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"Jiannan Huang" - A Review of his Recent Artwork

Updated: Sep 12

Author: Professor Richard Wearn, California State University, Los Angeles

Jiannan Huang’s latest series of paintings are inspired by observations and experiences drawn from a life time questing an existentialist vision. Jiannan Huang is a self-taught artist, his paintings are grounded in a philosophy that was informed equally by self-guided scholarship, that occurred as a witness to the seismic social, cultural and political shifts that China has undergone during his life time. He viewed these shifts from the vantage point of a nomadic life, gaining insight through his extensive and relentless trekking across the vastness of China. The intricacies of the diverse society he encountered, and the sublime and moving immensity of the Chinese biomass and its geologic wonders impressed upon Jiannan Huang the power of the cosmological reality we are a part of, the immensity of which could only be traditionally glimpsed through poetry.

Jiannan Huang’s paintings arise from the practice of an existentialist life practice. Often in the visual arts we think of expression as an end game, a definitive and readable statement of inner feeling, an expression of a particular something. Through paint, Mr. Huang brings the ineffable to expression, a “multiverse” of recollection, sensation and deeply meditative thought.

Aristotle’s proposition of praxis creating, and being beholden to its own theory, is entirely relevant in our approach toward understanding Jiannan Huang’s work. Moreover, the confluence of multiple approaches including the traditions of Chinese Ink painting, and the assimilation of the capacities of western modernism create a unique metaphysics in Jiannan Huang painting practice. The act of painting itself has formed its own unique theoretical understanding.

Traditionally our approach to the Artwork has become ideated either as a reduction down to its isolated constituent parts, deconstructed to somehow reveal a truer version of itself in atomistic fashion, or extrapolated outwardly and understood in terms of its phenomenal and sociological effects. Each approach engages in forms of reductionism, even though they reduce the artwork in opposite directions, and each trajectory confuses the artwork with its significant internal, and visible external environments. Such reductions attempt to convert the artwork into the conditions through which we know it or verify it. This form of critical thinking is a closed argument in many respects. Artists operating outside of the cultures that induce these responses, whose premise is not contingent on this form of reductivism, as in Jiannan Huang’s case, induct a different aesthetic connection and thus produce an “outsider” newness within a new scale of visual consideration.

Western artists who did not undergo a formal training, or are of color, (that is non-white), were typically designated as “outsider”. This term is oppressive and designed to re-enforce a cultural and economic hierarchy that has evolved from the exclusionary processes of a subverted Western Modernism. In my view this terminology should be inverted. An “Insider” Artist is one that is motivated by the seeking of a deeper authenticity of experience, a rejection of orthodoxies, replaced by the embrace of the sensory pleasure of existence.

This manifestation of existentialism is common to outsider artists, and is indeed easily traceable in Mr. Huang’s practice. Consider his biography - he walked and journeyed extensively spending a large part of his life trekking across the expansiveness of China. His journey through out its vastness was an entering into the sublime – the space and scale of the land for Jiannan Huang created a doorway into the cosmological and shimmering sublime of the “multiverse”. All of this was grounded in sensory experience - this experience extended into an art form also grounded in the sensory - Jiannan Huang’s paintings arise from the practice of life.

Most contemporary approaches to understanding artwork are premised on phenomenology – in some way correlated to sensorial investigation. This tends to reproduce an orthodoxy of thought and historic relationship of the artwork to the world. However, with a wider awareness of what an art work may present for us comes the realization that these aesthetic traditions have in fact created an understanding of art that is framed as a rarified and enclosed set of reduced considerations. In the west, our critical tendency to reduce artworks to effects or component parts has distracted away from the actual artwork itself - we try to pull it apart, or view it in terms of sociology.

The movement into new cultural spaces produces the extensions necessary to bring new understanding, to break the orthodoxy if malformed. For example – Walter Benjamin, a key figure of twentieth century cultural thought, countered Hegelian dialectic structures of philosophic thought by theorizing his “constellation” view of history through Khabalic mystercism. The tenets of Taoism are present in Jiannan Huang’s artwork, and indeed in his life practice. This inflection of a Taoist consideration also serves as an alternative to the western cognitive tendency to theorize reductively. Activation of down and away effects, as in phenomenology; and the scientific breaking down or atomization as verification, are both diminishment of the cosmological whole, and attempt to account for the irreducibility of the sublime nature of experience. Jiannan Huang’s work is not bridled by these constraints, his painting does not seek to explain anything – it is in considerable unison with the sublime, with Jiannan Huang’s multiverse of experience, in fact adds to this sublimity.

Jiannan Huang’s work may be filtered through the active history of China’s rich and immense cultural life. In terms of the visual arts, an ongoing questioning of the primacy of the "Ink Art" tradition has dominated the artistic discourse in China as it negotiated European modernism. Chinese Ink Art is the oldest co-herent practice of image making on the planet, having maintained a self-referencing research basis since 400AD. Western modernist influence led to cultural protectionism, on the one hand and a regulated acceptance of the western modernist tradition on the other. This is reflected in the curricula of the Chinese Art Academies, where Guohua (Chinese-style painting), and Xihua (Western- style painting) are to this day, segregated and distinctive approaches. Chinese Art Academies have placed Guohua and Xihua into separate departments with distinctive curricula. These separate streams of artistic context also dominate the professional field. Noteworthy, yet not directly applicable to Jiannan Huang’s practice, is the rise of a third “Globalized” Art, that emerged in the 1980s "experimental ink painting” or Shiyan Shuimo. Other forms of Shiyan Shuimo utilize typical Post Modern strategies within their specific forms of practice.

Mr. Huang’s painting practice is the expansion of preoccupations of both Guohua and Xihua simultaneously, giving rise to a new visual language that is both intrinsic to the craft of painting in both instances, and also extrinsic by way of its allusionistic and semiotic conditions. Mr. Huang’s iterations of pictorial space, is both western modernist in intent, and traditional in terms of Guohua. It is allusionistic and literal in reference simultaneously. The work is a successful confluence of these approaches, which are typically separated.

Mr. Jiannan Huang painterly innovations coexist, vibrating on the field of the picture plane, a vast dynamic expanse through which we may pass. We are offered levity, the possibility of zero gravity as his image field floats and undulates. The vibration in Mr. Huang’s work, its dynamic handling - registers an authentic and spontaneous energy. His autographic directness coalesces into a form in a natural attractor like way. Almost paradoxically, this non – objectivity also successfully delivers imagery. The accumulations of Jiannan Huang’s memories and his knowledge is substantiated not in a directly referential co-ordination, but are enmeshed in various processes of emergence.

Western thinking about art has been almost solely focused on the wider concept of reducibility. The possibility of serious consideration of a space of understanding that was not accessible through reducibility was always made negligible. To philosophically frame a discourse that would have an openness beyond reducibility, an address must be made in the first place to accept the classic terms of ‘philosophia’; that is a quest for wisdom, as opposed to the wisdom as something in itself. This encompasses the approach to an artwork, or to anything that presents newness to us. These terms are an acknowledging of the proposition of ‘philosophia’ in its classical form: that being “the ‘real’ cannot be known, it may only be loved.” This does not mean access to what is real about art is placed in an impossible place, what it does mean is that our approach will only ever be indirect. Another way to say this is that reductionist aesthetic traditions have withdrawn the artwork from all human and inhuman access, it is only made accessible by allusion and allure. As in erotic conversation, (that is composed of hint, allusion, ‘come on’ and innuendo) - is rendered ‘unerotic’ if reduced to clearly articulated propositions, declarative statements or instructions. In this way thinking is never really thinking unless it realizes its approach to any form of Art work can only ever be oblique.

Jiannan Huang’s mastery of painting has involved the fusing of a poetic lyricism with a cosmological vision. His “multiverse of things” is captured in a radical re-invention of certain stylistic conventions of western painting that are in fact a a rejuvenation and re-energization of the field. In order to develop and proliferate his painting practice, Mr. Huang has determined unexplored possibilities of unconventional spatial depiction, and the focused utilization of a radical use of color. In both instances we are provided with schematics of a peripheral or heterotopic space whose color vibrations are at times overdriven, but are calibrated intricately with the radicalized, non-Euclidian spaces Mr. Huang implores us to enter. In short, his spatial distortions, are more accurately definitive renderings of quantum visuals. It was Arthur Eddington, who, in 1919 through his astrophysical research and investigations, converted to formula – provided the evidence for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. He proved quantum reality was in fact the reality – that space and time bend, warp, and invert. Light itself is also subject to these forces – it too distorts, inverts and warps. Eddington famously delivered his reading of reality in his parable of the “two tables”; the first of which is the familiar table of everyday life; the second of which is the measurable verifiable quantum table as understood by physicists.

For Eddington, the latter table, the quantum is more real than the former - although visible and tangible, the table of everyday life is essentially a 'strange compound of external nature, mental imagery and inherited prejudice'. You might be able to eat your supper off this first table, but that proves nothing to those who subscribe to the continual and relentless logic of modern science, underwritten by German late Enlightenment philosopher, Kant.

Inadvertently what Eddington showed us was the inadequacies of both forms of reductionism, one to pure function and one to atomization. These views of reality are the same drivers of the development of the picture in formal terms, shape, format, operation of color are all organized in an order to coalesce according to a rationalizing of our senses. A prime example of this is the advent of one-point lineal perspective that forever fused rational thought with Euclidean space, and making it central to our understanding of the image.

Jiannan Huang has recently completed a striking body of work that is a new vision of spatial possibility that in combination with his chromatic variations, gives rise to a set of images that are vibrant and captivating. The suite of paintings referred to specifically in this writing were all completed within the past two years and are examples of Jiannan Huang’s prolific body of work. Found within these paintings are found elements that justify a conversation with art historical breakthroughs to focus how complete these works are. “The Way of Heaven”. “Desert Style”, “Roga in the Heart”, “Quantum Ray”, “Eternal Universe”, “The Three Saints of the West” and “Unknown Space” all possess a clarity and a new formal language. Determinants of newness have become essentially the inability of something to exist with in presently structured conditions.

As discussed further into this text, I define how Jiannan Huang’s life practice, existential and nomadic, and his self-taught non institutionalized education is the exact reason for the success. The sometimes radical, yet unpretentious inversions of axioms of the practice of painting are made regardless of precedent and difficulty. It is therefore useful to understand Jiannan Huang’s art work as residing under an arrangement of historic points of breakthrough within the field of painting that are experienced as a form of historic solipsism.

The first determined aesthetic experimental distortions of classical space – accomplished by Cezanne in the 1860’s – initiated the avant-garde focus upon the extrinsic connections of the picture beyond simple comparative visual representation.

Cezanne produced works that rendered a world as experienced through time and his senses. He painted a reality that was perception based, paintings that dispensed with the traditional conventions of Euclidean space, such as lineal and atmospheric perspective. In order to more accurately perceive, the traditional and rationalizing principles that governed the image had to be removed. In “Roga of the Heart” Jiannan Huang renders a discontinuous (in rational, linear terms) space – devoid of perspective and yet spatially more a tuned to our sense perception of space, and by memory. The dissolution of classical lineal spatial organization in Jiannan Huang’s “Roga of the Heart” enhances the complexities of the picture’s constitution. Space becomes fluid and plasma like, Janine Huang’s use of color further emulsifies space and liquifies Cezanne’s stylized complexities, that had altered painting forever.

"Roga of the Heart"

Cezanne focused on the picture itself, what was contained within the outer dimensions of the canvas. Cezanne painted pictures that registered what was apparent to his senses, and had broken from the enlightenment preoccupation with structure, balance and idealism. A Cezanne painting is an “all over picture”, it has an apparent flatness, but still possesses a spatial continuity. It does not conform to the traditional classical systems of order and organization, such as lineal perspective.

Braque, student of Cezanne, in collaboration with Picasso created the first analytic form of abstraction: Analytic Cubism in 1911. Braque and Picasso discovered a way of working where connection back to representation could be subverted to produce paintings that embodied new sensations of time and space, that registered perceptions of urban life, not a representation of it, but as a metaphysical or inchoate experience.

Braque, equipped with an analytical focus, combined with Picasso’s more fluid humanist forms, created a new pictorial space. Analytic cubism moved away from the projection of a Newtonian stability, in a sense built upon a Euclidean rationalizing of space. The process through which Braque and Picasso generated their compositions, that being the artists moved around their subject as they visually recorded it, thus rendering their multifaceted paintings from movement and experience through time. The subject was rendered durationally, This, then became a serious re-negotiation of a previously long held tradition of painting, also apparent in philosophic terms, described as the stable subject - object relationship. That the relationship between the perceiving subject and its object is stabilized and predictably unchanging.

The Cubist picture has fractured the stability of the image, it potentiated the dissolution of the representational, allusionistic priorities of Art. Cubism was not a complete radical break from it. Within the cubist picture are fragments of Euclidean geometric space. The cubist picture could be thought of as a smashed picture on glass sheet, with the fragments rearranged on a molar level into another picture. Each fragment holding elements of Euclidean space.

"Three Saints"

What may be perceived as Jiannan Huang’s ‘sweating out’ of Braque and Picasso’s analytic cubism, is present in a number of his paintings. What is present is resultant of a cooption of cubist space, the molarized Euclidean field, that is then merged and subverted. As opposed to the use of this molarized field as the total painting it has become an ambiguous, pre structural space from which is produced other forms, that form to another feature of the painting. “The Three Saints” is the best example of this. Three shimmering forms emerge from a partially erased or defocused field that suggests a previous structure of facets that has succumb to an entropic wearing out. It is as if the framework of analytic cubism was de-activated, that that time and space belonged to another time. Jiannan Huang’s handling of the paint in “Three Saints” and his understanding of the space of color induce a dissonance with his image field that perpetuates the cosmological feeling of his work

Learning from Cubism, The Futurist painters of Italy – Balla, Severino, sort a compositional device that would hold the dynamism of inter-dimensionality, a parallel to hyper-reality as discovered by the emergent field of quantum mechanics in the late 19 – teens, and early 1920s. The inner spiraling, vortex like composition was a conscious re-invention, an attempt to reprogram paintings to the future, requiring divorce from the Euclidean inspired picture plane.

Analytic Cubism’s experiments were almost always carried out in a monochrome palette, either ochre or a grey scale. The absence of a color is a reduction - the picture becomes a modelling of a theoretical spatial situation, a schematic or diagram of Cubist space. The absence of color acts to remove us, the grey scaling distances the picture from our colored reality. Through this comparison we see how Jiannan Huang has found a way with color that creates new spatial understanding. His “Roga of the Heart” and “The Three Saints” are painted with the significant spatial use of color – looking beyond the less representational works we find color used to fracture, and transform pictorial space: “Plateau in the Dream”, “Desert Style” and “The Way of Heaven” are paintings that are formed around intense color arrangements that have spatial importance.

"Plateau in the Dream"

In terms of painting, the temporality of color is a much under played component of formal discussion. Typically, painters have involved a semiotic temporality to their work, certain colors being associated with certain stylistic historic periods. American Abstract Painter John Reid remarked in the 1990’s that he was interested in the future of color, a future 6 months from now. Jiannan Huang has attained a mastery of the amplification of color as a key spatial and temporal attribute of his work. His color use is not based off a referenced semiotic history of color, It is a formal usage that has established its own formal calibration, a substantive and material acknowledgement and precedent. It is fitting to note that science has revealed color to be a far more complex phenomena as technology permits more intense research on the behavior of color.

"The Way of Heaven"

It may well be argued that the formal resonance of color in the painted picture has been conditioned by ‘naturalistic’ tendencies in art. The creation of color theory by Johannes Itten, Josef Albers and Kandinsky at the Bauhaus in the 1920’s codified color with a binary structure that formed off of the idea of complimentary color, each color defined by an opposite, in relation to the color spectrum. Indicative of the older theories of color, Itten, Albers and Kandinsky set a palette for twentieth century painting.

Derived from Aristotle, the philosophy of color has largely been considered secondary to the primacy of material or substance. This too has added to constraint and the continuation of the complementary / binary understanding of color. Color, within the painting, as demonstrated by its absence in Analytic Cubism, was not seen to stabilize nor objectively define form.

Donald Judd wrote in his 1994 Art Forum Essay “Some Aspects of Color in General and Red and Black in Particular:”

“A basic problem for an artist at the beginning is that while color is crucial in their work, its development being a force, the information about color is extensive and occurs in many forms, partly technical and partly philosophical. The technical information is irrelevant and uninteresting until it is needed. The philosophy seldom fits. There is a limit to how much an artist can learn in advance. An artist works only step by step into the unknown while the particular knowledge of color exists and is vast; the particulars of the world are infinite. This is overwhelming in an urgent situation. Color is very hard to learn, since it is hard to know what is useful. The particulars must be the artist’s own.”

Jiannan Huang’s color is particular, and his own. It is psychedelic at times, delirious and aggressive. His color is intrinsic to the re-appraisal of pictorial space and hence has taken on spatial and temporal characteristic. The Fauvist painters, early Matisse, Derain are a suitable precedent for Jiannan Huang. The intensity and complexity of the color juxtapositions used, and the translation of the observed and recognizable into a fantastic psychedelic rendering are the hallmarks of Fauvism’s radical extension of Impressionism. The Fauvist’s gave light a new compositional and stylistic function in painting. Jiannan Huang’s “Plateau in the Dream”, and “Desert Style” particular accelerate the Fauvist color range, the naturalistic color references are abandoned altogether, electronic color – magenta, electric blue, green screen green are common place now but are not accepted as naturalistic, and indeed are not taught as such. Both works are incredible in the sense that rational painting - that is painting taken from and responsible to a notion of tradition - would view color of this magnitude as devoid of credibility. Not only vital to the spatial attributes of these works, color redefines our capacity to experience our world beyond pre - thought restrictions. This is Jiannan Huang’s vividness built upon his extensive vision that has witnessed both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial natural visual phenomena, of deep sublime beauty.

"Desert Style"

These attributes of Fauvism, coupled with the spatial experiments of the Cubists and supplementary work by the Italian futurists, comprise a useful set of Western precedents from which a relevant and historic understanding of Jiannan Huang’s paintings can be made.

Added to the breakthrough movements of Western Modernist Art - Cubism, Futurism and Fauvism - is the work produced by the COBRA Artists, led by artist Asgar Jorn. Established in the 1950’s Jorn associated with the Surrealists and then the Situationist movement. Aligned with Surrealisms fascination with psychology, the subconscious in particularly, COBRA focused upon formative childhood psychology as a true expressive state. Infantile, pre-social psychology and the expressive forms it produced inspired COBRA Artists. Their works defied all forms of ‘trained’ or technical structure. Interestingly, despite the radical rejection of any technical/organization, their paintings utilized a traditional color range.

“Unknown Space” and “Eternal Universe” and “The Three Saints” are the most immediate and gestural of Jiannan Huang’s paintings in this suite. They are stylistically more spontaneous in nature – the painted surface suggests areas where the paint has been applied and not reworked, it is left with a rawness. The color juxtapositions utilized by the COBRA artists stayed within the color configurations of traditional color theory. Jiannan Huang’s palette is intense by comparison, and yet it does not collapse under its own weight. The colors are overdriven but not overly complicated, they are carefully and thoughtfully displaced by the artist’s control, and consistent approach. Janine Huang’s most complex pictures are made up of pictorial spatial inventions but also by the resonance of strong color - his spatial distortions, are more accurately renderings of the quantum, the multiverse he encountered on his continuous travels across China.

"Eternal Universe"

Through his innovative and radical use of space and color Jiannan Huang presents us with his cosmology. His picture plane is a vast vibrating field, a dynamic expanse through which we are compelled to pass. The possibility of zero gravity is offered to us, his spaces are spaces of levity each image field floating and undulating, as in “The Way of Heaven” and “Eternal Universe” – both pictures show us worlds

"Unknown Space"

within worlds, spaces unfolding into other spaces. There chromatic intensity is matched by their molar detail. Jiannan Huang’s dynamic handling - registers a direct, authentic and spontaneous energy. His autographic directness coalesces into ‘attractor’ like forms – forms that appear completely random but are in fact built from a very subtle and hidden formulation. Like all mature painters that are focused upon innovation and a new vision, the ultimate questions of expression of that vision settle upon a negotiation between the finitudes of the medium in order to discover innovation and new aesthetic form. Color, space, and physical limit have shaped the scope of modern painting. Jiannan Huang’s mastery of painting has fused these concerns with a poetic lyricism and reverie to produce his cosmological vision. The accumulations of Jiannan Huang’s memories and his knowledge is substantiated not directly, but enmeshed in various processes of visual emergence.

His “multiverse of things” encapsulates a radicalization of certain stylistic conventions of western painting. Mr. Huang has determined possibilities of unconventional spatial depiction added by the focused utilization of a radical use of color. We are provided with a peripheral or heterotopic space whose color vibrations are, in appearance overdriven, but are calibrated intricately with the quantum spaces Mr. Huang implores us to enter. Cosmological in nature, Mr. Huang’s paintings evoke the universe and its multi-dimensional limitlessness – “the multiverse”. He brings to expression the sublime and shimmering edge of the infinite emerging from the simple materials of his paintings.

“Jiannan Huang” by Richard Wearn, Amsterdam, September 11th, 2021

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