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Jiannan Huang - Master of Expression and the Art of Visual Language

by Professor Richard Wearn, California State University, Los Angeles


Jiannan Huang’s latest series of paintings are a culmination of facts and experiences drawn from a life time pursuing a vision that at its most imminent may be described as existential. His persistence as a painter has created a visual language where by a continuum of focus and experience has determined a form of expression resonant with an Aristotelian schema where by techne creates its own episteme. The confluence of multiple interests and approaches derived from the traditions of Chinese Ink painting and a reading of the capacities of western modernism has created within Mr. Huang’s practice a unique metaphysics - the act of painting itself has determined its own episteme, or system of understanding.

This analysis of Jiannan Huang’s work is best understood through the active critical history that propels China’s rich and immense cultural life. An ongoing questioning of the primacy of the "Ink Art" tradition has dominated the artistic discourse in China throughout the twentieth century. Chinese Ink Art is the oldest coherent tradition of image making on the planet, having maintained an active, self-referencing epistemology initiated around 400AD. The strictures and conditions of this tradition have been increasingly challenged by the appearance of new media and artistic practices introduced from the West. The inevitability of Western influence lead to, on the one hand, a cultural protectionism, and on the other a more formal and regulated acceptance of the western modernist tradition. Reflected in the curricula of the Chinese Art Academies, where Guohua (Chinese-style painting), and Xihua (Western-style painting) form, to this day, segregated and distinctive approaches to the instruction of visual art. 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” or “Post Modern” Art, that emerged in the 1980s that can no longer be categorized by either of these two terms. At times Chinese artists have identified this as "experimental ink painting” or Shiyan Shuimo a modernization of Chinese Art through the appropriation of western models whilst employing the use of traditional painting instruments and materials such as brush, ink, and paper. Others, still identifying themselves as Shiyan Shuimo utilize new media, and strategies such as appropriation and institutional critique within their specific forms of practice.

Sound scholarship responsive to art considers the ongoing cultural and historic processes that determine our subjectivities, particularly as cultural dialogues embrace post-colonial narratives. As Jacques Derrida emphasized, there is ‘no greater indignity than the reading of one culture by another.’


What compels me to respond to Mr. Huang’s painting practice is the expansion of preoccupations of both Guohua and Xihua simultaneously, that has given rise to a new visual language that may be read as both intrinsic to the craft of painting in both instances, and also extrinsic to those definitions by way of its allusionistic and semiotic conditions. My address is pertinent to Mr. Huang’s iterations of pictorial space, that are both western modernist in intent, traditional in terms of Guohua, and indeed allusionistic and literal in reference.

Mr. Jiannan Huang has arrived at the confluence of these approaches, processing them into his distinctive painting practice which is removed from the institutional orthodoxies of studio arts education. He is a self-taught artist, his paintings are grounded in a vision that was informed equally by his personal and self- guided scholarship, and his witnessing of the seismic historic, social and political alterations that China has undergone in his life time.


Western artists who did not undergo a formal training are designated as “outsider”. I have often thought this term to be oppressive and designed to re-enforce a cultural and economic hierarchy that has evolved from the exclusionary processes of Modernism. In my view this terminology becomes accurate when it is inverted. An “Insider” Artist is one that is motivated by the seeking of a deeper authenticity of experience and its rendering into form. A rejection of institutionalized orthodoxies, replaced by the embrace of the sensory pleasure of existence. The existential phenomenology that underwrites Mr. Huang’s practice is easily traceable - he walked. He spent a large part of his life trekking across China, his journey through out its vastness was the creation of a life narrative grounded in the sensory. A daily practice of living enlivened his senses, and his meditative bandwidth.

Jiannan Huang’s paintings arise from the practice of life. When we survey them, a notion such as “expression” confuses the capacity of the work to induce empathy. Often we think of expression as an end game, a definitive and readable statement of inner feeling. Through paint Mr. Huang, relaxes this preponderance and offers an insight of what it is to bring the ineffable to expression, as opposed to expressing a particular something.


Underwriting these attributes of Jiannan Huang’s work are a set of painterly innovations that coexist, vibrating on the same field. The picture plane to Huang is a vast expansion through which we pass. Our senses are reminded of the levity and possibility of zero gravity, as the image field floats and undulates. The vibration in Mr. Huang’s work is connected to surface, the tactility of the paint and how its dynamic handling registers an authentic and spontaneous energy. It is the autographic directness, that coalesces to a form. Paradoxically, this non-objective process of painting also successfully delivers imagery.

The accumulations of Jiannan Huang’s memories and his phenomena based knowledge is substantiated not in a directly referential co-ordination but are enmeshed in various processes of formal becoming. Cosmological in feel, Mr. Huang’s paintings evoke the universe and its multi-dimensional limitlessness. At all times the spatial relationship to the picture plane and its allusion is adjusted based on our acknowledgement of the painting’s surface qualities. Jiannan Huang brings to expression a sublime and shimmering edge of the infinite.

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