PreviousNo more  NextNo more
Painting Dots: Uncompromisingly Simple Acts
A dot can be seen as a seed, a cell-- a capsule of life force; a speck of moss, a drop of rain, a rock by the road. It was, in ancient time, the symbol of the sun.
In the arid desert or deep in the jungle, tribal people decorate themselves with dots in order to transcend the reality of their physical beings. For a moment, they are transformed into leopards, becoming gods.
The black and white stones on a Chinese chessboard can create intricate and intriguing formations. In the sacred River Book, dots are used to transcend the words so as to reveal the codes of the universe. When we look at the night skies, millions of stars are like shining dots.
Dots, in different shapes and hues, are recurring images in Wang Gongyi’s graphic works. Some are neatly displayed like inscriptions on stone slabs, for example, her lithograph Light; some are formed as matrixes: 3x3, 5x5, 5x7, 7x9; some have designs similar to the ones in the River Book, for example, 1,3,5,7,9, with dots at the center and four corners; some, apparently at random, have dots growing like some organism in a culture dish and others create a rhythmic pattern, like 28 Dots in a spiral progression. Due to various degree of exposure to acid agents, the dots that emerge from either etching or lithography become lively and expressive: they are like memories, dark and poignant, vaguely grayish, or virtually white-washed and forgotten.
Gongyi’s “dots paintings” can be seen as a record of nature’s symbols and life’s secret codes. They are the signifiers of beauty and mystery. Each invents a kind of “writing” which is completely devoid of meanings or images of concrete objects. Before language takes over, they invite you to participate directly with a little bit more imagination and a lot of intuition.
Dots also appear in other works. They become petals, leaves, fruit, music notes, even a fetus. Seen from afar, the Chinese teacups in China, China are dots arrayed in a matrix. The strings in Genetic Mappings are composed of connected dots. The enormous ensemble of 140 conches in the Seashell Diary is, as the title suggests, a record of life written in dots: 140 conches, 140 days, 140 dots.
Never before has a painter used the simplest element of dots as the entire thematic content of his or her creation. In a way, it is original. Unfortunately, it has not been discussed. Since there was nothing to elaborate upon, the best policy was what Laozi said, “Who knows doesn’t talk. Who talks doesn’t know.” Or could it be that China, in early 1990s, had not yet established solid critical discourses apart from the traditional ones? Could it be that they appear so simple and casual, this illusion of being easy makes one assume that a three-year-old can do the same? Are they, on the contrary, too specific to be imitated, too idiosyncratic to be reproduced, and, thus, imprisoned delicately within the particular aesthetic process? How to approach these paintings? Roland Barthes wrote an essay called Writing Degree Zero to dissect a few novelistic writings. Along the same line, can a strategy called “painting degree zero” be devised to facilitate the understanding of her works? Or to be safe and sure, let us use the conventional components of painting such as color, value, light, perspective, composition, style, etc. We would be lost, rather lose our footings, since there are nothing but dots. Then, why not talk about the life of the artist? Her seminal work, which won the first prize in national art competition and made her an over-night sensation in 1979, is a series of woodcut called Qiu Jin. It is a work steeped in realism and based on a historical figure of the same title, a revolutionary and martyr at the turn of the 20th century. 
There is a photograph of Gongyi in a brochure published by the French Ministry of Culture, showing her in the act of painting dots with a big paint brush in her hand. She is bending forward and standing bare-footed on a floor covered with Chinese xuan papers. With such persistence and concentration, she seems to puncture the room with dots of black ink, one after another, from the ceiling to the floor. On the wall is a 3x3 matrix of simple circles, and on top of it, tacked askew, a smaller 3x3 matrix of tiny ink dots, which was later titled Nine. In the “Preamble” of Wang Gongyi’s Graphic Work, 1979-2002, she described a special experience in France in 1992:
I remember especially one holiday weekend at Aix-en-Provence. I was walking to the campus from my dormitory. Not a single soul was there. I opened a door and locked it behind me; another door was unlocked and locked and then another…. Finally I was alone locked in a spacious studio. Sitting in front of my work station, by habit, I took a paintbrush and dipped it in ink. Carefree and careless, I put a few dots, from one to four, at the four corners of a discarded print paper. Tacking it on the wall, I walked back to the table and put 25 dots in the middle of another piece of paper. Again, I tacked it on the wall and returned to my seat. I raised my head and looked at them. In that instant, my blood rushed to my head and my heart throbbed in rapture. For the first time, I was moved by my own work. During my exhibition in 1994 at Paris, those two paintings were immediately chosen and collected by the director of the gallery. She liked them. Something must have happened in the studio. 
Ostensibly, it explains how she started the dots paintings. By analyzing this paragraph closely, I have noticed a few things summarized below. I hope to draw a clearer picture of her creative process, and to some extent, show how her paintings have functioned as direct expressions of her life. 
1.She was all alone in southern France, far away from her familiar environment, culture and language. The sense of estrangement forced her to strip off certain fixed ideas and habits, and, thus, exposed the unlearned, unpolluted state of purity and equanimity. Consciously and unconsciously, this new way of life presented her with entirely new stimuli and opened up many possibilities for creation (See “The Seashell Diary and the Sea Diary: the Partial and the Whole”). 
2.“Not a single soul was there. I opened a door and locked it behind me; another door was unlocked and locked and then another…. Finally I was alone locked in a spacious studio.” It is an interesting description, a visual regression of closing-in, of locking-up. She was obsessed with some arcane Buddhist disciplines at that time. It was a period of “door-shutting.” This mental state continued to 1998; when she did the Seashell Diary, some paintings of a conch shell resemble cocoons. The conch is a Buddhist symbol, and she was “going inward,” shrunk and congealed into a cocoon, a black dot. Viewed from this perspective, her works are like electrocardiograms, recording the variations, the “waves” of her inner world.
3.She had no intention of doing a work of art at that moment. “By habit”, “[c]arefree and careless,” she put dots on discarded paper, not knowing that she was in the process of artistic creation. The intentional and the unintentional, knowing and not knowing, meaning and no meaning, these are some of the concepts of Zen Buddhism. As to the occurrence of “chance,” it has been playing an important role in her works.
4.The reaction was intense and almost sensational, “my blood rushed to my head and my heart throbbed in rapture. For the first time, I was moved by my own work.” The emotional impact was directly physical, an ideal reaction when a work of art is perceived.
5.The director who hosted her exhibition in Paris immediately collected the two dots paintings. In another exhibition in Lyon, the gallery owner bought another of her 5x7 water-ink dot painting. During her recent exhibition in Portland, Oregon, the director also fell in love with two lithographs with dots. Why are these experienced “eyes” so easily enchanted by her simple dots? They are like spells, enchanting, charming.
6.This was a moment that can not be repeated. Once I asked her what had happened in the locked-up studio. She said she did not know but her teacher told her that, in that instant, she had arrived at a non-secular space and engaged in a mysterious process. In a word, she had become a conduit of a certain cosmic energy. She had similar experience in 2008, when she was involuntarily locked up again, alone in her studio for many days due to a severe snow storm. An out-of-body experience occurred and the result was Landscape: Heaven. Gabriel García Márquez suddenly “knew” the content of his book while strolling along the beach at Acapulco, Mexico. He ran home and seemingly dictated every sentence in his head, which became the first chapter of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Gongyi’s dots paintings are uncompromisingly simple; they communicate to the viewers with a visual vocabulary that is elemental, but at the same time, summons an infinite power of imagination. A poem written by Emily Dickinson reckons with and exalts the same kind of unforeseen beauty:
How happy is the little stone
That rambles in the road alone,
And doesn’t care about careers,
And exigencies never fears;
Whose coat of elemental brown
A passing universe put on;
And independent as the sun,
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute decree
In casual simplicity.
Chaos: Anti-word and Anti-intelligence
Chaos is a series of Gongyi’s calligraphic paintings whose title was implied by a large area of sprayed ink at the bottom. The movement of spraying creates a subtly organic yet vigorous pattern. It resembles the depths of bottomless earth filled with billions of hovering sparks. The white area above, then, is the boundless sky. Austere and eye-arresting, the composition is a strong contrast: black and white, heaven and earth, yin and yang, movement and stillness. In the middle of the white area, a paragraph of Chinese calligraphy is suspended between the two realms. A visual genesis: in the infinite past, there was chaos: unformed, unshaped, undifferentiated, a total absence of regularity; in the infinite future, there is death: absolute, destined, a complete lack of spontaneity; and caught between the two ends are words, a symbol of civilization, an illusion of order, a consoling resort of being and living. The composition is an artistic statement of human civilization in relation to the primordial forces, a visual antithesis of order and chaos. She has direct access to the spatial and temporal reality of the cosmos, and to any great artist, it is the elementary point of access to the understanding of anything.
As compared to the stark contrast of black and white, the section of words is the “gray” area, both literally in terms of shade, and figuratively, from the standards of traditional Chinese calligraphy. Each brushstroke is a line drawn in a painterly way, so each word is a picture. As a whole, the calligraphy is in the gray area of legibility and illegibility, meaning and non-meaning. Chaos: White Horse is modeled upon Zhu Yunming’s (1460-1526) White Horse Poem from the Ming Dynasty. What Gongyi employs is the looseness of his cursive script, while the technique of brushwork (using only the tip) and the style of writing are absolutely her own: characters are dissolved into abstraction, random dots are exploded in all directions, and words are abruptly enlarged or reduced in size in order to fill up any gaps. As a result, there is no space left to separate the lines, especially evident in the latter part where the words appear like a chunk of coiled wire interwoven together. The order is destroyed. Reading becomes impossible. Surprisingly, it creates a new reading/viewing experience: words are deconstructed as lines and dots and the categorical distinction of painting and calligraphy is blurred. 
In Chaos: Two Clouds, almost all words are pictures and patterns. They are completely illegible. The black ink spray occupies 2/3 of the paper. Some words are smudged with thick ink as if they are caked with mud, shrouded with black clothes, and unbearably humiliated. A few words look like lumps of blood or wounds. With such bathos and pathos, the meanings of the words are usurped by the emotional effects from the brushwork, and therefore, create a vision that is more chaotic than the black ink. Our daily “text” from all sorts of electronic devices is an apt association with the calligraphy in Chaos: Two Clouds: words are mutilated, sentences truncated, and more often than not, they are the source of loneliness and the cause of confusion. Besides, in this painting, the “text” is cut from the Buddhist scripture on logic in Dunhuang Manuscripts. In logical arguments, rationality, causality, and clarity are the utmost concerns. Through Gongyi’s design, the result is quite the opposite. A piece of calligraphic art becomes an antithesis of its aesthetics; words are converted to shapes; wisdom is based on anti-wisdom; rationality is reversed to irrationality. It can be seen as a manifestation of the Buddhist philosophy of “no difference.” 
Speaking of Buddhism, Gongyi, for a long period of time (1989-2003), had been a devout practitioner. For her, it was a cyclical process of understanding, misunderstanding, confusion, and back to understanding. For better or worse, the religious belief affected her personalities, her life, and her art (See “A Dialogue on Calligraphy: Brush and Ink as Direct Expressions of the Innermost Self”). Chaos: No Gain is yet another example. The writing is modeled on Wang Xizhi’s (303-361) Heart Sutra, which, unlike Chaos: Two Clouds, is slim and graceful. The visual presentation of the calligraphy is as tightly woven as a piece of fabric. At a closer look, some lines are written upside down in the midst of straight forward lines. Since Heart Sutra is the most popular Buddhist scripture and many can recite it by heart, the upside down writing does not seem to be an obstacle. Curiously, it prompts the viewer to find the next word, the next phrase, and the next sentence even if they are upside-down. It becomes a game of “connecting the dots,” or with a more appropriate metaphor, it resembles the orderly progression of each praying bead when one recites the some mantra repeatedly. It is an assertion that subconsciously we all desire order and rules. The strategy, or rather the game, of “weaving” lines in opposite directions attests the ideas that nothing should be regarded as “holiness”; nobody is “superior” to others; everything is equal in its significance and insignificance; and each way is just as good as any other way. It corresponds perfectly with the philosophy in Heart Sutra.
If Chaos: No Gain is an artistic presentation of Gongyi’s understanding of and attitude towards Buddhism, Spontaneous Contemplation is the conclusion of her Chaos series. Again, it is modeled on Wang Xizhi’s Heart Sutra. In this painting, the space between the sprayed ink and words is gone. Words and loosely connected dots run continually and both are pictorial elements. It looks like the two ends of an hourglass or a veil of sand rising up during a sandstorm. At a glance the calligraphy is merged into the loosely scattered dots. Words are broken twigs; dots are sand flaring up in the air. Civilization will ultimately be devoured by sand. For the time being, it gets caught between our teeth and trickles off from our hair.
My analysis of the Chaos series presents a critical fallacy that would probably influence the viewers to examine it as a “thesis piece” that is thoroughly thought-out and intended to be a heavy-handed cultural criticism as frequently seen in the “nest-fouling” works by some contemporary Chinese artists. Nothing can be further from the truth. Gongyi’s paintings are simple and symmetrical; they invoke a sense of elegance and magnificence, even the smudginess of ink in Chaos: Two Clouds appears more humorous than cynical. I asked her what inspired her in creating the series. Her answer was “coincidence.” Preparing for the exhibition in France in 1993, she had no idea what to do. Before going to the airport, she had, without much thought, squeezed into her suitcase a bundle of Chinese xuan paper and a copy of calligraphy by Yan Zhenqing (709-985). It was purely improvisational to play with ink with a spray bottle. After a few tries, she tacked the papers on the wall to dry. The next day, she practiced a few lines from Yan’s calligraphy and tacked it on the wall when finished. Accidentally, she noticed that it was very beautiful with the calligraphy on top of the paper with sprayed ink. Therefore, it was her first one, Chaos: Therefore. (The title here appears to be another coincidence. Most of her calligraphic works are named after the first two Chinese characters written, just like the title of each chapter in Confucius’s Analects.) Subsequently, in 2005, in order to recover from a severe illness, she picked up the daily calligraphic exercise and played around with the composition she had “found” 12 years ago. The first time she showed me her calligraphy with no space between the lines, she said, after a recent trip in China, “Doesn’t it look like the traffic in Tianjin City. It is so crowded but nobody touches anybody!” We looked at the calligraphy and burst into laughter.
In conclusion, Gongyi has learned not to burden herself with goals or assign meanings to her works. Instead, the power of her artistic creation lies in the recognition of chance, and her genius can be defined as paying courtesy in regard to matter, by this, I mean she gives objects and beings their due, and most importantly, she acknowledges the sensibility and integrity of others and herself. Her works, therefore, appear to have gaps and interstices. A viewer can enter a work of hers in a neutral state, not being filled with emotion or misled by ideology. One can almost “breathe” through her porous and lively composition and “roam” on the work’s spacious and lush physicality, even just a few dots in black and white. 
Look, Listen, Taste, Smell, but do not Ask 
I came across a photo of her installation work back in 1993. It has a captivating title, Look, Listen, Taste, Smell, but do not Ask. She said that it was an experiment of her immersion in Zen Buddhism at that time. To be more realistic, I would say (she would have agreed) that it was the result of her language barrier in France. It was, nevertheless, her first time in learning how to comprehend something not by way of logical thinking but through immediate bodily perception. Now, almost 20 years later, this piece still commands an intense emotional and intellectual response.
There stands an immense black frame with two sides strewn over the floor, and enclosed inside is a painting covered with words. The depth of view is formed. It demands your attention. With the written words treated as a visual metaphor, it is immediately recognizable as a variation of the Chaos series if the two sides of the frame are pulled up and leveled, and then it becomes the area of black ink. Here it is all consuming, menacingly hovering from above. It is like an entrance to the mausoleum where the debris of language is buried. I also see it as a proscenium arch; inside it, an ageless performance of sound and fury is staged: many lives begin, and cease, and then again begin, crushed by the tremulous cadence of language. Listen:
Why? Because……So …… But……Besides……Do you get it? It’s not possible! It’s not logical! Think! Prove it……You have to be sure! This is absolutely true……I feel that...... I think that……How do we prove it? Why? Because…… So……Besides……Do you get it?  
These words/phrases repeat mechanically; questions pop up autonomously. The dots linking the words and phrases in between are like chains; question and exclamation marks become locks. There is no escape. Again and again, these broken phrases are returning, overlapping, one layer and yet another until they are no longer legible, completely black at the bottom, suffocated, dead.
The criticism of language is a subject which has been meticulously examined by many novelists, poets, playwrights, and philosophers, for example, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his contemporaries. The conclusion in his Philosophical Investigations stated that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Gongyi’s painting represents the same stance. Obviously, it reveals the oppression from the educational system and political situation when she grew up in China, a protest of the authoritarianism and its control through language. To a certain extent, we are all fettered by language, always looking for “correct answers,” and asking others to accept our “absolute truths” without being aware of the fact that language as a medium of communication is at once frustrating and futile. But questions continue to float up to the surface, a human condition that is best summed up by the pedestrian truism: “Gods laugh when humans ask.” Gongyi, quoting her own visual metaphor in Listen, made another lithograph titled Philosophy. Her paintings are distillations of her life experiences, and thus her philosophical investigations. In the Chaos series, each piece paints a thousand words and negates a thousand words. Gongyi succinctly put it, “Only when there is no need for words to explain anything, then can one grasp the true measure of life.”
Line I: the Inner Movement of Life Forces
Gongyi had four long scrolls of ink-and-brush flower paintings shown in Paris in 2004. Instead of seeing them as four panels of still life on a screen, they are more like abstract sketches. Lines, strong, forthright, and precise, are pulled up from the bottom of the papers to delineate the petals and the veins, and the pistils shoot up like fountains. It was the first time I saw her “mighty lines”: the tip of a soft goat-hair brush painting on the soft and fragile Chinese xuan paper could achieve such clarity and strength. The profound tension and beauty generated by the brush lines is intrinsic to the aestheticism of Chinese arts, especially admired in calligraphy. It is the birthmark of Chinese culture. A simple line reveals an artist’s inner energy, his or her character, cultivation and strength. It is an artist’s fingerprints.
Gongyi likes to sketch with a calligraphy brush. Her state of mind is recorded through the placing of dots or lines that walk or jump on paper. In the same year, she used rough and untrimmed practice papers for her series of flora, simply with “plain sketch.” (In Chinese still life, plain sketch (baimiao) outlines the white areas of an object. Colors are to be filled in later.) Obviously, they are not intended to be formal or seductive; rather, they express the calmness and delight of the moment. The brushwork is casual, slow, and at ease, like a lovely tune quietly hummed. 
Plain sketch is also used in her landscape paintings. In Landscape 8/16, she uses only about 100 strokes to outline the rocks, clouds, waterfalls, a pond, and stone steps in one pure legato. Though as casual as the flora sketches, here, the movement of the lines is lively, brisk, and confident, with no hesitation mark, totally improvisational. I savor the process of looking at these lines, tracing the continuous and rhythmic strokes with my eyes, an experience very much like looking at a calligraphic work. When it is good, it takes you to dance along with its choreography. Gongyi’s simple execution captures the essence of traditional Chinese landscapes, like a jazz musician who claims your soul with just a few simple notes. It is a result of constant practice and a deep understanding of classical forms which allow her to invent a method that is new and unpretentious, a landscape that is effortless and graceful.
I admire the lines in Gongyi’s four-panel flowers painted in 2004. Overall, as paintings, they, nevertheless, reveal a certain ascetic and austere attitude. Five years later in 2009, another piece with flowers called Exuberance, represents a different phase of her life. The petals are drawn with the same technique a calligrapher would use when writing wild cursive. The flowers look vivacious like wild horses. The brushstrokes are fast and unrestrained. Several ink washes suggest the leaves and the interplay of light. Exuberance defies the term still life. It is very sensual in such a way that the motion and emotion seem to spill out of the paper. The articulation of wild and “galloping” lines in this painting is reminiscent of master Xu Wei (1521-1593) whose grapes are as dense as raindrops during a summer storm, and whose banana trees shoot out from the paper, a style known in the West, 400 years later, as abstract expressionism.
Surely, the rhythmic lines in her paintings are seen in her calligraphy. For example, the movement of the wild cursive in Kongho Poem: Repetition is identical to the lively and unrestrained brush strokes in Exuberance. Her calligraphic experiments, Dance with Soft Ink and Evolution of Chinese Calligraphy are words personified, utterly delightful with dots like eyes, lines like limbs. The brushwork is slow and soft and almost child-like. It corresponds to the subtle and delicate lines in her painting Flowers in a White Vase. Here, the discussion of brush lines in her various works is not to explain the theory that Chinese painting and calligraphy are one. In Gongyi’s case, it demonstrates the virtuosity in her recent works. These paintings are documents of an energetic and vibrant life. She recited a poem to me a few months ago. The last two lines are: “My hair is white, but my muse is getting younger and younger each day.” 
Since 2004, the pain and anger long stored in her body have gradually melted away; the mind that used to be captivated by ideologies has slowly been released. She has returned to her natural state, her life source. In retrospect, her thirty-year profession as a painter is a process of opening up. She has become freer and more truthful to herself. This process is clearly revealed in her basic compositions: from the enclosed dots (The Seashell Diary), cave-like opening with dark shadows and flickering light (The Cave and Listen), doors being pushed open (Aperture series), flowers in sumptuous profusion (Exuberance), to the majestic Colombia Gorge (Multnomah Falls) and the vast and glimmering ocean (Ocean). Another way to look at the changes in her creation is the methods and materials she has used, or rather, her attitude toward making art. In 1979 she used knives for her work in the woodcut series Qiu Jin. It was a natural choice to express her pain through the deeply cut, heavily hewn lines. Now she has become relatively “purposeless” and the method is “indirect.” A sense of spontaneity and serenity permeates her recent work. It is just as radical, or even more so, in the “artlessness” of her art. It is one of the recurring themes I am going to explore in the following sections.
Line II: the Aesthetics of Indirectness
 Magical and mysterious, there are lines of another kind that appear in Gongyi’s paintings. Nobody can draw them; even the most skillful painters would fail miserably. They are lines that “grow” naturally. Does it sound like a riddle?
Gongyi has an idiosyncratic obsession with subtle lines which translates to a specific approach to other artists’ paintings and her own. Instead of looking at the overpowering rectangular areas of colors in Mark Rothko’s canvases, she enjoys the soft and irregular edges created by the overlapping washes. As to Richard Serra’s supersized composition, she focuses on the rough lines where two black blocks converge. Moreover, she is more fascinated by Giorgio Morandi’s oil brush movements and its delicate texture than his bottles and vases. She stopped to look at an Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe poster outside a museum, admiring the elusive lines at the edges of the silkscreened press. In these paintings, the rough edges and elusive lines are probably not intended for such scrutiny. As a matter of fact, these artists would not be able to exercise total control over the residual lines. They are simply there. Gongyi sees them and is particularly fond of them because they “grow” naturally on the canvases. 
It is impossible to analyze the reason behind her obsession with lines. Let me try to convey it with an analogy: It is said that every Zen sentence has an “eye”, so does every painting, through which you can “see” the work, and if possible, enter into a pure state before the colors, the objects; before intentions and expectations. Is it then a piece of white paper? One summer I had a strenuous hike to a viewpoint where the snow-clad Mt Adams rose majestically close. I was mesmerized by the grandeur of the sight. Another hiker came to me and said, “You see, this mountain has blocked all the views!” Did Morandi spend many years of his life just to depict some bottles and vases?
Gongyi has a series of blue paintings called Winsor Blue. A simple introduction which accompanied the exhibition at Laura Russo Gallery in Portland, Oregon gives a hint:
I love the color blue. It delights me. The unique watercolor “Winsor Blue” manufactured by Winsor and Newton Co. is brilliantly alive on the Chinese xuan paper-- clean, transparent, and lovely. The subtle and delicate lines born out of the margins from the blue washes are overwhelmingly beautiful. The color moves like melodious music notes. It pulsates: diastolic and systolic, inhaling and exhaling. It reveals the evocative traces of mountains, the skies, the water, the air. It is unconditional love.
Let me use Winsor Blue: Musical Notations as an example. The paper is called cicada wing. It is transparent, delicate, with sprays of gold dust on it like a thin cicada wing shimmering in the sunlight. Due to the specific texture of xuan paper and the resin in watercolor, a line is “born” out of the margin after a blue wash dries up. In traditional craftsman style (gongbi) paintings, it is forbidden to show such lines. On the contrary, they are highlighted in Gongyi’s Winsor Blue series. One layer dries up, then a second layer is washed on it, a second line appears, then a third… until the paper is covered with seemingly parallel stripes from light to dark blue. One almost wants to take a deep breath. The horizontal blue stripes are like the ever-receding mountain ranges, the lapping of waves, the layers of sand spread out by wind. 
“The subtle and delicate lines born out of the margins from the blue washes” is the “eye” of the painting. Nobody can draw these lines. They are the result of the interplay of water, color, paper, plus time to wait and air to dry. The painter has another hat, that of a gardener: a paper is a piece of land, irrigated by water, plowed with color, the lines slowly “grown.” They are full of surprises, overwhelmingly subtle and beautiful.
Bouncing on the blue stripes are white symbols Gongyi borrowed from an old French music score. Since they are music notes, I am ready to listen the painting’s repetitive progression, undulating rhythm and harmonious overlapping hues. Medieval liturgical music rhythm such as melisma or early Renaissance folk songs has a similar structure to that in Winsor Blue: Musical Notations. For example, an Agnus Dei could have as many as 6 singers, starting from the first one who sings a few measures, then the second joins in, then the third, and so on and so forth. The effect is magical and sublime, like echoes that keep progressing and resonating in a valley. Coincidentally, the composition of Winsor Blue echoes the aesthetic effect of some early music.
Line III: Letters of a Buddhist Monk Whose Words Were Writ in Water
Similarly, a calligraphy series, Letters of a Buddhist Monk, employs the same elements of water, ink, paper, time, and air to create some delightful and delicate works. The most interesting aspect of this series is that the tip of the brush does not touch the surface of the paper; instead, the brush is saturated with light ink. It is so watery that the tip simply guides the “water line” at an extremely slow pace. It is a practice of patience. After the “water words” are dry, the sediments from the watery ink still retain the fluidity of water. The edges of each word, like the Winsor Blue series, grow out naturally. In the history of Chinese calligraphy, nobody has written or painted words in such an ingenious way. The composition of Letters of a Buddhist Monk: Harbor has an illusion that words are floating and moving on the surface of a river. It is perhaps not that far-fetched to associate Gongyi’s Chinese water words with John Keats’ epitaph: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
She told me she had all the time in the world when she was working on the series in Shenzhen Fine Arts Institute in China. She would write a few lines in the morning and a few lines in the afternoon. The whole process was totally enjoyable. No wonder these calligraphic works appear to be so leisurely and calm. The content of the writing is modeled on Letters of Hong Yi. Master Hong Yi’s (1880-1942) formal calligraphy is the epitome of quietude; every word is in a meditative state. Since he was a celebrity in the literary and artistic circle before becoming a Buddhist practitioner of the strictest Discipline sect, his writing shows an innate artistic sensibility and cultivation. What Gongyi emulates is his calmness and unique character formation. Therefore, she selects words and phrases at random from Letters of Hong Yi and composes according to a painter’s aesthetic judgment. At a glance they are legitimate calligraphy despite the light ink; some even take up the layouts of poems. The fact is, they are meaningless, just a smorgasbord of words inserted with idioms from Buddhist scriptures. Like the anti-word/anti-intelligent analysis in the Chaos series, the Letters series appears to be in the tradition of the literati culture; while stripped of all the meaning, it mocks the sacred words. The irony and the ambiguity in the series, I believe, are the marks of a high artistic creation.
Please don’t fall into the trap of my analysis; spend some time to read the words. Say Letters: Recitation or Letters: Go Together, both present an artistic or a literary case that is the zero degree writing in Chinese language. Take the process of reading/viewing as a catalyst to see what images emerge, what memories return, and what senses be revived. Stop any rational calculation for a moment; embark on an exploration of the mind. What comes to you is perhaps the true substance of your life. In this sense, it is the perfect relationship a viewer can have with a piece of art. It is never about anything; it is of you. When you look at it, it looks back at you. It can be a painting, calligraphy, a poem, a few words, some watermarks, or several random dots. Overall, without you, it is just a piece of white paper. 
More digression: What does a painter truly paint? What attitude does one have with a brush in one’s hand? A Qing Dynasty painter Dai Xi (1801-1860) wrote, “If one paints with an intention, then the brush and ink go looking for a painting; if one has no intention, then a painting comes looking for the brush and ink, and the result of the latter is more marvelous than the former.” How does “a painting comes looking for you?” Conversely, with another argument: all paintings have already been painted; all words have been said; all things have happened and will happen again. Life repeats itself. A piece of work is a carcass and a museum a mausoleum. How to look, how to paint, how to live, you wild and beautiful life? There is no answer.
Folding: Residue of Time
In Winsor Blue series and Letters of a Buddhist Monk series, the act of writing/painting is reduced to the minimum. Without “direct collision” on the paper, the work evolves indirectly from the elements-- an example of “a painting comes looking for you.” Another of Gongyi’s series, Fold, is in the same method of indirectness.
It is yet another “coincidence.” The table was too small so she folded the paper. Again, it was a “game” by spraying water on the calligraphy because she did not like what she wrote. When the paper was unfolded, the ink spots that penetrated to the paper underneath looked like rubbings from an inscripted stone slab. Its beauty lies in its obscurity and ambiguity. Fold: Re-cover is an appropriate example. Gongyi modeled it on the oldest surviving ink-and-brush calligraphy, Recovery by Lu Ji (261-303) of the West Jin Dynasty. Eroded by the passage of time, the calligraphy is obscure, evoking a sense of remoteness. The traces of words that appear on the folded layer accidentally capture the beauty of antiquity.
Folding and unfolding: one original, one reversed, two pieces of writings create a mirror image. The visual effect of Fold: Recovery is similar to the craft of printmaking; whether it is woodcut, etching, or lithograph, the original is prepared in reverse. Gongyi started as a graphic artist, a career that lasted for 24 years, from 1979 to 2002. After her patron, the late Gordon Gilkey, passed away in 2002, she had no access to a workshop. Magically, the effect of graphic art comes into view in brushwork through folding. Two years ago, she showed me many photos she took of Wang Wei’s(700-761) Wangchuan Villa, a rubbing of a stone engraving dated 1617. She was all excited with sparkling eyes. It is a sign that she will soon pick up graphic art again.
Folding and unfolding: one positive, one negative, two images are associative with the photograph’s exposure. Gongyi devises several folded writings with phrases quoted from Shikong Tu’s (837-908) The Twenty-Four Types of Poetry. They have three folds: from legible phrases, traces of brushstrokes, to touches of ink spots. It creates a new experience of viewing calligraphy in a painterly manner, with three panels co-existing in a rhythmic progression of visual echoes and tones. The third fold, like a film twice exposed, has only vague dots remaining on it. These spots and specks in the Fold series hold the same kind of power as her magical dots, which belong to the domain of the subliminal. Besides, written in a style that disregards all formal techniques of brushwork, the words express an unrestrained, savage-like bewilderment. Again, after folding, the meaning of the phrases is sifted out on the third panel. It reflects the anti-word stance that I try to explore in her Chaos series. She has an abstract landscape titled Emblems Are Formed in the Skies, which is a phrase from Book of Changes. It is originally a folded writing piece. The top and bottom panels of calligraphy are swiped out with black ink, the middle part consists of the remaining ink spots. It is as if the subconscious is quietly awakening, words are gradually assembling, crumbs of meanings are floating in suspense, and, as the title suggests, emblems are formed in the skies. Overall, it depends on one’s perspective and the relativity of things. Birth and death, becoming and unbecoming, the front and the back, the positive and the negative, these are the idea of folding. If there is a time line, a corridor of meanings, a map of the subconscious, how do any two points meet? Fold it.
Fold: Dunhuang Scriptures provides us with a new point of view. Loosely layered xuan papers are displayed as if they are just being unrolled on the table; the edges are naturally curved up. Due to the transparency of the papers, one can see through the writing at the bottom sheet. The content is composed of several sections from Dunhuang Scriptures, some written on the front and some on the back. The writings juxtapose, echo, overlap, jump and turn like a group of actors in rehearsal, trying out the spaces created by the loosely rolled-out papers. It challenges, in an utterly refreshing way, our habit of seeing a calligraphic art that is not formally pasted down, smoothed out and rigidly framed. Gongyi’s calligraphy is still breathing; the paper is still vibrating in its light transparency. Without diminishing its beauty and elegance, it is a lively calligraphic piece in 3-D. In comparison to Fold: Re-cover which is the reminiscence of time past, Fold: Dunhuang Scripture, if attributed to a verb tense, is in present progressive.
Landscape Paintings: Ink and Brush Have Zero Effect on a Painting
For the past four years, Gongyi has immersed herself in re-interpreting Chinese landscape paintings and has since created many impressive works, which at once complement and challenge the perception and concept of the established aestheticism. When she showed me her new landscapes, more often than not, I was enthused, confused, or totally baffled at first sight. My critical vocabularies became inadequate to convey what I felt. My whole body was stimulated by the primordial energy when I saw her Multnomah Falls with several silk scrolls hanging from the ceiling to the floor-- a powerful spatial dialogue among water, cliff, and the Columbia gorge. The effect was very direct, demanding my intuitive response. During the exhibition at Kogo Art Space in Hangzhou, she wrote:
Recalling all the different creative processes [of my landscape paintings], I have finally, I hope, touched the core of some questions that have been lingering in my head for many years. What is the essence of Chinese landscape paintings? How to re-interpret it in our time? I boldly surmise that “ink and brush” do not refer merely to the tools; “antiquity” does not mean following old fixed models. It is, after all, more like a state of mind—that of “un-mindfulness”, of “care-lessness”, of going with the flow. It is an attitude more akin to the spontaneity of Wang Xizi’s calligraphy [The Preface to the Orchid Pavilion] after he was blissfully drunk, or Su Dongpo’s profound outpouring of emotions [in Cold Food Festival] when he was in exile.
Many of her works are created in an “un-mindful”, “care-less”, and even playful state. The techniques and idioms of traditional Chinese landscapes are brought into play with those of the Western ones. As a result, the paintings are not completely Chinese landscapes, nor completely Western abstracts. For example, as I wrote before, lines are foremost in Chinese paintings, and then texture, strokes, shading, dots, and washes. She employs lines, but not necessarily to delineate forms; strokes and shading are disassociated from forms, becoming independent elements. She uses dots, but not to produce moss or leaves in a conventional ways. They are used as independent units for her explorations and experiments. As a matter of fact, there is a sense of “fooling around” with the traditional rules. In Chinese Landscape: Blue Sky, she would outline the landscape loosely and, inversely, cover the sky repetitively with blue gouache until the sky reaches a full saturation from the paint. Traditionally, the sky is left unpainted and the landscape is where several washes are applied. The idea of “emptiness” and “substance” is turned upside down. In Chinese Landscape: Bold and Rough Strokes, she uses an oil painting brush to cover up some unwanted lines from a previous composition. The movement of the brush and the method of “covering up” for correction are methods of oil on canvas. She puts shadows in her Chinese Landscape: Mountain and asserts a bird-eyed perspective in her Chinese Landscape: Heaven, while the norm is not to identify light source, nor should a fixed perspective be adapted. In Chinese Landscape: Minimalistic series, she goes to extremes to express the “idea” of landscapes by two or three broad brushstrokes. The result is the simplest rendition of a Chinese landscape painting. The form is immediately recognizable, precisely and persuasively in its classical form which corresponds to Wu Guanzhung’s (1919-2010) controversial statement that “Ink and brushwork have zero effect on a painting.” What he meant was that it is never about the elaborate ink and brushwork, but the spirit, the energy, the movement, which constitutes the true content of a good painting. With such confidence and bold gesture, Gongyi’s minimalistic landscapes are the testimony of Wu’s words. She captures the essence of a classical genre with zero degree of painting. 
In organizing the contents of this book, I asked her to write down the creative process of each landscape painting and, if possible, the idea behind it. It is interesting to know how a work of art is created. Each has its own “life-course,” a story to tell. For example, Chinese Landscape: Shimmering in Golden Light came out brilliantly after many revisions and many months of unsuccessful attempts. The process of making the Multnomah Falls is recorded step by step. We can see how accidental choices, conscious decisions, and random additions are intermingled and interplayed. In Chinese Landscape: Heaven, she became a conduit of some mysterious forces. As a whole, there are no complicated theories or conceited goals behind them. They are as close to life as the living flows of feelings are condensed with paper and brush; they are paintings that grow from love, from joy, from the consolation of humor, from the quintessential human nature to play, which I believe are no less than the paintings that suffer and the ones that think. Paradoxically, it shows us how she becomes more of an artist by being less deliberately one. The more “absent” she is from her creation, the more imaginative her painting has become.
 In this book, I have also incorporated a dialogue with her on Chinese landscape paintings, “From Asking the Way in Autumn Mountains to the Multnomah Falls.” It explains how she was inspired by Huang Binhong’s (1865-1955) impressionistic Album of Landscape Sketches and started her own works on her sixtieth birthday. It contains her unique understanding of Chinese landscapes after decades of studying some old masters. I especially like her synthetic view by connecting the principles of Chinese aesthetics to the philosophical notions in Book of Changes. She discusses the fundamental idea of “seeing,” of which the conscious plays a far more important role than the eyes. She also compared the differences between the Chinese landscape paintings and the Western ones according to her own experiences and practices. Most importantly, through this dialogue, along with the other three dialogues and her selected diary entries, I hope that a portrait of Gongyi as a person and an artist can be truthfully portrayed, even in places where one might find her somewhat “stupid.” Who has not been “stupid” at times? Finally, besides the appreciation of her various works, what inspires me the most during compiling and writing this book is to see an artist who has been working so diligently and passionately for the past thirty years without losing sight of an artist’s authenticity or the genuineness of a person, to that, more than anything else, I pay my highest respect. (12/09/2010, Lake Oswego, Oregon)
《Introduction to Wang Gongyi’s Works: Painting Degree Zero J》
Painting Dots: Uncompromisingly Simple Acts A dot can be seen as a seed, a cell-- a capsule of life force; a speck of moss, a drop of rain, a rock by the road. It was, in ancient time, the symbol of the sun. In the arid desert or deep in th