China, Oct. 2012: In a setting far removed from Beijing’s urgent crowds lies the home of Hong Ling, one of China’s foremost “modern Guohua” artists. Guohua, meaning “national painting”, refers to the Chinese landscape painting traditions which have evolved over hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years. In classical Chinese philosophy, mood is everything, determining what should be included (be it in poetry, painting or writing), and what is left aside. In seeking to portray a subjective reality – one conditioned by the soul and spirit in contact with the natural world, rather than what is directly visible – Hong Ling’s painting aligns itself closely with this tradition. At the same time, however, his work in oil paint infuses this lineage with approaches drawn from the Western canon, in the belief that only by incorporating this can Chinese landscape painting be invigorated for the contemporary moment, and after years of cultural upheaval in China during the 20th Century.
Thus does one find in Hong Ling’s bright, wood panelled studio large works which, in their early stages, look like abstract paintings. Vibrant pigments stain their surfaces in sporadic shapes – spring, autumnal or winter hues set alight. The details that suggest branches and scrub are added only at the end of the process. These works may take years to finish.
The home of the artist is also the product of years of building and refurbishment; it is like walking into the secluded realm of a philosopher, with a garden and small ponds landscaped with gnarled little trees and furnished with carved wood gleaned from demolished houses in the area. The walls are whitewashed, and hung inside the rooms are Ming and Qing Dynasty panel paintings, modern cloche lamps and ink work. Here, too, are beautiful sculpted objects – a wooden horse and ornamental bird cage, urns and miniature wooden tables. It is truly an artist’s world, a setting transformed by one person’s selection and composition – indeed, not unlike a painting. One feels history here, and its majesty (too-often lost or painted over in China) infuses the present and enters the imagination.
Hong himself is a contented, open man; a great host serving European wine alongside Chinese Baijiu, and attempting to play an eight-foot-long alpine horn (brought to him from Switzerland by a friend) at the close of the evening.
Hong Ling was interviewed at his home in Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) in Anhui Province during the Chinese National Day holiday earlier in October.
A contemporary landscape garden, Hong Ling's home setting; photo by Iona Whittaker.
Iona Whittaker: You live and work between Huang Shan and Beijing. What’s the effect of these two very different locations on your state of mind, and your work, in turn?
Hong Ling: I go to Beijing to be "in the world", to connect with it – not so much for my work.
IW: …And in Huang Shan?
HL: This is the place where I can be amidst nature, absorb it and generate my reactions. It is a highly creative place for me.
IW: Here, you surround yourself with many beautiful historical objects, particularly painting and sculpture. What is your relationship with these artefacts?
HL: My collection of these artefacts is natural. The Anhui region in the South of China is known for its rich culture and merchants. The sculpture in this region has a solid style and the craftsmen are very skillful. Every single work shows the high standard of the craftsmanship. Since I moved to Anhui, I've been surrounded by nature – mountains and rivers – which has a profound influence on my aesthetics. My painting mostly depicts the scenery in Southern China, South of the Yangtze River – but the style is not delicate, it’s energetic. It's partly influenced by the regional culture. I'm collecting the artefacts for fun, but having been surrounded by them for a long time, they have also had a subtle impact on my painting.
Hong Ling, Last Rhyme, 2012, Oil on Canvas, 120 x 190cm; Courtesy of the artist.
IW: How would you define your work in relation to Chinese artistic tradition?
HL: Oil painting came to China from the West. My research and artistic technique, including the science and ideas behind it, are rooted in oil painting. It looks delightful from the point of view of Western aesthetics. On this basis I've returned my creation to traditional Chinese culture – "a balance between similar and dissimilar", wherein my philosophy on landscape painting lies.
IW: Your work assimilates, then, many aspects of traditional art. Is there anything you choose to reject?
HL: I intentionally avoid certain ideas that I don't agree with, including the colours, which are too sweet and greasy. I also try to avoid an object-oriented appearance. The soul/spirit is easily smeared by reality. It's important to leave space for the painting to grow. It's part of a process of cultivation.
IW: How do you start a work, and how does the process unfold? I see, for example, that you work on the canvas upright, but also flat on the floor, like an action painter.
HL: You see this red painting here? [He points at a huge red canvas leaning against the wall, spattered with autumnal hues of red and orange in abstract fashion.] For some artists, this would be the stage at which to stop. But for my method, this is the early stage where I freely map out my response in colour. I work in different ways; the canvas starts upright, then may be laid flat on the floor at various stages, depending on the marks I am trying to make. Finally, it is placed upright so that I can add the details; then, when it is almost complete, I lie it flat and ascend to the balcony (points above), from which I can see if from above and afar, to take in the whole work. These paintings take a long time to finish – possibly years.
Hong Ling, Silent Spring Flurry, 2012, Oil on Canvas, 80 x 200cm; Courtesy of the artist.
IW: Some of these paintings look completely abstract; others contain elements of the real. How would you describe your relationship with the appearance of reality, and how is it transposed in your work?
HL: The way I look at nature is more in line with the Chinese attitude towards nature. Objective vs. subjective – I see what I choose to see. What appears in the artwork needs to be true to my heart, but not necessarily to absolute reality. The selection process is very complicated – what fits for the heart, the mind and the mood. It's difficult to be completely abstract in Chinese painting given the inner transformation in the mind.
IW: Which artists’ work you particularly admire?
HL: Chinese landscape painters including Huang Gongwang, Huang Binhong, Ni Zan and Fan Kuan. International artists including Amedeo Modigliani, Giorgio Morandi and JMW Turner; I also admire the work of Xu Bing for its ability to combine the sensibilities and motifs of East and West.
ArtSlant would like to thank Hong Ling for his assistance in making this interview possible.