods.

No accolades for the color of sanguine maple,

but gleefully counting frosted branches.

The graceful stance of the withering lotus seems to say, “Remember the delicate beauty that once was, sire; and the faint fragrance set adrift.” The vestiges of vitality of a withering lotus in a vase faintly glimmers, and moves me to pen these words.

“Countless cotton roses along the waterside, bedewed and pale in the early light, as though a beauty drifting into slumber looks on languidly within a lucent mirror.” Ambling along the banks of the Jin River, I often encounter the frail cotton rose, draped in the morning dew, leaning besotted against the broad green leaves, and am reminded of the aforementioned poem by Wang Anshi. After the Dragon Boat Festival, cotton roses begin to gradually bloom into their blush. Between heat spells over the long slow summer, cotton roses would unexpectedly bloom with blossoms as large as rice bowls. Their petals are crowded without clear venation. They are pallid and delicate, with a peony-like shape. Once autumn sets in, cotton roses seem to have received a directive from the heavens, all vying to burst into blooms. Autumn is truly their golden season: the rich vibrancy of early autumn, the dainty vibrancy of mid-autumn, and the light vibrancy of late autumn. The color of the blossoms becomes gradually saturated before it finally fades. The multiple layers of petals become a single row. From summer’s end to mid-autumn, the flowers bloom in the morning and wither by night; to the late autumn “old blooms that last for days” — how long does the cotton rose stay in bloom? Almost half a year! A clipping planted in the spring will flower by autumn, and will grow into a tree within a year. Citizens of Chengdu call them “the flower of the city,” and fittingly, Chengdu is nicknamed “Rong Cheng.” (Cotton Rose City)

I love the cotton rose and paint it often. Many masters throughout history have painted the cotton rose, and among them, I most admire the cotton rose painted by Huang Binhong in his latter years, using the Song dynasty mogu technique. (See Collected Paintings of Huang Binhong, Zhejiang Provincial Museum & Shanghai Calligraphy and Painting Publishing House (1994), p. 196.) His elegant and simple classicism, unparalleled brush technique, and fastidious choice of color make the marvelous Painting of Wang Anshi’s Ode to the Cotton Rose a transcendent masterpiece.

When the magnolias in the royal gardens of the Du Fu Thatched Cottage are in bloom, the dozens of ancient magnolia trees are graced with blossoms like snowdrifts and chiseled jade. Under tens of thousands of auspicious clouds, each petal in the sunlight is a coying water nymph with alabasteresque skin. An east wind blows to refresh the soul, intoxicating and enchanting. Returning home from viewing flowers at the Thatched Cottage, I penned a poem titled The Shade of Intoxicating Blooms.

Tending to orchids has never been my strength. There are some potted boat orchids and a few branches of noble orchids placed arbitrarily around the house, or on the balcony, and left to their own devices. Some always manage to survive, and quietly produce a few shoots come flowering season. The scent of blooms would permeate the house in just a few days. In my joy, I put a few clippings into an antique blue-and-white porcelain vase to refresh the soul with that elegant and timeless fragrance, and thus penned Flowers in Vase.

Remembrance of an object:

A stalk of begonia atop my desk

stretches its limbs to catch the sun.

Dotted with petals of rouge when autumn comes,

its silhouette is as slender as a lady by her dressing table.

Wisteria blossoms, oblivious to spring breezes, grow plump green with smudges of rouge. The petals shedding in waves are an unbearable sight, but the water continues its flows in silence. A remembrance of yesterday — of blooming peach blossoms and vibrant begonia, with magnolia as their constant companion. Those reds and purples of spring’s brilliance — wisteria flowers may fall and cherry blossoms rot; blooms may wither and waters flow as spring departs, but do not despair. At spring’s twilight on the Danjing Mountain, friends shall gather to admire the peonies.

I offer these few lines inspired by a sense of time passing and mutability, in the late spring of 2003.

At midnight, the sweet scent of osmanthus drifts across the lake at the Baihuatan Park. These lines follow in remembrance:

The gossamer curtain sprinkled with silver light,

While autumn cicadas rumbled like thunder,

Awoken from a dream by sweet scented osmanthus,

to an imagined visit from Goddess Chang'e.

Abundant branches carrying countless reflections of the moon, autumn arrives in full blossom. There are several ancient osmanthus trees around the Grand Temple of Qiqushan in Zitong County in the North of Sichuan Province that come into full bloom in the golden autumn, whose scent can be detected for miles. The painting Sweet Osmanthus was created in the autumn of 1998 in remembrance.

Taking a stroll in the Baihuatan Park on a frosty morning in 2003, I experienced a sense of caprice:

The sight of arrogant frost and waxy plum blossoms intoxicates,

as new shoots dot the florid branches.

The pair of bulbul birds busily grooms,

While in nearby woods the hwamei birds warble in competition.

The tips of plum branches, dotted with red, make for an interesting contrast against the forked branches of a tree trunk the color of aged iron — all resonance requires a first utterance to find its sound. Such is the spirit of Chinese brush-and-ink painting.

An unsuccessful tiger painting becomes a cat; trimming the left side when the right side is askew is a wasted cut. Amongst the piles of discarded papers, I found a laughing red-billed parrot. Cleaning up my desk, I found a corner of a discarded painting and practiced with a few brushstrokes, surprising myself with the resulting Painting of Parrots. I often experimented with reducing the size of the larger works, or shortening the long scrolls, or combining short scrolls into a long scroll, to no avail.

About “Portraits”

Those in the know understand that my painting is not necessarily about what is depicted. In the work Spring Outing, I play with various techniques, first by using the landscape as a main focus then embellishing with horses and riders, or by focusing on the horses and riders then filling in the landscape; perhaps leaving expansive white space on paper, or by using calligraphy to break up the space — with an intention to create various scenes of spring warmth. The work Polo was created in an effort to harmonize and unify the brush and ink with object forms. Grinding the ink paste thousands of times, I hoped to achieve expertise through familiarity, and to find variations within the familiar. The work Lady Zhaojun Bidding Farewell pays homage to the theatrical techniques of the ancients while seeking a depth of meaning through stark brush work and a serene air of simplicity. The painting Lady Wen's Return to the Han People is a reading of history, requiring a reserved hand in the emotions of the brush and the rhythms of ink. The effects achieved in the work Bathing Horses are as unpredictable as an unbridled horse. When all goes as planned, it is a spring symphony, tranquil in its simplicity; when unsuccessful it is the end of the earth and pure chaos. There were moments, too, of an about-face on a precipice that lead to safety and a view of marvelous realms at a distance. The work Stableman Herding Horses is an emulation of Li Gonglin’s brush work. The brush work and ink techniques may be convoluted, but the intent is simplicity and elegance. Though it was difficult to capture the essence when I was making the work Han Gan Sketching Horses, there had been moments of masterful brushwork that led to the final vivid portrayal.

In recent years, I have also attempted shanshui (landscapes) after memorable journeys to the mountainside. There are two other themes that will be new to most. The first of these is “brush-and-ink sketches,” and the other is “flowers and birds.” I enjoy observing people around me. When I see someone intriguing, I observe them over time to imprint them in my heart, and then I sketch them quickly using brush and ink without regard to form, content, or theme. Often this would conjure a muse, and the brush dances on paper. When I paint “flowers and birds,” it is always with a light playfulness. I don’t paint what I have not seen or what I do not like; as a result these are almost entirely seasonal sketches, when my interest is piqued. To paint shanshui, flowers and birds, as well as portraits, perhaps makes me a jack of all trades. But in the task of painting we are governed by our muses; our expressions are guided by sentiment, our direction dictated by our intrigue; all emotions coalesce at the brush tip without a pointed regard for status.

Regarding “The Realm of Painting”

The ancients have said that the paintbrush should be wielded with the strength of bending a hair stick, be as continuous as the water mark left by a leaking roof, with as much ease as drawing in sand with an awl, and be as firm and resolute as placing a seal. A muddy trail through a bamboo garden in the mist after the rain has a delightful disorganization like words are to an epigrapher. Hence I created Inscribed Amusements, and wrote thus:

The debris of a night's rain and wind,
the impression of swaying bamboo on traces of moss.

The traces in moss garner bamboo silhouettes, recalling a brush

wielded with strength to bend a hair stick and the tenacity of water marks.

Jiu Fanggao, the legendary judge of horses, didn’t distinguish between black or sorrel, stallions or mares, but was observant of universal design. He neglects generalizations for the details and misses the exterior by focusing on what is within. He sees what he sees and ignores that which he doesn’t see, discerns what is discernible and discards what cannot be discerned. What he deems a good horse, is indeed a good horse. A painting should be viewed by its artistic conception; whether modern or ancient, regardless of its technique or school, all of these can be set aside. A superior work of art does not require notations or explanations, nor does it rely on a fashionable title. It is all plainly visible to the eye, as the olfactory receptors detect a scent, and does not patronize. I am not partial to either classical or contemporary, abstract or figurative, Eastern or Western. I believe that great art moves the heart and soul through authentic emotionality and transcends boundaries. This is the view that should be taken as reference.

In his book Notes from the Tianyong Monastery, Fang Shishu wrote, “Mountains, streams, grasses, and trees are elements of nature in the realm of reality. When the hands create a realm that the heart envisions, this is an ethereal realm. The space between the ethereal and the real depends on the brush and ink — hence under the paintbrushes of the ancients, the verdant mountains and elegant trees, lively waters and moistened rocks exist beyond the heaven and earth; they have created another wonder. Paint with abandon, like melting gold with impurities discarded, or like gathering shadows in an exhaustive dance.” Da Chongguang of the Qing dynasty wrote, “When the real and ethereal are mutually engendered, even the unpainted spaces become marvelous.” While the power of written works are often revealed in the ethereal, it is easier to paint what is real than what is ethereal. Seven parts of the effort in making a painting is in the ethereal, and the other three parts are grounded in the real. In painting, I often draw out the real from the ethereal. The ethereal is in motion; the real remains still. When both motion and stillness are embodied, the entire painting comes alive. However, even after painting to the ends of the earth, the ethereal often remains elusive.

Huang Binghong articulated the crux of creating the ethereal when he said that disparity is easy, and harmony difficult when it comes to making a painting, but finding disparity within harmony is even more difficult. The real is painted with ease; the ethereal is not. The difficulty lies in whether one is able to see structure within the haze to find an artistic conception within the ethereal.

I attempt to begin my paintings with the dotting technique followed by the breaking-ink technique. The dotting technique is like rocks falling off a precipice, and the breaking-ink brushstroke evokes the work of gods. Ink and pigments blend harmoniously; the brush and ink mutually break. Efforts are made to elevate the power of the brush and rhythm of ink to the realm of sublimity. However, this is as  difficult as taking a cub from a tiger's den, or flying through the skies on a heavenly steed. Sadly, one often ends up with the home in shambles with not even a corner of the work painted.

A “perfect realm” is often found between success and failure. Whether warmth, cold, happiness, or pain is to be endured, is an issue of self-knowledge.

Tina Keng Gallery