Comments & Essay

                                    

Reflections on the Art of Shanye Huang 

Essay by Dr. Jason C. Kuo, Professor of Art History, University of Maryland

The first impressions one gets when looking at Shanye Huang's works in the current exhibition come from their colorfulness and vibrancy.  Upon closer examination, one is gradually drawn in to the various levels of visual and material sensuality, then on to the sophistic discourse on life brought out through the imagery.  Huang's art is a synthesis of his own sensibility and his life experience as a member of the Zhuang minority in Southwestern China, a Chinese, and as a Chinese American.  It is therefore particularly appropriate to reflect on these aspects of his art in order to obtain a better appreciation.

First, Huang is deeply affected by his experience of the ways of life of the Zhuang people, who have maintained rich traditions of festivals, music, textiles, and folk arts.  Second, as an artist formally trained in two of China's academies of fine arts, he has absorbed the long and rich Chinese cultural, religious, and philosophical traditions, and has attempted to integrate them into his work.  Third, his life experience since arriving in America from China and settling down in suburban metropolitan Washington, D.C. has also contributed to what he has to say, by means of concrete form and style, to people who come to see his art.

Why is it important to note the significance of the folk art aspect of Huang's work in the so-called "global" age?  I think, in part, it is because Huang's work is both local and global.  In part, as was pointed out a long time ago by the British writer D. H. Lawrence, human beings can not live in a geographical as well as spiritual vacuum:

"Each continent has its own great spirit of place.  Every people is polarized in some particular locality, which is home, the homeland.  Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like.  But the spirit of place is a great reality."[1]

Huang's art embraces its identity as a hybrid, and is not simply a slavish imitation of his Zhuang tradition.  Symphony of Longevity, his 2003 large mixed-media installation of used CDs painted with acrylic colors, for instance, is a good example of his integrating discarded everyday objects with Chinese ways of achieving happiness in life.  Other pieces, such as At the Wedding (1990) and Tapestry of Dreams (1998-2007) are also informed by and indebted to the artist's firsthand experience with the vibrant and colorful way of life in his native land.

Seasons of Life: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter (2008-2009), the centerpiece of the current show, is an interactive four-sided installation; after looking at it, the audience is invited to make prints from hand-carved stone stamps, then write comments.  Located near the center of the Gateway Arts Center Art Gallery, it reminds me of the Yellow Book Talisman, "one of the most powerful magic boards for contacting spirits related to Earth", a format that is derived "from the square zone at the center of the ancient round bronze mirrors, considered [by Chinese Taoists believers] to be of great talismanic power."[2]  Furthermore, many of Huang's pieces with intersecting written Chinese characters clearly can be related, if only partially, to the ancient Chinese belief in the magic of the written word and to the possibility of writing as "picture of the human mind" (xinhua) .

It is quite fascinating to see how Huang alludes to ancient classical Chinese poetry in creating his imagery intended for a contemporary American audience.  Forever a Seeker (2008) is based on one of the most memorized poems by the ancient poet Qu Yuan (ca. 340-277 B.C.), who is the first great poet known by name and whose main work entitled "Encountering Sorrow" has entered the emotional and psychological make-up of almost all great Chinese poets; the poem is about the poet's intention to continue his search for an ideal world in spite of the long road and hardship.  When Spring Comes Again (2006) is based on yet another famous poem, memorized by almost every student, by Bo Juyi (772-846), perhaps one of the most flamboyant poets in Chinese history; the poem is about how spring brings about and regenerates nature and life.

In short, Shanye Huang's art embodies the artist's continuing search for personal and cultural identity in the constantly changing world in which we all live.  His art, therefore, offers ample opportunity to reflect on the potentiality for renewal and regeneration in our life.
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1, D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Viking, 1964), 5-6.    2. Laszlo Legeza, Tao Magic: The Secret Language of Diagrams and Calligraphy (London; Thames and Hudson. 1975), 125.


Comments:

"Shanye, I have heard only positive things about the exhibition.  Everyone who has come and seen it, from the very beginning until now, has had only glowing things to say about your work.  Congratulations!!" --- Alec Simpson, Director, Brentwood Arts Exchange @ Gateway Arts Center

"Absolutely incredible. You can look & look & still find something new. I love it! This exhibition is beautiful beyond words. We can't think of enough adjectives to describe the beauty of these paintings. Thank you so much for sharing your gift of art. " --- John & June Williams

"It is a fantastic show, a must see.  I have not seen this caliber of work in a long time, simply beautiful." ---C.D.E. (www.artdc.org)

“Shanye Huang’s works reveal their power through the force and the brightness of colours, through the different effects of forms, the textures, the pictorial matter, the magnetic energy from the pictorial sign which spring from the canvas. In his paintings imagination and creativeness are released through the flow of the living and acting forces on the canvas, the interaction of spaces, forms and colour connection, taking them beyond to their physical limits…” ---Paola Trevisan, Curator, Trevisan International Art, Italy

 “Thank you, Shanye, for the beautiful art, the inspiration for my entire piece! The art came first, then the music, then the dance… I first saw Shanye's art and was immediately inspired to write music. When I met him and heard about the Spring Song Festival in Guangxi, I knew I would write a grand symphony about it, and later had the idea for a ballet. He was the inspiration behind the entire project! Thank you for being the great artist you are!"  ---Silas Huff, Conductor and Composer, NYC

"Our exhibition of 'Contemporary Artists' has a large variety of mixed media. One, in particular, is the art of Shanye Huang, a Chinese-American artist, who has brought his culture with him. It pops out in his mixed-media paintings. I was surprised to see he uses Chinese and English newspaper mud on canvas. I have never seen this combination before." ---Annette Rawlings, Director, Andrews Art Museum, NC