The Wind Blows Where It Likes: the art of Pu Jie, 2009

“The work of art is a living being,” the great late Italian critic Carlo L. Ragghianti wrote with conviction.

At first glance this might seem like an astonishing statement but upon careful consideration it is impossible not to include art as a fundamental human existence among others. In fact art is part of the history that is present with the power of its perennial life, and thus it is always current and indelible.

The work of art can represent an intellectual problem and its related solution, it can assume the guise of definition or logical demonstration, and it can be an esthetic signature, commitment or a tool of culture, as well as other things. It can tend toward form rather than figure, or vice versa, or toward function rather than form. What is certain is that the work of art does not speak to all indiscriminately, but rather often remains silent for the uninitiated or sometimes closes itself off, disdainful toward those who would treat it like a “whore.” It opens up and communicates its content only to those who are committed to understanding its language and to interpreting the significant acts that have been carried out in the process of its elaboration.

The problem of understanding visual art becomes more stringent today, at a moment when it has received ever greater space in the everyday life of society, assuming various forms, some unexpected and made possible by technology. Unfortunately there is also the inveterate vice of adopting vision as communication without making any further effort to clarify the specific nature of vision as human production. Too often it is only communicative modalities that are assumed; clearly these keep the creative factor in power, but it remains latent and unrecognized, exhausting fruition in mere perception, without recognizing or looking for its agent.

And so when considering the work of Pu Jie there is an immediate risk that one might classify it in the context of popular art, with references to American pop art from the 1960s. This observation stems from the presence of strong colors and an apparently graphic and elementary sign.

Nothing could be more mistaken. Moving past an initial and uninformed impact, one will discover that Pu Jie’s work, beyond its appearance, has something to do with human beings’ state of frailty, agitation, thirst and oblivion. Pu Jie is an artist in touch with the spirit of his time, a time that he first of all observes and only subsequently experiences, sometimes dramatically and sometimes obsessively, through his incessant, honest and intense research. It is work that possesses great consistency because he is not a hunter of echoes or a pursuer of shadows. Pu Jie has neither gods nor faith, nor does he venerate idols. He abandons everything, leans on nothing and proceeds in his research with only painting.

And this is painting where, as one of Lao-tze’s maxims says, “the whole is in the fragment”; in fact the two levels on which the work is developed – the historical and the contemporary – become a single body where the visual experience of the whole is achieved.

Pu Jie’s works communicate a sense of the individual’s irrelevance, which does not paralyze but ensures that detachment that allows an absolute acceptance of life. And it is not a question of contraposition between conscious and unconscious, but rather of a super-conscious vision that implements original nature and, in so doing, destroys the unconscious.

Pu Jie transposes the fundamental Zen formula: “seeing into the nature of one’s own being” into “seeing into the nature of one’s own history,” like a timeless opening up wide; it is something akin to a catastrophic trauma of ordinary consciousness, something radically different from all the states to which men are accustomed. At the same time, however, this opening is what leads back to what, in a superior sense, should be considered as normal or natural. Thus it is the opposite of ecstasy or a trance. Pu Jie makes a great effort to go in the direction of discovery and to take possession of his own nature-history: a constant tension toward the light that extracts from ignorance or from the subconscious the profound reality of what has always been and will never cease to be, whatever the specific condition.

The consequence of this effort is a truly original view of the world and of life, as if a new dimension had been added to reality and had completely transformed its meaning and value.

According to Zen masters, the essential trait of experience that repeats is the overcoming of all dualism: dualism between inside and outside, between ego and non-ego, between finite and infinite, between being and non-being, between appearance and reality, between emptiness and fullness, between substance and chance. Pu Jie seeks a shift of the center of the self, he tries to replace usual meanings, which are dualizing and intellectualistic, with an image that no longer recognizes an ego opposed to a non-ego, that transcends and recaptures the terms of every antithesis, just to enjoy a perfect freedom and incoercibility, like that of the wind when it blows where it likes.

In the work of only a few artists, like Pu Jie, visual language replaces discursive formulation, language that moreover is not identifiable with symbolic image. Like Italian Renaissance artists, Pu Jie, with his intelligent curiosity, expresses his ideas not in words but in visual images that, as such, are understood by few or sometimes misunderstood, since the viewer does not have the key for interpreting them. Indeed Pu Jie’s visual thought does not lie, as it might appear to at first glance, in the meanings of figures, in the description of situations, but rather in the processes of formal subjectivization that are defined in their specific terms precisely as expressive rather than as rational or demonstrative.

We might also add that the substantiality of the figure is overcome by the concept of relationship or function between phenomena; the image is no longer an object having substance, but a field of functions and relationships. In the first case it would be a finite and immobile structure, in the second case it is a dialectical process in progress, charged with the expressive impulse that has placed it in motion. Those who only know how to see the figure, see a generalized appearance that counts only as a support for significance. Those who seek in Pu Jie’s figures the specific manner of their appearance, determined by the investment of the form that is specific to them, can also grasp the process that has unfolded to begin from a meaning or from a mental symbol, to arrive at its subjectivization. In other words it is the expressive form that, with the remaining content, also distinguishes the inflection of the figures.

Here Baudelaire inevitably comes to mind, with his statement that “Poetry, however little one seeks to delve inward, to interrogate one’s own soul, has no other aim than itself… Poetry cannot, under pain of death or of failure, assimilate itself to science or morals. It does not have Truth as its goal. It only has itself. The methods of demonstrating truth are elsewhere.” And almost analogously, Thèophile Gautier, in his polemic “On the Beautiful in Art,” states that “art, unlike science, begins again with every artist, in art there is no progress… it is not additionally perfectible.” Pu Jie’s painting is, precisely, new, as poetry. The artist is a poet who looks out at the world like a mirror, wanting to reflect every human experience, seeking to understand a universal law through a daily battle with canvases, large and small, contemplating the human passions, suffering and follies of our days and creating and also giving meaning to what might seem to us to be lacking in meaning. However without ever forgetting the history, the source, the fount, the indispensable and vital reference to the roots, to the foundation of our time, to the recent past that still affects consciousness, leaving traces that would be criminal to remove or negate.

Pu Jie paints in simultaneous unity between depth and extension; this integration involves gaps, colors, animations, vibrations and contrasts. A field of forces and actions ensues, capable of giving plastic form to a feeling or movement. He integrates the time factor as a plastic and sensitive medium; thus the work is no longer a simultaneous or fixed image, but unfolds as if it were a film. It is the expression of Immanuel Kant’s fundamental recognition of space and time as conditions of knowledge and of every activity of man. In Pu Jie’s work the temporal agent in artistic elaboration is revealed to be substantial, namely the addition of time, and therefore four-dimensionality becomes essential to his art.

Paul Klee, in a drastic although non-polemical aphorism, wrote that painting should not “render the visible” but “renders visible,” and he added that painting renders visible those forces that do not exist. Pu Jie’s painting is made up of movements that are felt through intuition: movements of dimension, cinematic jumps, shifts and alternations between inside and outside. His painting is complete in this formal dramaturgy, and it is in this way, first of all, that it should be understood and assumed. Precedents in terms of sensibility, psyche, artistic experience and worldly experience burn through, even if they represent elements that unleash and nurture the moment in which Pu Jie initiates an expressive history, which, however, has its original and ultimate reason only in itself.

Pu Jie was born in 1959, lives and works in Shanghai, where he teaches at the Art Academy.

His studio is located on Mogashan Road. Previously an old textile factory, it was for years the warehouse for the Shanghart Gallery and a studio for then-unknown but now extremely renowned artists, such as Zhou Thiehai, Wang Xingwei and Pu Jie. Today the space is a crucible of art galleries of every type, bars of various sizes and artists’ studios. It is an obligatory destination for a growing number of people, collectors, critics and museum directors who are interested in contemporary Chinese art.

Pu Jie’s formative years were characterized by a strong dichotomy: from an early age, he was educated according to the ideals of proletarian revolution, but later, at university, he learned about the Chinese view of market economy. The fact that he personally lived through two such different eras led him to feel paradoxical: “my left hand encloses the past, my right the present.” And so the technique of superimposing images, which he calls “dual visual angle,” emerged first of all from his life experience, rather than from the search for an original stylistic characteristic. And in this case the close relationship between art and life is extremely evident and palpable.

Pu Jie is interested, above all, in investigating the social phenomena and forms that contemporary Chinese culture assumes. And it is precisely through “dual visual angle” that he manages to suggest to us the flow of changes that have occurred in Chinese society during recent decades.

In order to know where we are going we cannot help but consider our past, we cannot live “without memory,” and we must make a continuous effort to remember, to recall, to not skip over passages, to not leave black holes in the past, to retrieve what was good, to criticize everything terrible and negative that occurred, to take on contradictions, and to not yield to repression or negation, the two diabolical mechanisms that too often imprison and dehumanize us. This is the admonition that, before anything else, emerges from Pu Jie’s work. And this occurs in subtle, never violent fashion, beginning with an initial impact that is always captivating and characterized by vivid colors – yellows, blues, greens, reds. Here we cannot help but recall Wolfgang Goethe, who rebelled against the inconceivable and to him intolerable tyranny of mathematics and optics. According to his way of seeing it was inadmissible for colors to be merely a purely physical phenomenon; he considered this to be the arrogance of the Newtonians, accusing them of having buried the work of centuries. The great romantic poet thought that colors, on the contrary, were something human, that they undoubtedly had their origin in various natural manifestations, but found their composition and perfection in the eye in the mechanics of vision, in the spirituality of the observer’s soul. Colors, Goethe insisted, cannot be explained through a solely mechanistic theory, but must also be explained by poetics, esthetics, psychology, physiology and symbolism. Pu Jie demonstrates and shares the theory of the great German naturalist and utilizes the language of color to the greatest extent possible. Indeed the colors of Pu Jie’s canvases establish an essential moral stance toward the world in which we live and toward the average contemporary level that is the fundamental basis for every potent work of imagination. A firmly anchored ethical level is something for which Pu Jie has fought from the beginning.

We must never forget that every Chinese artist who sets out to create a work today is facing the world, with flesh and the devil on the one hand and, on the other, western artistic experimentation with its high-sounding pages of criticism and the spurious sectarian preferences of experts. A fork in the road is reached: to follow the erratic aspirations of those who, adhering to the fashions of the time, thrive on “isms” and as a consequence make “cheap” art to satisfy their bank accounts; or to rigorously apply oneself to creating “good art” that has the merit of satisfying one’s conscience. Since the criterion has never been firmly established, it becomes ever-difficult to distinguish. As a result many artists, except the most fervent disciples of the muse, attempt to sit astride both horses simultaneously, or at least alternately. This effort and the subsequent failure to succeed in both attempts has produced horrible paroxysms of moral and intellectual obfuscation. Pu Jie, unlike so many others, knows full well that no enduring work, destined both for the rubbish heap and for the centuries, has ever been achieved by an artist with twofold intentions. The invention of every work that has resonance demands the integrated effort of one’s entire mind and entire heart. This occurs in the work of Pu Jie, who continues his research with rigor, without ever losing sight of the ultimate purpose of art, to first of all reveal the artist to himself, and to then place viewers in a position to intuit more profound realities, perhaps without perceiving them clearly, but to have a presentiment of their presence, thereby finding a compass to orient themselves toward their own conscience and in relationship with this toward the spirit of their own time.

[Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.]


A DUAL VISUAL ANGLE (on Pu Jie) - Sine. Bepler, 2007

The spectacle of Shanghai produces a delirium of the visible that erases the difference between old and new.

Ackbar Abbas in Shanghai Reflections

The most significant denominator of today’s visual imagery produced in Shanghai is the blurred relationship between past and present experiences. Artists have no choice but to re-examine the cultural issues of the self and the other, the new and the old, tradition and modernity, chaos and order. Within a scenario of rapid urban development, misplacement and distortion – and without any awareness of the historical context – individual people have lost control of exterior space. This development is destroying cultural memory without regard to basic needs. On the other hand, this prosperous economy is what generations of Chinese have been waiting for. The utopia of the past seem to have become reality. It is a state of both regret and delight. This rupture or sense of loss compels artists to explore their own space in order to preserve memory. As a concrete response to these issues, the Shanghai based artist Pu Jie (b. 1959) recently stated that ”For me, the adoption of a painterly dual visual angle is a partial overlapping of the past and present, East and West, communism and commodity. Such overlapping is filled with cultural mutation and confrontation. It clears up the visual effect and ponders the flowing changes of the Chinese society throughout the past decades.”

Correspondingly, in his recent artistic practice, Pu Jie attempts to use fragments of collective memory as well as his own personal experiences to compose a narrative of a contemporary way of existence in the shadow of China’s recent past. Avoiding trappings of both nostalgia and amnesia, he references instead life in the rapidly expanding urban metropolis and its oscillating imageries of eroticism, political propaganda and ancient myths. Monochromatic colors in red, yellow, green and blue dominate his large-scale paintings. The compositions are not subject to the classical central perspective, but consist of collage figures and texts that are noticeable as vast bases in favor of other images, usually painted with striking black contours. Each successive layer of paint is transparent, it adds rather than conceals visual information. Icons of ancient China is blended in with figures of the Mao era which again is blended in with images of today’s hedonistic youth. In the series ‘Shadow I-VI’ (2006) and ‘No Need I-VII’ (2006), as well as in ‘Chinese Wave’ (2006) and ‘Face’ (2006) semi-transparent images of Buddhas, peasants, lotus flowers co-mingle with contemporary young urbanites.

On a superficial level, Pu Jies’s paintings might perhaps be regarded as emblems of post-modernist thinking along with it’s credo of ’complexity and contradiction’. On a closer encounter, though, these images are not just aesthetic citation fever and eclecticism, but rather an account of the artist’s own personal experiences – a development informed by dichotomy and conflict: “From primary school to high school I was educated with the proletarian revolution ideas; while during the days at university, I was taught of market economy with Chinese characteristics. What I experienced are two different eras. My life feels like a paradox.” The clues for deciphering these aphorisms have to be sought in the overflow of images that represent opposing experiences. In the paintings, dichotomies are not played out against each other, but rather dissolving into each other. What remains is a flat visual structure that represents moments of fragility and vulnerability as well as excessive sensuality and craving. The desire to have more freedom, to achieve a better life, is fused with naked desire in evidence everywhere. The society is filled with instability and unmet demands, and Pu Jie blends the problems of both past and present history into a single strand. He believes, that paintings should appeal to the senses allowing the spectator to understand the dilemma through emotional colours and themes. As exemplified in the series ‘Dialogue I-IV’ (2002), the colour red (the traditional colour of revolution) is used to symbolize both acceptance and unease. No longer just a symbol of revolution, he turns it into the primary colour of life. Red commemorates freedom, the exuberance of primary desires, and aspirations denied by confucianism and communism.

In his most recent yellow shaded paintings ’No Need I-VI’ (2006) and ’Lost’ (2006) the figures are set in an indeterminate non-place, and yet part of the all-encompassing mass; they are the agonists of our time, a society of pleasure seekers attempting to escape the dreary everyday. The respective characters loom on large-scale canvases as supernatural figures. The most significant feature being their resemblance, whereby the artist has weakened the position of the individuals depicted. The painted objects belong to the cultural reality in which they live – an urban reality – but always in terms of the mediocre, or the average. This feature has to do with a neutralization of ambivalent feelings. There is a mixture of conspicuous consumption, refinement and decadence – but stronger still is the neutralization effect. The artists manages to balance an equally repulsive and attractive version of contemporary life. The paintings signify a state in which two opposing forces effectively cancel each other out: The differences of past and present have been erased. A striking aspect of the latest paintings is that although their surface planes display diverse and excessive extravaganza, in typological terms, the painted figures are all exactly the same. Identifying this repetitive figure as it is executed with obvious aporia, Pu Jie touches on the confusion in establishing a truth in contemporary way of life. Here, repetition of the same characters is not simply reproduction in the sense of representation (of a referent) or simulation (of a pure image, a detached signifier). Rather, repetition serves to screen the real understood as disturbing .

The artist manipulates modernist deconstructuve compositional effects to intensify his new version of reality. Juxtapositions of color, mass, and shape is a significant concern here, but so is the primordial relationship of figure to ground. The layered images reveal how even fragmentary visual information allows the viewer to orient him- or herself in a horizonless world. Objects and characters are differentiated in the middle of the canvas, but dissolve into each other at the edges. Foreground melts into background and illusion into repetition. With both ancient and contemporary subject matter, Pu Jie indicates that time and space, logic, reality, scale, and narrative are conventions we collectively either absorb or ignore, but can never avoid.

The different layers of meaning and imagery are brought together in the pictures by a unifying aesthetic expression, which is a blend of pop and comic strips. The paintings are informed by Chinese tradition with a strong emphasis on the line, but also by a significant influence of pop art’s flat painterly surface. Pu Jie’s works comment on a variety of themes that he conjures up in dynamic and intense scenes. Here, he underscores illusory aspects of the mediated day-to-day reality of a rapidly changing society. He juxtaposes seemingly contrasting narratives and memories as an attempt to show the fragmentary, ever-shifting and therefore incoherent nature of life. It is a vision that, indeed, demands a dual visual angle.


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