Articles on Sun Liang(English)
Genesis of Image

Genesis of Image

Written by Li Xu

Opening Words

“ And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. ” — Genesis of The Old Testament

In Sun Liang’s works, there are always some unknown living substances flying and floating, presenting the beauty of life and the limit of imagination with peculiar appearances in zero-gravity. Just like the beginning of chaotic foundation and initiation of the ignorant, when all the most complicated lives evolved from the simplest forms, all the images in Sun Liang’s works originate from his spectacular and weird daydreaming. From this perspective, Sun Liang is the Creator of his individual art world. All the mysterious living substances in Sun Liang’s works usually possess magnificent appearances and pure beauty, and the emerging process of those living substances is extremely complicated, I call it “Genesis of Image”.

Simplest Biography

“In the dusk of impending evening, I stood in front of the window in the fourth floor, looking into the endless distance and waiting for stars’ emerging. There is the rhythm of long journey arising in my dreamland, directing towards countries unknown to myself or towards totally fabricated and non-existing countries.” — Fernado Pessoa

In 1957, Sun Liang was born in Hangzhou, spent his childhood and youth in Fuzhou, and moved into Shanghai with his family in junior middle school. For quite a long time, his Shanghai dialect was not very pure nor proper.

In 1973, Sun Liang was allocated to work in Shanghai Jade Carving Factory, and his master worker who taught him about the skills of jade carving was Xiao Haichun, a famous traditional Chinese painter and national master of arts and crafts. During this period, he began to learn painting. After working there for six years, he was admitted to learn the course of arts and crafts in Shanghai Light Industry Training School.

In 1986, Sun Liang began to teach in Fine Art College of Shanghai University, and during 14 years working there, his personal style began to take shape. Besides teaching, he made acquaintance with increasingly more artists of the same pursuit, and started to participate in various modern art exhibitions.

In 1988, he participated in Chinese Modern Art Creation Symposium in 1988 held in Tunxi of Anhui province. After returning to Shanghai, he, with Li Shan, Zhou Changjiang, Zhang Jianjun, Li Xianting and other artists and critics, planned and held the large-scale performance art work of Last Dinner in Shanghai Art Museum.

In 1989, he participated in China Avant-garde Grand Exhibition held in Beijing in the way of joint works, and experienced a series of historic events which may be rated as the answer to the curtain call of ’85 New Wave Movement.

In the beginning of 1990’s, Sun Liang’s studio moved into an old house beside People’s Square of Shanghai’s downtown area. As for the convenience of geographic location and his innate enthusiasm, he began to comprehensively collect local artists’ picture information, gradually set up small-scale archives, and voluntarily propagated and promoted Shanghai modern artists. Within the following several years, many foreign guests of art circles frequently visited this place. In the early process of Shanghai modern art striding towards international stage, Sun Liang’s efforts were non-negligible.

In 1993, Sun Liang went to Hong Kong to hold his first solo exhibition out of mainland China, then went to Italy to participate inVenice Biennale. That was his first travel abroad, plentiful exotic experiences greatly shocked him, especially visit in Vatican which gave him a quite comprehensive impression of classic works in western art history, and Raffaello, Michelangelo, Bernini and others’ works further accentuated his mental inclination of persistent pursuing perfection.

In 1998, he left Fine Art College of Shanghai University and began to teach in Shanghai University of Science and Engineering till now.

History of Style

“Human beings follow the Earth. Earth follows Heaven. Heaven follows the Tao. The Tao follows the way things are.”

“The Tao produces one, one produces two. The two produce the three and the three produce all things.” — LaoTzu

Up till now, Sun Liang’s art career has lasted for about 20 years. During these years, his art style and chosen major creation media have changed for several times. According to time sequence, I roughly divide his creation style in the last two decades into 6 phases, that is ink experiment, expression, magic, abstraction and “dispersion”. Many people consider Sun Liang’s works are very exotic, actually traditional Chinese painting and jade carving and other traditional Chinese art forms influenced his whole career right from the beginning because of his special learning experiences in the early stage. Compared with other artists of the same age, he knows more about the traditional. Those who really understand traditional Chinese art would certainly discern oriental aesthetic characteristics and witness the contemporary form of oriental art in Sun Liang’s works, especially works created after 1990’s.

Phase of Ink Experiment (1980-1983)

After beginning to work in Jade Carving Factory, Sun Liang started to learn traditional Chinese painting. After 7 years, he began to get rid of imitation phase to enter actively personal creation, seeking for various ways of ink language expression. From tradition to vogue, Sun Liang got involved in many styles that are talked with great relish in ink circle afterwards. This stage somewhat overlapped with later oil painting, and didn’t come to an end until 1987.

The works of this phase could be approximately divided into two categories. The first category is new traditional Chinese painting. Sun Liang reformed the loose skills of personal inkbrush about traditional landscape, flower, bird and other themes, blending impressionistic tradition after the end of Qing Dynasty to form limpid contemporary form of scholar’s ink painting. The second category is experimental ink. Sun Liang drew many images and symbols of Chinese prehistoric rock art and colored pottery art into ink creation, and dealt with seemingly disordered images in a way between calligraphy and painting. The works of this category have obvious symbolic colors. Reviewing the works of this period, we may find the resources of barycenter abnormity and plentiful un-balanced composition in Sun Liang’s later phases.

Phase of Expression (1983-1991)

This phase started with a landscape painting of post-impressionism style. According to Sun Liang’s recollection, that painting originated from a bet with some friends, then Sun Liang turned to the creation of oil painting, which is not only occasional but also inevitable. The style of this phase is closely related to the humanistic upsurge sweeping the whole country beginning from the middle of 1980’s when ideology was gradually unfreezing, all the publishing houses throughout the country were eager in translating and publishing famous foreign works of humanism, reading large number of books of literature, art and philosophy, paying close attention to western contemporary movie and music, which became a valuable common experience of everybody personally living through that times. From Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus to Freud, from Decameron, Confessions, Lady Chatterley's Lover to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky to Beatles and Pink Floyd, from Cezanne, Picasso, Dali, Duchamp, Warhol to Rauschenberg, Sun Liang, with many other artists in mainland China, experienced an impressively spiritual baptism.

Sun Liang’s works of his impression phase is rich with strong emotions, in the aspect of style they mostly belong to the category of semi-narration; in the aspect of skills, they are expressionistic with great power, with forceful brushstrokes, bright colors and solid and substantial skin texture. Especially works created around 1990, most of them possess quite clear plot direction, rich in mysterious and religious atmosphere, thick and strong implication of death makes those works of this phase extraordinarily heavy and serious.

Among more than 10 representative works of this phase, Wedding Bed, Jingwei Bird, Icarus & 9 Suns, Ultimate Temptation, Weird Walking, Human Tree and Sacred Rain are all very outstanding.

Wedding Bed depicts a couple of man and woman, in shape of skeleton, lying on bed of white flowers. In the upper side of the painting, there is a lamp projecting deathly pale light, a yellow cross inside a black bulb, a two-headed snake and an owl surrounding it, implying an ominous atmosphere. The artist not only expresses the criticism of marriage, actually this figuration also strongly points to allthe miserable foreordinations.

The same determinism also emerges in other works in the same phase. The image of Jingwei Bird combines two classic eastern and western myths, which are Jingwei filling the sea and Sisyphus. Both of them symbolize the same inexorable and hopeless efforts, expressing the desperation that they know they don’t want to do but have to do it. And Icarus & 9 Suns, with the theme of dreaming coming true at a painful price, conceals two completely irrelevant myths of Icarus and Houyi shooting suns, implying deterministic stories repeatedly happening to art itself with tortured dreams.

Weird Walking, Ultimate Temptation, Sacred Rain and Human Tree were all created at the end of 1980’s and the beginning of 1990’s when social and political background at that time brought apparent influence to those works, grand and spectacular mental liberation movement came to a premature end with political storm in 1989, which made Sun Liang’s attitude of life extremely pessimism. Weird Walking more directly presents Death’s image in artist’s mind in symbols similar to totem.

In 1980’s with various new thoughts continuously surging, because of the lack of professional media’s promotion and the ecologic weakness of art criticism, compared with Beijing, Hubei, Sichuan, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and etc, the development of Shanghai’s modern art is always oppressed and neglected, we may even say that up till now, there is still not a contemporary art history which could impartially and objectively reflect the vivacious features and prominent achievements in Shanghai modern art circle. Sun Liang’s early works, like many other Shanghai modern artists’ works, scarcely have any opportunity to be publicly exhibited or published, naturally could not be understood by people of art circle in other places of China.

Phase of Magic (1991-1994)

From 1991, Sun Liang’s works gradually began to cast off the binding of narrative plot, until the literary themes completely disappear. This phase commenced with the sign of a special work, this work of time-crossing significance is called World in Fly’s Eyes. This is a weird painting, even a little bit uncanny. Firstly, a winged monster of semi-insect and semi-mammal traverses the center of the composition, surrounding this major image, there are successively a series of seemingly irrelevant figures, lipstick, parrot, lamp bulb, opium poppy, female silhouette, shadow of the silhouette, and etc. This work is paradoxical in painting skills, and language’s own wantonness and subversion probably make no sense, however audience could still seek out an implicit clue after careful consideration, it’s the theme of sex that links those symbols together.

From this phase, the fixed stage-set composition in Sun Liang’s works began to recede, the leading function of major image was being ambiguous, mechanical barycenter was starting to be confused, ways of moulding images were getting two-dimensional day by day, brushstrokes were more and more exquisite, colors were more and more delicate, the sense of perfection was increasingly higher, the mysterious sense was increasingly thicker…

There are many representative works in this phase, approximately more 20 pieces. Among these works, Salome and Ophelia subvert the old narrative methods in an alternative way, Human Tree, Double Shadows, Leopard Pattern, Tattoo Moon, Wing and Chess Game definitely carry out the typical Sun-Liang-styled language creation. As a matter of fact, just the art language of this phase enables Sun Liang to obtain preliminary international reputation, and his magic works were chosen to participate in the 45 th Venice Biennale and the 1 st Asian-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. From then on, the artist began to unleash boundless imagination freely, if we regard the style of expression phase and magic phase as rock music, then this is a magnificent transformation from heavy metal to psychodelic rock. Viewing from the perspective of spiritual temperament, magic phase is the extension and development of expression phase; from the perspective of language skills, magic phase is the hint and prediction of abstraction phase.

Though the theme of Ophelia originates from Shakespeare’s play, the image portrayed in Sun Liang’s work just borrows the literary quotation. This bald-headed female figure floats in bluish green flower clusters, with blue petals booming on her abdomen, two leg bones clearly showing themselves, surrounded by snakes protruding tongues and antennae, owls, Siamese fishes and bull horn skull… This painting is permeating with a weirdly hypnotizing atmosphere, it seems that aesthetic smell offsets the smell of death, and the curiosity for the other bank finally defeats fear.

Human Bird is one of the key works initiating Sun-Liang-styled language, presenting the form that has been repeatedly used later by Sun Liang, which is the smoky outline breathed out from mouth. Before that, there were only tongues protruding out of the image of mouth, henceforth there are increasingly more images inside the smoky outline. This unique way of expression forms space inside space and image outside image in the picture.

Tattoo Moon bases on the story of Leda & Swan. Sun Liang began to show his pursuit of perfect form in this work, alternative mould began to alienate from the binding of literary narration, the delicate way of spreading paint and sketching contours reveals pronounced oriental sentiment. During the whole magic phase, Tattoo Moon found the most flawless equilibrium between oriental language and western narration.

Wing, created in 1993, could be regarded as a work extremely exquisite in the aspect of language. The fundamental color of the painting is light greenish grey, the major image is a living substance hung upside down in the upper side of the painting, fish head, human body, butterfly wings, male genitals and six breasts, inside with a curling snake breathing out smoke fusing together with smoke out of shark, leopard and phoenix… Perfect skills of spreading paint reflect Sun Liang’s natural and smooth proficiency, casually combined moulds magically turn out to be the intelligence of adapting to the raw material in skills of jade carving.

Chess Game is supposed to be the last work about literary themes. Sun Liang’s initial creation motive was to use a game-seeming scene as a metaphor of Persian Gulf War at that time, and this painting’s completion is also the token of expression phase and magic phase’s termination. This work has never been exhibited or published, king, queen and other images and weird lives fabricated by himself are combined inside the black and white squares, displaying complicated plot of lust, injury, mockery and confusion.

Many audience used to doubt that Sun Liang was a user of psychodelic drugs, actually this is an absurd misunderstanding, however Sun Liang often jokingly calls himself “spiritual drug addict”, but I’d rather call him a “sober day-dreamer”. As he says, he scarcely dreams at night, maybe because his dreams are used up on the canvas in day.

Phase of Abstraction (1994-1995)

If we treat Sun Liang’s accomplishment in the perspective of pure formalism to do art for art, then this pure abstraction phase for almost 2 years is to be regarded as essence of essence. Among about 10 representative works, there are 4 important works, which are Red in 1994, Blue in 1994, Yellow in 1994 and Green in 1994 according to the time sequence.

The fundamental color of Red in 1994 is rosy red. In the painting, there are some sea-animal-like images floating and swimming, and Sun Liang’s exquisite brushstrokes bestow a transparent atmosphere to the whole picture. Those images which seem to be parts of jelly fish, coral, eel or frog fit together to create most peculiar visual effect, none of the images is “complete”, however those “incomplete” images compose adequate sense of harmony.

The composition of Blue in 1994 presents obvious tendency of radiation, with an irregular figure in the compositional center as the pivot point, and many abstract images that seem to be butterfly wings or mollusk tentacles stretching out. However, if we switch to another way of thinking, images in this painting would produce aggregation of centripetal force, between gathering and departing, visual misconception continuously builds up mysteriously dazzling effects.

Contrary to Blue in 1994, all the images in Yellow in 1994 are all isolated, without any brushstroke to link them together. Those dot-like and line-like living forms compose serene music in unknown rhythm. Independent individuals, scattered in unevenly colored background, seem to be a section below microscope, or a paused scene in an astronomical telescope.

Green in 1994 is the most complicated one among the 4 works. Firstly, all figures abandon symbolic prompts, those beautiful lines are no longer edge of living substances, and the figure constituted by them is just a figure; secondly, lots of implying spiral curves among figures produce marvelous interactions like attraction or magnetic field between every two adjacent units, achieving neither intimate nor aloof connection for the corresponding relationship of spiral images.

Compared with numerous artists trying to arrange order of combinations with point, line and plane, I always believe Sun Liang’s abstract style is to be called “organic abstraction”, as the subjects depicted by Sun Liang are eulogy and admiration for living substance, although this living substance doesn’t really exist on earth. Actually, Sun Liang doesn’t sketch before painting, and the creation of all the images starts from one or more winding and dancing lines. As a witness of the emerging process of many momentous works, usually I would be attracted by the dramatic changes appearing on the picture, even more confused by the unknown and uncertain mystery. In this sense, the emerging process of each painting could be called “work out of work”. After the artist signing on it, the emerging process would become a permanent enigma, and the extent of splendor is beyond imagination.

Abstraction phase is an attempt by which Sun Liang tested the limit of his own abilities, abstracting an image, especially the effort to break away from natural phenomenon is difficult, however, before the audience, Sun Liang successfully turned this effort into a visual enjoyment. When seriously scrutinizing the details of this series, we would whole-heartedly admire the delicacy. Numerous lines are not painted by a monotonous color, instead, the artist constantly changes colors in the process of spontaneous turnings, and from this phase, the brushstrokes which were quite apparent almost entirely disappear. The artist used very dry brush or applied a tint of color, similar to the ways of traditional Chinese meticulous painting, in the medium of oil painting. The works of this phase often remind audience of those marvelous and unrestrained patterns on lacquer ware of Chu culture in the times of Warring States, remind them of the clouds above fairy mountains in ocean on the bronze Boshan censer filled with gold and silver… As a matter of fact, among abundant Chinese art traditions, the splendor and delicacy was originally very common, nevertheless, after the times of impressionistic Chinese painting and western painting being fully introduced, the delicacy inside the marrow of Chinese people’s bones unexpectedly becomes extremely scarce.

Utopia which never exists in reality becomes more and more clear and convincing in Sun Liang’s works, we may even say, Sun Liang builds up a real atmosphere of hallucination, which makes people believe and approach this non-existed world of aesthetism.

Phase of Dispersion (1995-2002)

This name is from Sun Liang’s own vocabulary. Actually, before finding a more appropriate word, this name is the most reasonable description of this phase. When Sun Liang talked about the experiences of this phase, he said, “… The exit leading to the outside world is gradually closing, and I am coming into a mood, more personal, more casual. After closing the doors and windows of my studio, my world would become huge on the contrary…” Exploration in abstraction phase made Sun Liang worry about tendency of form which was inclining towards minimalism, simultaneously think that pure abstract form couldn’t satisfy his expectation for “unparalleled exquisiteness”. Therefore, after finishing several representative abstract works, he began to return to realism. After returning to realism, all the fabricated visual forms in Sun Liang’s works found the proper places to attach to. Winding curves in abstraction phase was categorized and assembled, starting to transform into eye, tooth, claw, feather, scale, tentacle, tail, smoke and foam of fish, reptile, bird, mammal and other living substances.

A brand new phase named “dispersion” commenced.

This phase formally started from 4 large paintings in 1996. Then, Sun Liang called all these 4 paintings Blue & White. (Later these 4 paintings respectively got their own names.) For Sun Liang himself, this series are unprecedented. When he talked about these 4 paintings, he said that, “in these 4 paintings, I have never made any mistakes, never needed to adjust or modify, none of the images is imperfect.”

The first blue painting is constituted of three major images, a bisexual person with both human face and bird face in the head, a winged piebald leopard with three legs grasping a two-headed snake, and a curling dragon looking back traversing the lower side of the painting. This painting’s name is Sphinx’s Riddle.

Dim Light is the second one of the series, and is the most concise, tranquil, mysterious but also most romantic one of this series. A winged unisexual tiger stands in the left, a female piebald leopard protruding its tongue towards north-east. All the subordinate images are related to the concepts of double head, Siamese body, kissing and sexual intercourse.

The third work is the transformation of Tattoo Moon in magic phase, whereas the transformation of the namesake painting is far more beyond the old work.. Firstly, in the aspect of image, the combination of this transformation is quite complicated, except for the swan which is the major image, all the other images are brand new creations; secondly, in the aspect of skills, Sun Liang tried his best in extreme elaborateness, with fantastic depiction in all details, and brought the expressing charm of oil painting to a whole new realm.

The fourth work of Wing is a relatively light one. A phoenix hanging upside down breathes out smoke with foam, shrouding a winged leopard and the head of a lizard with dorsal fin, a butterfly in the lower side of the painting protruding antennae with two snakeheads…

These 4 works in the size of 180 ×140cm spent Sun Liang more than one year. From the perspective of imagination and accomplishment, these 4 works are the top ones of Chinese contemporary paintings. The artist has exerted the exotic art language of oil painting to an extreme extent in the oriental attitude of Chinese people.

After 4 large paintings, there began a series of dazzling changes in the style of Sun Liang’s works.

Firstly, those originally quite complete images of semi-human and semi-animal started to dissolve. There is no longer complete depiction of an intact contour, which seems to dissolve into the ground color, or overlap each other. During this process, long-absent brushstrokes reemerge in some works, and unprecedented colors like golden and silver also become Sun Liang’s newest choices. Blue Line, Hollow, Fragment, Clamor, Silver Fascination, Scattering, Swaying, Light of Spider and other works are the best definition of this “dispersion” state. Sometimes, Sun Liang would arrange a vertical or horizontal row of tin-stripped pictures into a series of works, such as Gorgeous (10 pieces) and Amongst (5 pieces), which are all examples of this attempt.

Secondly, it’s Sun Liang’s extraordinarily complicated assembling and linking of independent images, one or more images are often designed into symbols like badge or logo by Sun Liang. A series of peculiar images, in the ways of parasitism, fusion or forging, turn into ridiculous combinations like Frankenstein. The new lives arising from these combinations are odd but charming, Ring, Dragon & Phoenix, Controlling and other works are the early representative works of this changing form. Golden Feather is the extreme of many independent images, combinations and changes, the overlapping of figures makes it difficult to identify which line belongs to which figure, and the magic of many figures’ combination results in two or more figures using a common outline, such an extremely abnormal way of combination forms the most fascinating labyrinth in Sun Liang’s works.

Thirdly, Grey Rain, Scribbling, Form and other works continue the grammar in Yellow in 1994 in abstraction phase, scattering isolated images in endlessly void background, and these scattered images are also transformation of some crucial symbols in past works. This sort of works are somewhat like Sun Liang’s visual notebook, we may see that the artist casually composes a serene jazz opusculum with a series of day-dreaming music notes. Different from many works with prominent major images, this sort of works doesn’t have visual tensity, naturally impressing people as calm and amiable.

Specifically speaking, “dispersion” phase has never really ended, and Suang Liang’s present style could still be regarded as extension of “dispersion”. For the convenience of description, I could only divide his complicated long-term style into several periods, and whether this division is sensible or not is up to the judgment of later ages.

Phase of Material Experiment (2002 till now)

What is to be mentioned is that Sun Liang is not an artist who could be absolutely defined by style or material, and the division of 6 phases in the last two decades is only a rough division for the convenience of study. Actually, during each phase, Sun Liang has unexceptionally exhibited his managing abilities upon various styles and materials. For instance, he cooperated with Zhang Furong and Pei Jing to create an installation work called Daily Fairy Tale in Chinese Modern Art Exhibition in 1989. Looking like a hornet’s nest upon a ladder, this work was exhibited in the eastern hall of the first floor in National Art Museum of China. This is probably the earliest sign indicating Sun Liang’s involving into material experiment.

Related with his experience in learning jade carving, his interest in material experiment is continuous. He would make some attempts in anti-traditional media almost every year. Various materials entered his creative vision in different ages, including paper pulp, silk (1989), leather (1999), celluloid (2000), aluminium foil (2002) and chemical fibre material (2004), and his creative methods contain collage, impromptu sculpture, colorful trans-printing technique and etc.

Admiration for Da-Vinci-like genius and curiosity for unknown space are actually many excellent artists’ innate instincts. Phase of material experiment is so far the most comprehensive creation stage that Sun Liang has experienced, which is an early opened and repeatedly opened door, and the exploration in all kinds of new materials would surely become an important method to be always continued.


“… I think, if a person, any genius, lives in the center of African continent and paints

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