FRUIT: WHEN GAZING AT AN OBJECT, I SEE EVERYTHING COMING ALONG
—— Xinran Guo
The title of this exhibition was drawn from Tang Ke’s own words. When asked about changes in his life after moving to the suburbs of Chengdu, he talked about his plants, his garden, as well as his continuous engagement with them in his everyday life and his art practice. He mentioned that he started to grow wax gourds in his garden and, when they had ripened in late autumn, placed several of them in his studio. “When gazing at an object, I see everything coming along,” he said. “After observing them [wax gourds] for some time, I approached them in a different way...they transcended the state of being merely plants.” Tang sees his paintings as the fruits of this continuous gaze. By using the artist’s words as the title of this exhibition, we hope to underline the artist’s unique method of painting still life, as well as to point to possible ways of engaging with these artworks.
PLANTS, TIME, AND PAINTING
Tang’s time spent with plants in and outside his studio is indispensable to understand his art practice. His studio is located in an art zone named “The Lotus Pool by Moonlight” on the periphery of Chengdu. As the lyrical name of the zone suggests, the area is known by a vast expanse of lotus pond. As we drove to Tang’s studio, eucalyptus lined the two sides of the winding road; a pool of water was visible in the distance, surrounded by trees and tall reeds. The entire exterior of Tang’s studio was covered by branches of wisteria and ivy. A narrow alley led to the courtyard at the back of the house, where a teahouse, a pond, garden rockeries, as well as trees and plants of various kinds greeted us.
Tang not only spends time cultivating plants, but also chronicles their growth in textual and visual forms. On cardboards resembling the format of traditional account books, he keeps a “Garden Journal” that lists changes of his plants. For example, on one such card written in 2016, Tang’s list starts with “The sixth day of the first month, bought narcissus” and ends with “The twelfth month, drained the water in the pool and waiting for the spring wind.” He also regularly writes notes on cards to document seasonal changes following a traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar, which includes twenty-four solar terms and seventy-two pentads. In both records, Tang’s calligraphy and the traditional format frame the passing of time in a classical manner.
Tang’s art practice is intertwined with his continuous observation of seasonal changes. He frequently jots down dates on the corner of his watercolor studies, sketches, and paintings. Tang also titled two drawings in this exhibition, The Beginning of Autumn (2018) and The End of Heat (2018), by solar terms, indicating the dates they were created. “It [dating the works] is very important to me, as it helps me remember things,” he said during our interview. He sometimes uses these dates to recall details of his work procedure and his memories of everyday life. More importantly, these dates underline the artist’s care for his plants. “After closely observing the growth of wax gourds for some years, I seem to have grasped its ‘fate’,” he wrote in a statement about his still life, “It is bound to flourish at some point, and bound to wither as some other point.” Tang approaches the life cycle of wax gourds through the lens of traditional Chinese beliefs, “Time goes by in cycles. It never ends. I experienced this in my life and I see it in the growth of plants.”
Tang’s work method corresponds to his sophisticated notion of time. On the one hand, his employs photography in his creative process to capture the state of objects at specific times of day. On the other hand, he constantly repaints or redraws previous compositions to search for new configurations of light and space. One photograph, taken when Tang was working on a sketch of his garden, reveals the artist’s work procedure. In this photograph, Tang set on his worktable three digital photographs taken from different angels, his two finished drawings of the same motif, and, on the lower left corner, the sketch-in-progress. A shelf holding small rockeries and bonsai blocks the view of the garden. Rather than sketching from life, Tang’s practice is mediated by photography and his previous works. Judging from this photo, the artist is less interested in spontaneity than in continuously refining his visual language. For Tang, a long engagement with an object is the pretext of seeing and painting it.
In a way, this reminds me of the stress on artists’ comprehension of the basic principles of nature in theories of traditional Chinese painting. To paint, according to these theories, is not to depict an object external to an artist’s life. Rather, an artist is supposed to internalize a painting subject and distill form from it. This is not to say that Tang applies this principle directly to his works. What I want to emphasize on is an empathic connection with the painting subjects, an enduring engagement with them, a care for their life, and a resonance with their cyclic changes. These, I think, cannot be detached from his awareness of traditional Chinese painting. This does not make Tang a classical artist. It endows his art making with a sensibility rooted in a historical lineage quite different from that of modern and contemporary art in Euro-America.
Tang’s method endows his works with lifelike features as well as an almost otherworldly outlook that seems to transcend the linear flow of time. In works such as The Beginning of Autumn, the wax gourd appears both tranquil and lively (pl. X). While it lies still on a table, the bouncing light and animated lines are suggestive of a sense of imperceptible movement. This tendency towards movement is made explicit in visual terms in his group work Endless (2018), in which the artist included sixteen canvases of wax gourds, depicted from different angles and in various light conditions. The use of charcoal makes the paintings reminiscent of black and white film. When shown together, these gourds seem to be slowly rotating across canvases.
Most works in this show were created in 2018. They evince Tang’s long-term exploration of visual language. Right before he began to work on still life, the artist initiated a series of oil paintings on Buddhist statues in 2010. The color, rendering, and composition of these early works paved the way for Tang’s portrayal of wax gourds. In Waiting (2010), for example, the centered position of the subject, the mixture of light green and blue, as well as the visible brushstrokes that delineate the background and the body of the statue, anticipate Tang’s depiction of wax gourds.
The transition from painting Buddhist statues to wax gourds came to Tang quite naturally. In 2010, Tang had just moved to his new studio and started to grow wax gourds in his courtyard. The time the artist spent cultivating and watching the plant prompted him to turn to the new subject. For Tang, the painting of a wax gourd is not essentially different from that of a statue. “After gazing at an object for a long time, it easily turns into something else. In the case of wax gourd, it metamorphosed into a Buddha’s head at some point,” Tang wrote in a self-statement. “My goal is to transcend still life painting while using still life as my subject,” he said during our interview.
Compared with his earlier still lifes, Tang’s works of 2018 feature more fluid outlines, more delicate light effects, as well as a more dynamic relationship between foreground and background. These changes in Tang’s visual language have much to do with the artist’s painterly experiments, ranging from his investigation of the materiality of canvas to his exploration of spatial configurations in complex compositions.
Starting from 2004, Tang began to paint directly on transparent film made of PET plastic. Unlike conventional canvas, film is more sensitive to light. It makes the pigment more diluted and the strokes clearer. Tang’s works on film include monumental landscapes as well as abstract compositions of a smaller size. For the smaller works began in 2011, Tang used broad brushstrokes and attached the painted sheets of film to light boxes. This further enhanced the visual association between painterly marks. According to Tang, this experiment with transparent film made him more aware of spatial relationships between lines and dots on a painting surface. It inspired him to render his later still lifes in an airier manner and with more visible brushstrokes, as they give more life to the subject matter.
Another strand of Tang’s experiments concerns complex compositions. Starting from 2007, Tang worked on a number of large-scale canvases depicting macaws in the woods. Involving intricate depictions of leaves and tree branches that stretch across canvases, these works let the artist gain a deeper understanding of the visual connections between different parts of a canvas. In line with this effort, Tang worked on a series of sketches of trees and bonsais between 2014 and 2017. These sketches, on a more intimate scale, also feature elaborate depictions of branches and foliage, which facilitated Tang’ s investigation of spatial configuration. Tang’s more recent works, be it the portrayal of a single wax gourd or that of multiple walnuts spreading across a canvas, demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of painterly space.
During our interview, Tang said, “For a mature painter, no mater what he paints, he is painting the same thing.” After talking with him and viewing his works, I gradually learned that this sentence resonates with his art practice in two ways. For artists like Tang, their pursuit for perfection motivates them to explore various aspects of visual language across mediums and painting subjects. A continuous quest runs through different groups of works. Additionally, the conceptual level of such artists’ work grows out of their life and their contemplation of life. Ultimately, each painting stems from the same constellation of thoughts, stances, and ideals.
AUTHOR: XINRAN GUO
Xinran Guo is the art director of Fu Qiumeng Fine Art. She lives and works in Tianjin and Beijing. Guo holds a doctoral degree in art history from Northwestern University, a master’s degree in East Asian Studies from Stanford University, and a bachelor's degree in Sociology from Peking University. Her writings have appeared on Artforum and artforum.cn.