Quietly Listening to Wutong
I have always yearned for a place of my own; a place that provides embrace and sustains leisure – a place of antiquarian atmosphere. In my ears, are rhythms of the zither1 or songs of orioles. On the desk, are scholarly objects, such brushes and ink stones, and other curios from the past. There is a garden; although not vast, it has bamboo stalks that whistle with the wind, and plantain leafs that rattle in the rain. Underneath the greenery, is a lotus pond, filled with goldfish that swim around joyfully, like children at play. Such a place, although constructed countless times in our minds, but only realized partially in real life, provides a window of escapism that set the mind at ease.
Only after viewing Gu Jing’s art, did I realize that the scenes from her paintings and the place I have been yearning for are one and the same. The themes and motifs of Gu’s new ink paintings can be categorized as Paying Respect to Scholar’s Rocks, Appreciating Objects of the Study, Admiring Flowers & Birds, and Wandering through Gardens. These themes and motifs not only reflect Gu’s artistic pursuit as an artist, but also her fascination and respect for the natural world and its many wonders. Moreover, her paintings fantastically portray scenes of my ideal place, inviting me to wander and linger within.
The Chinese literati have long admired limestones of bizarre shapes, known to the West as scholar’s rocks. The literati these natural-forming rocks as embodiments of the naturalist principles of Chinese philosophy, and thus appreciated the rocks’ near-abstract qualities. In Gu Jing’s representation of scholar’s rocks, she initially splashes washes of ink freely onto the silk, allowing it to run and set spontaneously. After careful observation of how the ink settles, she then decides on the composition and skillfully fills in the rock’s contours. In this way, she mimics and honors the natural and spontaneous forming quality of scholar’s rocks.
For contemporary artists of new ink painting, the appreciation and collection of objects of the study, such as antique brushes and ink stones, are both natural and practical. As these objects were handed down from past literati, by once again putting them to proper use, one forms a continuity with the past. While Gu Jing forges a new path in new ink painting, she nonetheless holds a deep respect for the literati tradition she grew out of.
In the traditional genre of flower and bird painting, there are two aspects of admiration. The first is the motifs themselves; unique and rare flowers paired with graceful and elegant birds symbolize beauty and integrity, as they are wonders of the natural world. Secondly, traditional executions of flowers and birds emphasize meticulous brushwork, or gongbi, in portraying the subjects in a fine and realistic manner. Gu Jing’s innovation in this genre is her depiction of glass bottles and vases. By outlining contours with different shades of monochrome ink, and leaving the centre unpainted, Gu effectively creates glass containers in vivd likeness, and thereby demonstrates the traditional Chinese notion of negative space, or liubai.
Classical Chinese gardens essentially encompass all genres of Chinese art; architecture, gardening, painting, calligraphy, poetry, music, and theatre, can all be housed or performed in the garden complex. Therefore, the garden owner becomes the arbiter of all the arts. Similarly, Gu Jing, in her artful representations of gardens, encapsulates all the themes of motifs of her art, including scholar’s rocks, objects of the study, as well as flowers and birds, into single and comprehensive masterpieces.
When appreciating Gu Jing’s art, the character of her name jing, tranquil or quiet, naturally comes to mind. The composition of a painting is reflective a painter’s state of mind, and therefore only a mind at ease can ever create tranquil compositions. In viewing Gu’s paintings and being drawn into the compositions, one shares with her a state of mind that is tranquil or quiet – a mind that is at ease.
Richard MC Chang
Translated by Timothy Chang
1. The Chinese zither, or qin, is traditionally made with Wutong wood of the Chinese Parasol tree. Therefore, Wutong is an analogy for the zither.