Dialogue on City ‘Grids’
Gao Minglu, Juju Sun, October 2013
GAO MINGLU: Compared to your previous series where there was a relatively strong hand-painted quality, this new series is different in that the printed grids effect is much more evident.
JUJU SUN: Yes.
GAO MINGLU: Your previous works referred to nature and placed more emphasis on the immediate sensory perception that arises between the individual and the objects referenced in the process of painting; this feeling was expressed through hand-painting, composition, colour and even empty space, brushstroke, texture, and such. But your current series does not comply with this approach. Can you discuss how the transformation from your earlier series to this new one took place?
JUJU SUN: Yes. Firstly, I feel that the underlying context is still the same. In the series I did last year, I painted some tens of paintings. Then in the summer of the same year, I began to mull over this change. I wanted to paint the environment in which I was living, namely in the year of 2013. In fact, I feel that this year’s new series also, to a certain degree, constitutes an experience, a feeling or an expression of our present living circumstances. I returned to New York from Beijing last winter. The source of my previous works were the great outdoors and Mother Nature; I often went to upstate New York to collect inspiration, and found those rustic little forests, lakes, streams, flora and fauna, then drew inspiration from the changes in light and shadow. But I did not sketch from nature on site; rather, I returned to the studio and rendered the things stored in my mind on canvas.
But last year when I was in Beijing’s Songzhuang Art District, although it was in the countryside, it had been developed to such a great extent that it became hard to find very rustic or primitive landscapes. I found a small lotus pond with much difficulty, and painted a batch of works. Afterwards, I felt like my eyes were particularly dry (of inspiration). Ah, where could I go to find good scenery? When I returned to New York, coincidentally, it was winter. I felt very dejected and wandered around aimlessly in the city every day. As a result, seeing Times Square, the skyscrapers, the advertising billboards and the neon lights, I thought: I might as well paint this readily available cityscape, then—the city that I live in every day. Those neon lights, the reflections off the glass façades of buildings, the extreme colours of metals—let’s call them post-industrial colours, for now. I found them all extremely stimulating, including some of the bank signboards—that sort of blue, a silvery blue, was like the colour of the lit-up screens of notebook computers. How could I glean something new from painting the city that I currently live in? It so happened that at that time I was looking for a change, so I did a few experiments.
In another respect, I also wanted to push colour to more of an extreme—that is, a stronger contrast. I used colours that did not necessarily work in harmony in the classical sense, placing them together— pink, orange—to see if a new visual balance could be achieved in this sort of extremity.
GAO MINGLU: Yes. Looking at your works in light of the feeling you just described and how a different sort of inspiration was suddenly produced, you have received the visual stimulation of big city scenes of feasting and pleasure-seeking. It becomes evident that these works can also call forth associations to cities. For instance, the bright colours and block forms, although unevenly positioned, can resemble a street block, or something like it, when placed together. But I still feel that these works are not executed in a realist style. People may be prompted to think about the woven printed cloth of folk cultures. The key issue lies in that the basic forms you use are blocks, rectangles or squares—some a little longer and others a little shorter. These types of fundamental shapes will cause people to make associative connections to various different things, not just cityscapes.
But I feel that another important point is the layering you use, aside from the blocks—the basic shapes we just discussed. Your painting seems to emphasise a kind of layered quality. Concurrently, these layers include patterns, which are not quite the texture or brushstrokes of traditional hand painting—there are traces of the use of rollers in these patterns. Even if you add on hand-painted touches, there is nevertheless something about the entire effect that contradicts traditional hand-painting. Furthermore, this contradiction gives rise to a decorative and mass-produced feeling, that is to say, a decorative and mass-produced nature—and these are precisely the qualities rejected by tradition, because mass production and decorativeness are industrialised things. Industralised things need to be
reproducible; once they can be reproduced, they tend to undermine what we call individual expression, which requires extreme subtlety. What excites you about painting by hand?
JUJU SUN: Yes, what you’ve said is very right. The decorativeness and mass-produced quality that you speak of are actually features that I am deliberately adding. Why? I want to use them to create a visual effect that integrates machinery and handwork. I want to wholly retain, to preserve to the greatest possible extent, the hand-painted “trembling” quality of the style I worked in last year. Call it passion, or call it sensory perception, if you will. I am deliberately adding more of what I call ‘machine elements’, such as paint rollers, to create a sort of conflicting effect. I am trying to see if this can bring about something visually new, a new balance of colliding factors. I put contrasting colours and patterns together and, as you mentioned, juxtapose elements with a mass-produced, decorative or post-industrial quality with hand-painted elements to see if it is possible to achieve something that can similarly arouse a type of spiritual or visual impact, or stir emotions in the viewer.
Furthermore, a large portion of these mass-produced decorative patterns are custom-made by me, even though they are applied by rollers. Just as you questioned: is it possible that associations with folk culture, or perhaps memories embedded in people’s minds—what we call “motifs”—will arise? These patterns may arouse some warm—or not-so-warm—associations, and I believe they all prompt some sort of emotional response. This year, when I return to the States, I will be carving more roller templates, more meaningful ones that draw on various cultures as references—the Middle East and Asia, for instance—to ascertain if new visual effects can be achieved through them.
However, I don’t want to do something too superficial with these machine-made elements; just as you mentioned, I want to allow them to be faintly discernable in the layers of the work, pushing inwards or being drawn outwards, not in a particularly deliberate way. In the end, I would like to present the sense of work done manually—that is, a hand-painted quality.
GAO MINGLU: People may very easily attribute your painting to the abstract art genre, for instance. These blocks or grids—or we may call them geometry—in the work of Malevich, Mondrian, as well as the Bauhaus, all emphasise a sort of internal logic. Overall, they are built upon certain types of artistic and philosophical concepts. However, the blocks in your work are mainly based on your own feelings and sensory perceptions in an attempt to unify them with the individualised hand-painted elements you add. Once you allow the blocks to be independent and form a logical relationship with one other, then the work is likely to lean toward the conventional genre of abstract art.
JUJU SUN: Yes.
GAO MINGLU: So, first, there isn’t a sort of logical relationship between your block forms in two dimensions and it is not especially important whether one is placed in a “correct” or “incorrect” position. Second, and a more important point, is their depth, which differs from traditional abstract art’s geometrical planes. Greenberg states that abstract art’s most characteristic feature is its flatness, yes? If block forms have depth and personal expressiveness, then they are not ‘pure’; this is precisely opposite to modernism.
In actuality, the history of Western critics and theorists describing and discussing blocks and grids is a very long one, and is quite interesting. Grids appeared later, and these critics and theorists viewed grids as subverting the earlier idea of blocks. In the works of Malevich and Mondrian, those were blocks or ‘grids’ that had irregularities in size, and arrangements that were structured and ordered. In the early Modernists’ view, once blocks had a standard size and shape, their significance was lost. Hence, logical order in composition, the centre and the border, the thickness of lines, the choice of red, white or black and other such factors were facets of a logical relationship. Later Western abstract art, particularly that which came after Minimalism, began to feature grids, monochrome grids in particular. These were tantamount to a counteraction of the earlier blocks, a counteraction of their original meaning, the original meaning of ‘grids’.
The reason I have gone on about this is because I thought about these issues after looking at your block forms. I feel that the two notions of blocks and grids seem not to exist for your work. Is this right?
JUJU SUN: Yes, this is very crucial.
GAO MINGLU: Second, there isn’t the issue of so-called “subversiveness” because in your works, you emphasise the relationship between blocks in terms of depth, especially between one block and the one beneath it, and the expressive relationship between blocks and lines. You also seek to balance the mechanical patterns and the lines you paint either by brush or pen. The effort to unify hand-painting and the use of rollers, flatness and depth, emotion and indifference, seems to have little to do with either so-called post-modernism or the subversiveness discussed with such enthusiasm by our contemporaries. Instead, your works seem classic.
JUJU SUN: Yes.
GAO MINGLU: This tends to provoke ambiguity. What I think interesting is that when someone sees these paintings, they may deduce that they carry a sort of destructiveness and subversiveness.
JUJU SUN: Yes, at first sight, they would.
GAO MINGLU: Because of the use of fluorescent, abundant colours.
JUJU SUN: Yes. But there is still an obvious hand-painted effect.
GAO MINGLU: Exactly. The paintings’ hand-painted patterns can either make each painting a part of a whole, or make it exist as an individual work. Hence, its repeatable and mass-produced qualities appear, while the independent expressiveness of patterns and their continuity are unified.
JUJU SUN: Hmm? Oh…
GAO MINGLU: For example, if you place the individual paintings together, no matter how big the combination will be—say, ten or twenty pieces together—they integrate into one painting, as long as the size of each component painting is the same.
JUJU SUN: Oh, interesting. Yes, you are right. By placing the works together, the concept is revealed.
GAO MINGLU: Right, it is revealed. Two images, placed consecutively, become opposing elements. This is the complexity that allows people to find multiple meanings and from where tension arises. This complexity is an aesthetic and cultural tension. It is like a fist—when you make a fist, it is more powerful than an open hand. Though a fist occupies a smaller amount of space, the tension it possesses is much stronger because of its complexity, richness of contradiction, interaction and internal tension.
JUJU SUN: The way you distilled the meaning of that was very apt, Professor Gao. Complexity—yes, that’s right.
GAO MINGLU: We need to find calmness in the midst of noise; such as in the cities we live in, its complexity lies herein. You could not stay only in the countryside, and when you actually went to the US there wasn’t any ‘real’ countryside to speak of. Wherever you go in the US, it is all industrialised. This is a basic state of affairs that we exist in—you can choose to describe it as a reality, a type of culture, a type of psychology, a type of philosophy, or whatever you wish. It is a pre-existing complex tension made up of many intertwined contradictions. Once you really come to understand this feature and can truly express it, frankly, whatever the type of style, colour, pattern, or brushstroke, they are not that important. In your case, you can utilise anything and still be able to express this tension.
JUJU SUN: Your description is very good. In the past, I used to use the term “hybrid” to describe the meaning of “complexity”. Sometimes the direct motivation to paint is that there must be a great deal of layers, and to make them numerous and colourful—seven or eight layers, tens of layers, interwoven. This is what I pay relatively more attention to. The initial few layers are comparatively easy, but it is the later ones that become more difficult, and that I need to be meticulous about executing. Sometimes I can be sitting for an entire day, looking, mainly to observe the visual effect. My main goal is to let a visual clash occur, to see if a new sense of visual pleasure can be achieved within this contradiction. In this way, I basically departed from the visual effects of my previous works or my previous “bag of tricks”. I am aware that it would be beautiful to paint in the way I did previously, but I stopped doing so and went in the opposite direction. Also, to put it in a way that is a little tacky, I basically placed all that was ugly together, especially in the initial few layers. This time, I painted in a way that is opposite to the beautiful visual effects of my previous works. I wanted to give myself a bit of a visual challenge. When I come to the last few layers, particularly the last one or two, I am more careful and spend a long time looking (at the work). The first several layers are usually very ugly, but the finished painting seems to look better.
GAO MINGLU: What is the ugliness you refer to?
JUJU SUN: By “ugly” I mean, basically, difficult to look at—extremely unattractive and, essentially, containing no visual pleasure. But because I know inside what the work will look like after the last one or two layers are complete, I am able to be patient and wait until it dries, after which I execute the last one or two layers. Ugliness refers to the feeling that the image does not even come together. Because many layers will be covered up, then made partially visible again, sometimes I am a little more casual. For instance, I may experiment with inserting elements that are unusual for myself in the first two to three layers. Works such as these are not done according to routines that I am familiar with, but rather a random positioning of messy things together, such as disorderly forms and colours. When this is done I feel relaxed, and there is a sort of “high” in the creation process because it is so unfettered. I execute the last few layers with more care and effort, and more rationally. The initial few layers are more emotional or expressive—or perhaps I should say there is neither emotion nor rationality, and I just put elements together at will and then later organise them.
GAO MINGLU: Your focus returns to painting your own world again.
JUJU SUN: Yes, that’s the way it is. What you said is exactly correct, Professor Gao. Perhaps the initial stimulus might come from my emotions, but this does not mean that while I’m painting I’m thinking about neon lights or other such things. Those things are just the catalyst or “spark”.
GAO MINGLU: It doesn’t have very much to do with these things, then.
JUJU SUN: It does not relate much (to these things). Yes, that’s right.
GAO MINGLU: So it is precisely in this way that you can return to the composed image in your mind, that image being the thing you mentioned earlier that you eventually want to pursue. Hence, there’s a necessity for you to leap out of the place where you first entered. Some may find it difficult to break out of directly reflected reality, and many also find it difficult to move away from the pre-existing materials from art history.
JUJU SUN: Right, yes. (I) must get out.
GAO MINGLU: It’s not easy to create something if you don’t get out.
JUJU SUN: Yes, (I) will drown in the vast sea of replicas.
GAO MINGLU: In fact, if you do break out, people may actually find it easier to search in the real world for certain connections, semantic meanings and semantic relationships present in your work. I’m wondering if some people might view your paintings as “Big Character Posters” (Dazibao)?
JUJU SUN: Some do say that my works look like Dazibao, that’s right.
GAO MINGLU: Right, I guessed that there would definitely be people who think your works are Dazibao. People of my generation have seen so many of them, Dazibao painted layer over layer on walls—it’s exactly that effect. (Laughs) In fact, the things you paint may be things that you had not previously thought of.
JUJU SUN: No, I hadn’t. Some people also think that they look like printed cloth collages, the ones of their local countryside.
GAO MINGLU: Be it printed cloth collage or Dazibao, these things are interesting.
JUJU SUN: Some even saw oracle bone inscriptions in them, Chinese ancient characters—I don’t see that. I wasn’t thinking about these references.
GAO MINGLU: Whether people describe them as Dazibao, a kind of collage, or a combination of folk woven fabrics, these are all impersonal things. But in your paintings, in what aspects is your personality mainly reflected? Perhaps not exactly your personal style, but traces of yourself?
JUJU SUN: Traces, oh, traces…
Yes, how would one find me (in my paintings)? There is a feeling of mix and match; the term “hybrid” does not sound right, so let’s just call it complexity! There is something that flows, but not completely free. It is a controlled flow—I can control to what degree it flows. It is a highly flexible thing, like a root, a thing I previously called “emotion”. Typically when I control it, it becomes a rational thing—something more rational and controlled. I want to control where it flows up to, and not allow it to run any further, also controlling the thickness at which it runs. This is not to say that I allow it to go as it pleases; rather, I let it flow in a controlled manner. With the block forms too, I sometimes deliberately apply more pigment and move the roller downwards, then back again. When I then roll it again, some pigments near the edges of the block will ooze down due to gravity, which gives the work dynamic, handmade traces. I do it this way deliberately. Perhaps doing this little by little in a detailed way is the trace of my hand.
GAO MINGLU: Right, I think that you are right. What you said matches your paintings; in actuality, there is a finesse to be found amongst the roughness in your paintings.
JUJU SUN: That’s right, thank you. (Laughs) That’s right.
GAO MINGLU: I feel that this is related to all of your past experiences. Although you came back from abroad to live in China, you are a relatively simple, unaffected person.
JUJU SUN: Simple, yes.
GAO MINGLU: Being simple, one has a definite amount of space; it leaves you a place in the time and space of your mind for you to pick out the many contradictory things we spoke about earlier.
JUJU SUN: Right, yes.