Author: G. James Daichendt, Professor of Art History, Art Critic, and Dean of the Colleges at Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, California
From his velvety electric landscapes to traditional Chinese ink paintings, Beijing-based artist Jiannan Huang (b. 1952) is no stranger to experimentation or bold use of color. Trained in traditional brush painting techniques, Huang uses that skill set as a foundation for an experimental approach to building landscapes that are closer to science fiction than reality. Huang’s devotion to nature on canvas becomes a sensory experience as he layers abstraction within these structured scenes that results in something closer to a memory or recollection of an important moment more so than a particular place.
A survey of Huang’s landscapes includes locations like deserts, mountains, rivers, and fields that could be located almost anywhere in the world. The consistent softness of the atmosphere and the effervescent haze that hangs over many of his works is reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s block-like forms floating above complementary colors that almost seem to push away from one another in a mystical fashion. This seemingly simple quality is enough to captivate the viewer and force them to consider these abstract qualities that build upon one another and combine to create a temper or tone in each image.
Cascade et rivière aux arbres, 2016
The painting Lac au Crépuscule, (Lake at Dusk) achieves depth through the layering of pigment that creates an illusion of distance. However, Huang’s background imagery is hardly concrete as shades of blue and orange mix to establish a horizon line that appears and disappears depending upon where the viewer focuses their attention. Sprinkled within the landscape are more refined organic plants and the presence of a few camels that give us a sense of proportion and some potential ideas about the locale of landscape. Yet the vague title and the slight hints of the region imply that there is more to this image than simply depicting a location. Instead, the colors fuse together and imply the sun’s closeness to the earth which is contrasted by the coolness of the lake and the low cloud cover that seems to limit our ability to see clearly.
Lac au Crépuscule, 2020
In contrast, the painting 梦中的歌谣 (Ballad in Dreams) reaches beyond realism and enters into fantasy as Huang’s forms become looser and more gestural. Here, the foreground resembles an abstract expressionist painting; as the landscape recedes, it is stylized with bold contour lines that capture pink cliffs and rocky, black mountains. These disparate styles are separated by a river that runs between these dramatically opposed styles as if acknowledging their differences. Focus on the painterly brush strokes reveals a lyrical quality, almost like a dance as the shapes fly around the bottom of the composition. It is a cosmic dance that pulls the viewer in through movement yet holds them at arm’s length with an abundance of energy that seems unstable. Beyond this combustible collection of elements, the landscape is otherworldly and reminiscent of the Surrealism movement and worlds one might find in a Salvador Dalí or Max Erst painting. A landscape from within, the framing elements of order are present, but the artist’s vision is clearly determining the details.
Ink wash painting is one of the oldest forms of art making methods, utilizing shades of black to call attention to the spirit of the subject represented. In China, ink paintings have a regal tradition and are often compared with poetry for their careful use of line, form and handling of space. Many of the ideas found in traditional ink paintings were utilized within the American Arts & Crafts movement propagated by Arthur Wesley Dow and have become commonplace in basic art and design education in America. Significant among these concepts is the importance of combining line and color to create a harmonious composition. Calligraphy is a great example of a harmonious practice and uses the same black ink, but generally has a longer history than painting. It was only during the Song dynasty (960-1127) when painting and calligraphy became more closely aligned - a relationship continues in Huang’s work.
Huang’s calligraphy practice emphasizes the importance of text in the Chinese tradition. The seemingly abstract lines and forms in calligraphy are just a sample of the tens of thousands of Chinese characters in existence. These symbols convey much more than simple words and can include characteristics like energy or vitality. The simplicity of the brush coupled with complexity in the interpretation enables the dynamic meaning of 行书“上善若水”, where the calligraphy can be interpreted to mean “The highest good is like water, the earth’s condition is receptive devotion.” Within these carefully constructed symbols, brush strokes have an order, and each character has its own personality and myriad of meanings depending upon how the brush is used to make each mark.
It’s no secret that the Abstract Expressionists of the mid-20th century revered Chinese calligraphy, an aspect of Huang’s education and professional work that can be seen when re-examining his landscapes. Just as artists like Jackson Pollock or Joan Mitchell embedded their emotions within their respective marks on canvas, Huang likewise infuses each stroke of paint with a great deal of history, symbology, and expression. Rather than thinking of his landscapes as representations of something real, it’s more appropriate to imagine the fleeting smell of tall grass or the humidity one feels on their skin as hot air is trapped within a wooded area. Far from academic renditions, these are fleeting senses that arise as Huang layers his paintings with an encyclopedia of forms and colors.
Given Jiannan Huang’s revere for calligraphy and his penchant for balanced compositions with a firm foundation, one can see how structure becomes very important in his work. As each symbol of calligraphy represents so much, Huang’s landscapes become a type of folklore that can be pulled apart line by line only to be combined once again for a fuller experience of the natural landscape. The combination of early styles of painting mixed with the artist’s concepts is reminiscent of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and the emergence of mind landscapes, a style that mixed feelings with traditional techniques. From the dew hanging in the air above a lake to the crisp air flowing between the rocky ridges up in the atmosphere, the forces of nature rush forward in each landscape as they are built both internal and external forces. As Huang continues to cultivate an imagined world, he appears to long for an imagined retreat where all are invited.
G. James Daichendt is a professor of art history, art critic, and the author of several books including Robbie Conal (2020): Streetwise: 35 Years of Politically Charged Guerrilla Art; Kenny Scharf: In Absence of Myth (2016), and Shepard Fairey Inc. Artist/Professional/Vandal (2014). He holds degrees from Columbia, Harvard, and Boston universities and serves as Dean of the Colleges at Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, CA.