Huang Zhiyang, An Artist in Search of the Great Harmony
◎ Britta Erickson
Huang Zhiyang is an artist whose practice has developed organically, which is fitting given the central concern that has emerged. From his early small ink and color paintings through his installations and sculptures, to his most recent Three Marks series, the core issue is the unity of the universe-of humankind, microscopic life forms, plant life, and all other forms of presence. His point of view resonates with the Taoist concept of the uncarved block, or the Great Harmony: before distinctions are made, everything is possible, and it is this primordial infinity of possibility that unifies all.
Huang's earliest ink paintings are small colorful works that throb with life. The forms taken by the pulsing presences suggest organic life forms of an unspecified nature. Over the years his imagery evolved, becoming more recognizably human or plant, before dissolving again into lush layers of life and color, and emerging recently as a purified and spare vocabulary of brushstroke triads. Along the way, Huang produced powerful installations commenting on the relationship between humankind and the environment; sculptures of quiet beauty or flamelike radiance; and videos examining microscopic forms. Together, his oeuvre is a consistent body of work resulting from a lifelong focus on a personal set of values and beliefs, and the sincere effort to express those values and beliefs through art. In this volume, a group of scholars and critics have written about aspects of Huang Zhiyang's art that most fascinate them.
Scholar Feng Boyi considers both Huang Zhiyang's ink paintings and his installations, and finds that both break through established norms to convey a sense of crisis - crisis in the relationship between humans and nature, a general lifestyle crisis that prevents people from feeling a sense of peacefulness, a crisis of faith where personal beliefs are undermined and unsteady. Feng finds it appropriate - even necessary - that Huang takes an experimental approach to both ink painting and
installation, giving the concepts he intends to convey. The process of modernization implies a critical break with the past and requires the artist to confront new truths, which may lead to despair, and to the depiction of nightmarish fragmented visions. Feng believes that, by considering Huang's works carefully, the viewer may arrive at an understanding of the shared environmental and spiritual crisis facing the world.
Curator Wang Jiaji, in Huang Zhiyang's Zoon - A Closer Look series of paintings, also uses the word "crisis". While the earlier Zoon – Beijing Bio series depicted recognizable humanoid figures rendered in ink on paper, in A Closer Look the ink renderings are embedded in a matrix of brilliant colors, with a feeling of being trapped in a web of disorder. Furthermore, the colors are not nature-derived and suggest the current misalignment of contemporary culture with nature. The artist has described this series as fraught with a sense of "beautiful but pathological violence". Wang concludes, "If we regard the Zoon – Beijing Bio series as Huang Zhiyang's cold-eyed view of social conditions in the city of Beijing, then Zoon – A Closer Look, can be seen as a projection of the artist's own intuitive apprehension and uneasiness about settling down in Beijing……"
In considering Huang Zhiyang's Zoon - Dreamscape series, Professor Shen Kuiyi identifies an essential question at its core: "Can the origins of life be investigated and be known?" While other contemporary artists investigate more immediate social concerns, Huang cuts to the crucial issue underlying them all, "the basic value of humanity and life", with the human figure playing the role of metaphor. Huang's imagery has progressed from readily identifiable figures through increasingly regularized patternization, arriving most recently at the abbreviated brushwork vocabulary of the Three Marks series. His exploration of less complex forms of life, including the minutiae of microbes, demonstrates the broad view his work encompasses.
The critic Gao Ling looks at Huang Zhiyang's complete oeuvre, and describes both the works' meaning and their method. Notably, he analyses the development of Huang's brushwork, finding that the artist has adapted some traditional texture strokes to suit his own style, and he links Huang's interest in the relationship between the macro and micro, the one and the many, to Shitao's Huayulu (Remarks on Painting). Indeed, the relationship between micro and macro is key to Huang's oeuvre, as he looks at everything from microbes to mountains, and builds large paintings and sculptures up from repeated small motifs. Gao finds that, through structuring his paintings in different ways, Huang directs the viewer to explore the painting sometimes from without and other times from within.
Huang Zhiyang's extensive interview with Craig Yee provides essential information to understanding his work. Huang describes the development of his work over time, from his decision to take up Chinese brush and ink despite his prize-winning talent as an oil painter, through his installations reflecting environmental concerns, and up to his recent Three Marks painting series. He elaborates on how his career began with the abandoning of all established art systems, and then gradually generating his own system, essentially a personal language of art. There are parallels between his system and that of early Chinese culture: his repeated motifs, for example, resonate with the use of leiwen to create an all-over pattern on bronzes and carvings. (We could make the same observation about his horror vacui.) Yee plumbs the philosophical backdrop to Huang's oeuvre, finding tight links to Daoism and Buddhism, which the artist affirms and ties his youthful exposure to religious folk culture, and more importantly to his personal inclinations. The latter has given rise to both his desire to unite humans, nature, and the universe in his art, as well as his practice of seeking to empty himself so that he can experience the world through his presence.
Huang Zhiyang's life and his art meld into a unified practice, as the artist pursues personal quests through his creations, and finds within himself - his emptied, experiential self as well as his intellectual persona - a wellspring for art. He seeks little communion with a wider society. Since moving from Taiwan to Beijing, he rarely visits Taiwan, and avoids Beijing activities and gatherings. Within his studio is his basic realm of self and art, enhanced by the peace to plumb the relationship between self and nature / self and the universe.