Stay Where You Are—Gao Yun Solo Exhibition retrospecting 40 years of his art career

TEXT:SUE WANG    DATE: 2019.8.3

Exhibition View of Stay Where You Are—Gao Yun Solo Exhibition 09.jpg

As the first large-scale solo exhibition of Gao Yun’s works in China,  Stay Where You Are—Gao Yun Solo Exhibition presents more than 60 items or series of high-quality works created from 1979 to 2019. It is by far the most comprehensive display of Gao Yun’s creations. The exhibition was jointly organised by Jiangsu Art Museum and Deji Art Museum and will be on display at Deji Art Museum from 26 July to 31 October 2019.

The exhibits include treasured collections from key national cultural institutions such as the National Museum of China and National Art Museum of China, as well as classics that have been written into the history of Chinese art and become exemplary works. There are also recent works that the public will see for the first time in this exhibition. 40 years of artistic accumulation is presented to the viewers in six sections encompassing picture storybooks, stamps, and Chinese paintings through a panoramic display. The exhibition endeavours to shed light on the artist’s thinking, pursuits, aesthetic experience, and artistic trajectory.

Gao Yun graduated from Nanjing University of the Arts in 1982, majored in Chinese painting. He has been awarded Gold, Silver and Bronze prizes at National Art Exhibitions, the Best Stamp Award in the National Stamp Awards, the highest awards at the National Picture Storybooks Awards and the Jiangsu Province Zijin Culture Medal. His comic book Luo Lun Takes the Imperial Exam was respected as “one of the masterpieces of comic books in line drawing in the 20th century”, his Broken Soul at Mawei (Collaborated with He Jiaying), and Yongle Encyclopedia (he collaborated with An Yumin, Li Qiang, Zhan Yong, Inscription by Guan Jun) and was included in the collection of the National Museum of China. Currently he holds the posts of Vice President of the National Chinese Painting Institute, Administrative Committee Member of China National Academy of Painting and Vice President of China Academy of Painting, Deputy Director of China Artists Association Chinese Painting Art Committee, Researcher in Chinese Painting at Chinese National Academy of Arts, President of the Chinese Painting Society of Jiangsu Province, Honorary Director of the Jiangsu Art Museum, Adjunct Professor at Nanjing University.

I. Cultural Genes of Comic Strips and Stamps

The first section of the exhibition features five sets of his representative comic strips and it recreates a studio setting which highlights the artist’s working status behind the creations. Taking The Palace of Eternal Life  as an example, the wall was covered by layers of research drafts and historical catalogues from which we could find that Gao Yun has been endowed with the professional attitude of a scholar and a realistic quality in his practice.

Some important stamps designed by Gao Yun are highlighted in the second section, such as Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of Xu Xiake’s Birth (3pieces), which won the Best Stamp Award in the National Stamp Awards in 1987, Butterfly Lovers (5 pieces) which was awarded the Best Innovation Design of the 10th Government Postage Stamp Printers’ Association Conference (Poland). Sheng Roles in Peking Opera (6 pieces), which was awarded the Best Gravure Award in the 12th Government Postage Stamp Printers Conference (Algiers).

Comic strips and stamps are both categories of art that people can relate to, while blending spiritual pursuits of the public and retaining the traditional cultural genes. Based on his unique perspective and aesthetic style, Gao Yun has cultivated and combined the literati spirit, historical context and feelings on folklore with art, thus his creations are characterized by rich techniques and a unique artistic charm.

II.The Reflections of His Figure Paintings on the Ideal Beauty of the Epoch

The third section features 19 works on female themes, including Broken Soul at Mawei (Collaborated with He Jiaying) which was awarded Silver Prize and the Best New Artist in the 7th National Art Exhibition, Remember us?—Commemorating the 70th Anniversary of New Fourth Army, In Dialogue with Ingres series, Dream series and so on. What Gao Yun has depicted are not just the “female portraits”, as he tries to convey his pursuit in “truth, goodness and beauty” through his carefully constructed combination of figures, images and scenes. Thus figures for him become a carrier, and his works constitute his way to communicate with audiences. Although there is a limit in size and scale, his ideal and significance are profound and boundless.

As Gao Yun’s good friend He Jiaying, who collaborated with him to create Broken Soul at Mawei, described in his article, “if closely observing Gao Yun’s female-themed works, it is not difficult to find that they contain ideal colors that transcend reality, which is also the source of the aesthetic thoughts in Gao Yun’s works. Therefore, his figures are fresh and alive, the vitality of traditional techniques is also highlighted. He does not inherit traditions from imitation but he compares them with the contemporary perspective and mood to reflect the present, that’s why audiences feel empathy with his works and his works remain attractive.

The fourth section also relies on the theme of literati to express feelings. Most of the works in this section have combined figures with landscapes such as Rock Worshipping, Gu Xiancheng, the Jiangnan Scholar and so on. The protagonists and landscapes complement each other. From the ancient literati sentiments to mountains and rivers, Gao Yun intends to introspect in this spiritual yearning and persistent inquiry.

III.Self-observation in Mirror and Expression of Mind in Paintings

Gao Yun’s landscape paintings have distinct images and long-lasting charm, his works such as Such is the Beauty of Our Land collected by Jiangsu Centre for the Performing Arts, and Splendid Jiangsu collected by the Nanjing Lukou International Airport reflect his observation and conception of Nature, the lofty pursuit constructed on realistic scenery are the monologues of Gao Yun. Undoubtedly, it is also a reflection and escape from modern life, urban hustle and complicated society.

His recent works are presented in the last section of the exhibition, including 11 works that belong to two series of Urban Stroller and Sketch in Xinjiang. Through the observation and depiction of the public, Gao Yun tells the lives and stories of modern citizens through his subjective language. He projects the reality into the state of mind. In either a realistic or illusory atmosphere, audiences do not just watch, but they also enjoy the strength of setting the scene for their self-observation, self-interpretation and self-appreciation.

Chen Hengke once said, “The literati painting has four elements: character, learning, talent and thought. With these four, it can be perfected.” Whether it is a literati landscape or another subject matter, Gao Yun painstakingly explores and earnestly studies art. In these four aspects, efforts have been made to improve his art skills, to repeatedly observe and think about the ego producing ideal feelings that are placed in the picture. Gao Yun wanders in the real world every day and the ideal art world, and he rebuilds bridges between history and tradition, modernity and the current context. He goes deep into life through art, understands the epoch, and pursues the truth. Everyone has his own “esoteric doctrine” as well as a different “free” realm, the words left on the final wall of the exhibition hall, the true feelings of emotion may bring some hints: “Life is like a mirror, it reflects the truth when it is given truth while it reflects illusion when it is provided with  illusory concepts. It tells true and false, and gains and loses. It is from the heart that it can express the true self, and can live with the existence of the self in a free state.”      



Gao Yun: Musing over History and Recalling Epochs

Fan Di’an (Chairman of China Artists Association,President of Central Academy of Fine Arts, Doctoral supervisor)

As a fellow of the art world, I feel deeply delighted that Gao Yun’s representative works are brought together in an exhibition at the time of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of New China. Although he has published a number of art books before, and his works have frequently participated in exhibitions throughout the past decades, his artistic approach is much clearer when the works are anthologised in a panoramic display. The exhibition provides a precious chance for fellow artists to exchange ideas and a comprehensive presentation of the works to the public.

Gao Yun is an artist who grew up and became maturity in the great era of Reform and Opening-up. The tremendous historical changes and developments in Chinese society provided rare opportunities for the artist to release his talent and also challenged him on the cultural and academic level. The merits of Gao Yun laid in how he cherished the opportunities, strived to closely follow the changes of ideological trends, and consciously synchronised with the epochal pulse. For decades, he has always adhered to a firm cultural ideal, always upholding the passion for an artistic practice that looked to the epoch’s forward strides. The era moves and inspires him. He is also determined to eulogize the era with continuous artistic exploration. In his works, whether they have historical or realistic themes, large-scale masterpiece or small and exquisite compositions, they always show a clear sense of the era in terms of themes, conception, mood and formal construction. His works are filled with an aura of broad-mindedness and clarity. His style is fresh and lucid, reflecting the flourishing atmosphere and the high spirits of the times.

Reform and Opening-up has brought about a historical change to the context of Chinese arts and culture. For an artist, this change put forward a test on the macroscopic understanding of the culture. It propelled artists to seek development in the process of change, to effectively address the relationship between inheritance and cultural innovation, to examine history from the perspective of art theory, and to seek the right coordinates for his art practice in the face of contemporary society. A sober cultural consciousness continuously runs through Gao Yun’s artistic development. This is highlighted in his practice; think before paint, thoughts lead to the acts. His art not only created individuality early on, but also shows a firm creed. It is this steady and sustained spiritual pursuit that gives his art a stable quality. For a Chinese painter, changes in the times suggest new issues at a concrete level of the practice. The new collision and exchange between Chinese and foreign cultures, the impact and influence of international art trends on Chinese art, especially on Chinese painting, as well as the challenges presented by global information on the

aesthetic style of art images, are all unavoidable cultural contexts and actual circumstances necessarily encountered by Chinese painters. Gao Yun also did not escape these challenges in Chinese painting, nor has he attempted to evade them. He has always been full of confidence in the contemporary development of Chinese art, and constantly strives to innovate. He focuses especially in overcoming problems of artistic conception and that of the ink-and-brush language; learning from the traditional culture, he has formulated a constitutive framework for his own research. In-depth investigation of daily life and perceptions of reality are an original source for his motivations, propelling him to make each creation process a research process that endeavours to solve problems. In the conception and expression of every piece or group of works, he seeks breakthroughs and pushes boundaries in the realm of artistic expressions, and builds a prolific art world.

The opportunities bestowed by the epoch to different artists give different returns. Gao Yun’s outstanding achievements in Chinese painting are not only reflected in the profundity of his thoughts and the exquisiteness of his art works, but also in his rich life experience. He is an artist with multiple ‘identities’. He has worked in many fields including art editorial and publishing and museum management and cultural administration. His experience encompassing multiple official posts has provided him with a broader cultural vision and an incomparable aptitude of understanding. In his case, administrative work and creative research can complement and facilitate one another, formulating a unique artistic approach. His talent lies in the ability to bring together a variety of experience and transform them by virtue of a creative energy. He can mobilize and utilize his work experience, converting forces felt outside of the art practice into painting, so that the works reflect a broad realm of reflection and profuse involution. Such is the distinctive characteristic of Gao Yun’s art.

To be more specific, Gao Yun’s art has three prominent features.

First, he is good at expressing historical themes with a contemporary perspective, thus assigning new meanings to the history. Over the years, he has concentrated on creating works of major historical themes, and investigated the involution of traditional culture. For paintings of historical subjects, they have long been required to ‘offer edification and record the vicissitudes in history, so that what happened in the vast span of thousands of years can be presented in visual form’ (from Guhua Pinlu, by Xie He). To be able to express the spirit of the new era, strengthen national self-confidence and boost the national spirit, paintings of historical themes form an important path in fostering a culture of harmony and cultivating civilized practices.

We can clearly notice Gao Yun’s research of this subject in his art career. In his works such as Broken Soul at Mawei, The Making of the Great Canon of the Yongle Reign, and Remember Us?, it can be seen that he strives for a grand and unequivocal expression and attempts to effectively combine characters, plots and scenes in a way that expresses a specific historical significance. They are laid out as masterpieces with both a historical density and a unique art style which does not literally translate to a historical narrative. To create a painting of a historical subject not only requires a comprehensive grasp of large-scale scenes, but also a rigorous textual research of the history. To create a historical scene with authenticity, artists need to have the capability to delve into historical facts, study the social backgrounds and cultural situations of the time, and collect historical data, documents, pictures, anecdotes, etc. With continuous consideration and careful deliberation, Gao Yun is able to create works of historical subjects that integrate historicity, creativity and aesthetics, and compose epics that praise the spirituality of the national history.

Secondly, he is a master in grasping artistic composition with the spirit of ‘rise and fall’; unfolding plots with images and shaping images with plots. From large-scale paintings of historical subjects to those with classical figures, from picture storybooks to stamps, from meticulous gongbi characters to gongbi-and-xieyi scholars, Gao Yun dabbles in a rich variety of subject matter and genres, which shows that he is able to comprehend new things by analogy, and he is passionate about diving into art creation. Similar to the richness of his work experience, he is also a versatile artist. But with it comes a basic as well as a protruding puzzle, that is, how to bring out the new in every piece of work within a painting system grounded in concrete forms, in other words, how to formulate a pictorial style that contains both traditional implications and contemporary understanding. In view of Gao Yun’s oeuvre, we can clearly see the consciousness and rationality of his art practice.His research focuses on the composition and layout of the scenes, arrangement of figures, lines and colours, as well as an integral lyricism. He has always been concerned with an insightful and innovative exploration of content and form, presenting an organic rhythm through a vivid constructive consciousness of modern art. Shen Zongqian once said: ‘grounds of the heaven and the land lie in the opening-closing (rise-and-fall)’. The opening-closing of paintings is similar to the blocking of stage, or the rise-and-fall of writing. Gao Yun has a flair for manoeuvring formal combinations of large masses, deftly handling the visual relationship between the major and the minor, scenes and objects, complexity and simplicity, and sparseness and denseness. With a balance of loosening and tightening, his ideas bloom at the tip of brush. Complex plots and arrangements of figures naturally emerge at the turning point of the opening-closing, blending into a wonderland. For instance, in The Making of the Great Canon of the Yongle Reign, the figures in the background painted in baimiao (‘monochrome- outline’) complement the central figures in heavy colours. Thus, not only the procedure and the complexity of making the Great Canon are represented, but also the awe-inspiring occasion of the emperor’s inspection under the spotlight. Many of the stamps he designed also pursue a grand and timeless expression, making these small pieces extremely lively with vivid subjects. He is a genius in arranging the relationship between figures, objects, scenes and space. He tries to present the panorama of history and culture through a great diversity of forms, constructing images that closely connect with the historical, social and cultural environments. In this respect, his work experience in organizing and guiding stage art has played a unique role. A painting is like a stage. He is like a theatre director, arranging actors and scenes, plots and images. He guides the actors to become absorbed in acting in the ‘play’. He constructs the scenes to express the ‘play’, and invites the audience to enjoy the ‘play’. Gao Yun has devoted his life to a stage by and in painting, walking among the ‘figures’, ‘scenes’ and ‘minds’. By projecting his own understandings of various subjects into the practice of painting, Gao Yun has significantly developed and enriched the expressive power of contemporary Chinese painting.

Thirdly, he has researched and developed the expressive capacity of lines in Chinese painting. By shaping forms, the lines communicate an epochal aesthetics. Gao Yun has been enraptured by painting since he was a teenager. Later he participated in the provincial creative art class and entered the public’s view. He was then admitted by Nanjing University of the Arts and was taught by great masters of art including Liu Haisu, Chen Dayu, and Zhang Wenjun. During his study at NUA, he gained a good command of sketching and generating expressive power through lines in Chinese painting. His handling of the lines can be compared with the poise and ease of seal and running scripts, the zigzag of withered vines or silk threads, cadences and transitions, charms and appeal. Whether they are flowing brushstrokes in a xieyi style, or meticulous gongbi lines, the shapes, layouts, up-and- downs and movements of lines are all exquisitely expressive. Decades of practice have trained the sensibility of his lines. He accurately shapes images with careful and precise lines, infusing emotions in the running of them, so that they become threads spun out of his mind. At the same time, his lines are closely related to colouring and smearing. He seeks an elegance of the overall tone, and pays particular attention to the quality of colours and the liveliness of rendering. By complementing the lines with the tone and the texture of smearing, the painting achieves an organic integration of line and colour, form and meaning. The beauty of lines emerging out of all these features has become an essential contribution by Gao Yun. In recent years, he also used portraits of classical western oil painting as a blueprint, transforming them by re-presenting them by Chinese painting, converting the system of light and shadow to the lines. It shows his concentration and fascination with the structuring and shaping potential of lines, and reflects his cultural confidence in the language of lines in Chinese painting.

Gao Yun’s artistic journey has built itself on tradition and was proceeded by a rendering and creating anchored on subjective consciousness. Reflections on the transformation of the contemporary significance of Chinese paintings are represented through a fluent ink-and-brush language. These reflections and transformations are to be found in the visual construction of a double language overlay of traditional aesthetic values and contemporary art forms, activating an open space for a new path of artistic exploration. The achievement of ink-and-brush will be accomplished by a language using the picture plane that is realistic, lyrical, and significant. A language of ink-and-brush that transmits the warmth of its epoch is formed in between historical narratives and images of people. One can imagine how Gao Yun, contemplating in front of stretched paper, looks out to the valleys and peaks of history, the fumes and clouds covering and revealing. He can’t help but be deeply moved and touched by the dim but gleaming nuance of history. Over the years, he sees light flowing like water, and becomes imbued with an orchid-like temperament. His artistic creations always begin with the ‘actuality’, from which he finds the materials needed while saving the cumbersome problems of the humdrum. Though borne out of the ‘actual’, his art creation arrives at a sublime expressive stage of inner experience. They are Gao Yun’s visual projections of social environments and historical culture, as well as a free exploration of the private artistic mind. Among a group portrait made up of copious and beautiful figure paintings set against a simplistic elegant space, the emotions and feelings are intertwined within.

Today, the broad context of the new era has brought opulent conditions and space for development to the field of Chinese painting. To meet with the challenge and to strive for the future development of it, the practice of Chinese painting needs to be transformed and re-created with a strong foothold in the traditional culture on the one hand, and on the other, with valid investigation and exploration that synchronizes with the epochal pulse. Gao Yun has accomplished his own artistic quest and arrived at a commensurate spiritual realm. The unraveling of his future practice will ascend to a soaring peak.

May 2019 in Beijing