Su Xiaobai: Painting and Being

An Ontological Argument: The Art of Su Xiaobai

Paul Moorhouse

Su Xiaobai’s studio is situated half an hour’s drive from the centre of Shanghai. A walled street leads to the artist’s workplace, the main entrance to which is provided by a pair of blackened, steel gates. These swing open to reveal a complex of small workshops and outhouses and, directly ahead, a bigger, industrial-looking building with a metal roof, raised on supports to admit the free passage of air. This construction is evidently dedicated to the activity of fabrication. Tools and other implements are everywhere, workbenches are dotted around, and at various points, all kinds of materials—wood, metal, wire and fabric—are stacked and piled. Beyond this outer space, the visitor steps into the main area, an expansive hangar-like room ventilated by overhead extractors. Within a factory-like setting, the presence of works of art seems almost incongruous.

Positioned on white-washed walls at carefully spaced intervals are large square or rectangular shapes, some with irregular outlines, whose rich colour and, in some cases, delicate, reflective surfaces are, despite their expansive size, jewel-like. At the same time, these surprising intrusions have an assertive, highly physical character. Unlike conventional paintings, they are defiantly three-dimensional. Jutting forwards, some are convex and smooth; others are textured and undulating, as if partly swollen. Close up, another level and range of detail are revealed: from exquisite carapaces that appear polished and translucent to roughened, craggy outcrops, pitted and stained by pigment. A number of recent works are predominantly white, with glazed veneers crazed by a complex web of minute cracking. Movement around the space leads to smaller, segregated areas formed by partition walls, which are entered through a narrow doorway. In these chamber-like enclosures two or more works are hung in informal relationships: together on a single wall or facing each other across the space. In some places the works are positioned on either side of the entrance like sentinels. Coming upon Su’s paintings in these intimate settings is slightly disconcerting, akin to entering a private, habitable space. In this instance, however, the occupants are works of art.

Evidently, the artist favours his work being seen in this way. A process rooted in complex methods of fabrication requires sufficient space for the works to be constructed, laid flat and subjected to progressive layers of lacquer and other colouring agents which must be left to dry before further accretions can be added. But when that stage which involves judgement and assessment is reached, for those works that can be accommodated within a smaller space, a context that encourages a closer engagement comes into play. For viewing Su’s work is pre-eminently an intense, if subtle visual experience. The paintings reveal themselves slowly, and the passage of time is an important element in appreciating their nuances. In A Pond of Spring (2013) (see page xx), for example, the surface of the painting has a shiny, almost polished appearance, resulting from the build-up of lacquer and oil paint. These media are vehicles for the interplay of colour. With prolonged looking, the outer skin of green dissolves, its abraded membrane revealing a sub-strata of other hues, at the base of which is its opposite, a brilliant red. During this gradual process of visual discovery, the attention is also directed towards the work’s unusual curved profile comprising a raised surface and slightly rounded edges, so that at certain times the impression is that of a large, glistening pebble. At the end of the day, when the studio’s natural light fades, the painting is possibly at its most beautiful. Its reflective shell become more muted and, as the eye adjusts, the resonant interaction of green and red conveys a sense of the work’s quiet but compelling presence.

At this point—arising from an experience that is primarily visual—the viewer arrives at what is arguably the deeper significance of Su’s art: its capacity to yield experiences that are not only perceptual or aesthetic but, beyond these, suggest a particular encounter with an independently existing thing. At a fundamental level, the distinctive nature of that engagement differs from our everyday involvement with other objects; and, indeed, it stands aside from conventional ways of appreciating most works of art. We interact constantly with manufactured articles and with natural things. Functional items such as clothes or furniture may yield sensory pleasure, but their role is not primarily aesthetic: they have a practical purpose. The products of nature may certainly satisfy an ideal of beauty, but essentially they exist independent of human involvement. Works of art are man-made and typically appreciated in terms of the way their meaning, physical and expressive make-up serve an aesthetic end. Su’s activity partakes of all these criteria—but conforms to none of them.

By definition, it is closest to our conception of what constitutes art. Employing lacquer and oil paint, these traditional materials connect his work with processes and values that are inseparable from art history and indeed the cultures of both the East and West. But, though his methods and purpose are linked with artistic creativity and aesthetic outcomes, his work stands somewhat aside from such conventions. Although Su’s thought is grounded in ideals of beauty, he is responsive to the need not simply to repeat history. He seeks instead to create something that derives from aesthetic considerations and then goes beyond such confines. At its centre, his work uses the visual language and context of art to embody issues which are both philosophical and, at an everyday human level, universal. The nature of the encounter that his work enables is intimately connected with the idea of existence—of being—not simply as an observable effect, but as a phenomenon in itself. The fact and essential mystery of occupying a place in the world inhabit Su’s art and the idea of an independent reality is both his focus and, as an artist, his quarry. What is it, his work seems to ask, to exist uniquely, to have an identity, to be differentiated from the world and from everything else present within it?

Ontological art

Questions about the source and nature of existence are common to all cultures. In the West, the term ‘ontology’ refers to issues relating to the study of being and the essence of things, and although this word did not acquire currency until the 17th century, the subject was debated from Aristotle onwards. During the 11th century, the philosopher Anselm of Canterbury was the first to direct these questions towards the existence of God. His so-called ontological argument attempted to prove that God must exist because unless a divine creator was real as well as imaginary, real things would be superior to this greatest entity of all—resulting in a contradiction of God’s essential nature. The standard objection to this line of thought is that it attempts to define God into existence. In other words, a purported proof rests on a pre-existing definition of the thing whose being is in question.

While Anselm’s argument has been refuted in this way, the idea of defining something into existence, of investing an entity with reality by giving it a unique character, has special relevance to Su’s art. Born in 1949 in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province in China, Su was raised by his maternal grandparents, both of whom were Catholics, and was christened. Although his work does not concern itself directly with theological issues, but rather with the ideas of being per se, his familiarity with Western systems of belief is striking. In particular, the bridge between imagination and reality that underpins Christian patterns of faith, finds an echo in art that so convincingly crosses these boundaries, moving from an imaginative force of conviction to something that possesses the cogency of reality.

A work such as Three Colours – Yin Bai (2013) (see page xx), for example, is, in common with Su’s art since the early 2000s, insistently non-figurative, non-descriptive, devoid of narrative and, although it eschews an obvious subject, seems free of recognisable symbolism. In essence, this is a work of art that exists on its own terms. Without reference to external events or objects, it avoids references to particular ideas or values. It simply is. Even for Western audiences familiar with the concepts underpinning the ideological claims of abstract art, the notion of a painting entirely without content continues to inspire either alarm or suspicion. Since its beginnings in the early 20th century, the critical discourse around non-objective art has maintained a preoccupation with explaining how art that does not describe other objects can nevertheless retain meaning. In this respect, the power of metaphor has reigned supreme. But such poetic conceits are similarly expunged in Su’s work. Its whiteness could be interpreted symbolically, suggesting some metaphysical dimension. But there is nothing to support that interpretation. Its monochrome character seems less connected with elevated subject matter than with whiteness as a complex, phenomenological quality in itself. The painting’s content, if such a word can be retained, is the pure fact of its own existence. Yet from that reductive standpoint, arguably there flows art of singular purpose, physical complexity, emotional depth and poetic significance. How is this possible?

The short answer is that this was not always the case. In 1965, at the age of 16, Su joined the School of Art and Crafts in Wuhan. The Cultural Revolution, which gathered momentum from the mid-1960s, provided a backdrop to his time there and an affiliation with Communism inspired a prolific output of propaganda paintings. After the Revolution ended in 1976, Su’s growing facility in oil painting led to a place at the Postgraduate Studio at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1986. The subsequent development of his work proceeded under the banner of social realism. A turning point was the move to Germany that he made in 1987 under the aegis of an Arts and Culture Scholarship. Admitted to the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, like other Chinese artists who also made a similar move abroad during the 1980s, Su was shocked by the modernist art and avant-garde thinking he encountered.

The teachers with whom he became associated included Konrad Klapheck, Marcus Lüpertz and Gerhard Richter, not that their influence is particularly evident in the work that Su made subsequently. He experienced a crisis resulting from the difficulty of abandoning the skills and knowledge he had acquired previously, faced with a growing sense that these were irrelevant in the context in which he now found himself. Reduced almost to silence, after Su finished at the Kunstakademie he remained in Germany and during the 1990s eventually resumed painting with growing conviction. The body of figurative oil paintings that he produced during that decade are strangely still and austere works. They depict objects, including tables, chairs, doors and vases, frequently seen in isolation. These works are a world away from Su’s art as it now is, but in certain respects they provide the basis for future developments. Gradually, the points of reference—the figurative images—were expunged, and increasingly the paintings were reduced to fewer colours, so that a single hue or a chromatic conjunction set the overall mood of a particular work. Significantly, the sense of an isolated presence was retained. But whereas previously this had been carried by a single object or motif, by 2001 this now took the form of a central shape—a rectangle or square—surrounded by a halo of paint. In visual terms, this framing device defined a contained motif. By the time that Su returned to China in 2003, he had clarified his approach.

The poetry of materials

Returning to his homeland seems to have provided an impetus. Within a year he began working in a new studio, converted from an old machinery plant, in Fuzhou. Around this time he also began using lacquer as his primary medium. While the first use of lacquer dates from China’s Neolithic period, the sophisticated techniques governing its use were developed during the Shang dynasty and were fundamentally practical. Its resin-base enabled it to impart a hard, durable finish to wood and other materials, and it was eminently versatile, being used in various contexts from the creation of domestic utensils to aspects of building and architecture. Conspicuously, its surface embraced a range of finishes. It could be both shiny and matt and could also be carved. Depending on the pigment used, it could embody rich colours, notably red and black. These characteristics underpinned the distinction it subsequently attained in the decorative arts and, through the exquisite objects created, in the context of rites and rituals. Su therefore now engaged with a material steeped in historical and cultural associations.

As a result, the works that he then produced have been seen as having a character that is specifically Chinese, his intentions interpreted as being loaded with extraneous nationalistic references. This is ironic given that his overriding imperative seems to have been one of stripping away connotation and, indeed, all vestiges of signification. Having abandoned figuration, he proceeded reductively, depending on a visual vocabulary of simple shapes which were placed in composed, formal arrangements. The earlier concentric squares were succeeded by stacked rectangles, monolithic shapes, broad horizontals in vertical series, and so forth. Having in Germany endured a crisis about how and what to paint, it was as if his activity as a painter now gathered strength by shunning narrative and superfluous content. In order to make a more compelling artistic statement, Su seems actively to have sought to purify his means, so that his work became centred on itself: its essential constituents and materials. In Twenty Pieced of Imperial Green (2003–5) (see page xx), for example, the painting comprises a tessellated arrangement of coloured squares. Instead of depicting external subject matter, the paintings asserted themselves—in their own right—as objects of contemplation. To that end, Su’s use of lacquer was not intended to evoke earlier practices or contexts. Rather, he drew on a way of working, close to hand, that enabled him, on a practical level, to create the kind of paintings that he now wished to make: objects as far as possible expunged of meaning, existing on their own terms.

At first the lacquer was applied directly to a canvas support. Exploiting its fast-drying properties, he was able to build up the paintings in layers, firstly creating a skin, then abrading or incising it, and subsequently repeating the process through the application of further layers. By 2008, in paintings such as Aria in Red (see page xx), the visual argument had attained a degree of extreme formal simplicity, counter-balanced by the growing importance of the surface as a focus of attention. Such works have a quiet but insistent affective quality, shape, colour and texture conveying a slow-burning atmosphere. It would seem, however, that Su was dissatisfied even with this degree of reductiveness. To some extent all shapes recall observed phenomena, and, when combined, an unintended narrative can be implicated. By the end of the decade, Su had eliminated all such formal conjunctions. Identifying colour with the expression of feeling and mood, the chromatic character of his work became his principal preoccupation, the interplay of colours, the behaviour and qualities of lacquer and the surfaces it enables, his main strategies. This dramatically simplified, yet progressively sophisticated activity forms the basis and purpose of Su’s most recent body of work.

The imperative to create a purely abstract art—visual statements free of external references and intrusive associations—has been a surprisingly elusive quest in 20th century Western art. From Kandinsky onwards, meaning in whatever guise has proved resilient, encouraged perhaps by formal relationships and the tensions that inevitably result when the dynamics of opposition and sympathy are given a place. It may be that only by denying overt visual ‘incident’, as such, that the associative qualities of a work of art can be denied, permitting its autonomous identity to emerge unscathed. In Su’s work, this exclusive approach has been remarkably liberating, permitting the creation of paintings which as far as possible shake off the ubiquitous compulsion to interpret, encouraging instead a response to their intrinsic nature.

In seeking to create an art of pure identity, certain defining features can be discerned. First among these, as Su has testified, are his ‘painting methods’. In essence, his approach is that of an artisan. From the relatively simple canvas supports he began to use in 2003, in the last ten years Su’s paintings have become ever more complex in terms of their physical construction. The subsequent addition of a wooden backboard behind the canvas provided a rigid, more resistant surface. This permitted the lacquer layers to be heavily worked, so that they bore the traces of this activity. From the insights gained as a result, a major development was the introduction of extruded board and, beyond that, the use of extruded board only as a support. That feature of Su’s painting is responsible for their distinctive three-dimensional appearance. While working on a particular painting, having built up the profile of the board the artist can then modify its lacquered surface using a variety of tools, including sanders, drills and chisels. This process, which involves numerous different applications of lacquer, is subject both to intention and chance. In addition to physical activity, chemical processes involving combining lacquer with water, oil, powder and a range of pigments, alter its appearance further and also give rise to unpredictable consequences during drying. The results can be seen in works such as Empty Copybook 1 (2013) (see page xx), whose complex surface is traversed by fractures in the lacquer. As such, the work’s visual character is entirely identifiable with the process of its making.

Indeed, Empty Copybook 1 manifests a feature of Su’s work that is perhaps his most singular achievement. Arising from methods that combine those of the fabricator and the craftsman, the end result is an object imbued with expressive significance, a work of art whose place in the world is inseparable from its affective presence. Yet this has not been arrived at by conventional means. It eschews depiction, symbol and image. Expressive brushwork and visual drama are similarly absent. If it moves those who behold it, it does so without recourse to a display of intellect and temperament. From purely practical means, a statement of emotional significance is articulated. This position is paradoxical, involving the interaction of intention and accident, the elision of art and artlessness, the co-existence of the personal and the impersonal.

To some extent these apparent opposites may be resolved in considering Su’s paintings in terms of pure ‘being’, as something unique in themselves. Created by an individual, each occupies a physical place in the world and each has its own differentiated character. But at what point does the role of the artist and the craftsman cease and a new, corporeal identity come into existence? Arguably some light on such imponderables may be cast by invoking the idea of history. As Su has affirmed, part of the process of the fabrication involves investing the evolving work with elements that equate to his own presence. Decisions relating to colours, marks made upon the surface, even the creation of the conditions for accidents: all leave traces in the fabric of each work. As such, the painter’s personal history is written into the history of the painting. During the long process of a work’s gestation, its appearance may undergo innumerable changes and over the course of that process gradually the object’s own identity accrues, grows and eventually stands apart from the original creative agent.

Of course, as an explanation of when a work of art comes into being, this description is necessarily inadequate. Ultimately, the question relates to the condition of poetry; it encompasses that moment when, bypassing the intellect, a physical expression of pure feeling is articulated and touches us deeply. As the English poet A.E. Housman once observed, poetry appeals to ‘something in man which is obscure and latent, something older than the present organisation of his nature’. Su’s paintings are no less invested with that mysterious quality.

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