Birds in Peril

 中文 Chinese translation

Last month I visited Nanjing and spent an afternoon with painter Guan Ce. He was active in the 1985 avant-garde art movement in China and recently exhibited in London’s Saatchi Gallery in a show curated by Gary Xu. Thanks to Gary for making the introduction for me and to Guan Ce for meeting me on short notice.

Guan Ce’s studio was on the 2nd floor of an automobile parts factory not far from the newly developed residential district where he lives and teaches. He showed me some mixed media paintings on paper that he had recently finished….he kept them casually in a large cardboard folder on the floor. He opened the folder for me and then went to get water to make tea.

At first glance, the paintings seemed to be textural compositions featuring bold swipes and splatters in grey, white, and black. The acrylic paint on paper had a plastic thickness, and I felt a cold blast of abstract sentiment. Then I recognized something that made my heart ache: were those bird shapes, in ink? familiar eyes and beaks from traditional Chinese painting? What were those poor birds doing there, looking forlorn in a maelstrom of debris?

Detail, Guan Ce, Flower-and-Bird-1, (花鸟-1)
Detail, Flower-and-Bird 1

It brought me back to a semester long ago when I studied flower-and-bird painting as a foreign art student in Beijing. My classmates were adept in traditional Chinese ink painting, while I made them laugh with my modern art inclinations—I used my calligraphy brush to paint giant birds with bodies partially off the page, a blasphemy. I came to admire how my Chinese classmates painted traditional birds with character: noble eagles on craggy rocks, ornery blackbirds in rustic mountain scenes, or intelligent-eyed sparrows sitting on a branch, often in company. The soft and gentle texture of ink wash, wet and dry brushstrokes, delicate calligraphic stippling—Chinese painters mastered these to create poetic scenes in nature, using birds and animals to reflect the human spirit.

In his new works, Guan Ce has put these noble, ornery, and intelligent birds in a hard-edged, messy, manmade environment. You almost don’t see the birds, so indistinct in the overall chaos, almost obliterated by their surroundings. This gives me too much to think about….Is it Chinese traditional culture barely surviving in the 21st century? Is it the poetic spirit fending off the onslaught of materialism? Is it the artist hanging onto ideals in a consumerist market? The paintings and their metaphors keep returning to me….these birds, beautiful and dear, are losing their world.

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