Traditional Chinese brush painting is usually confined to a small alcove at the Art Institute of Chicago—a space no larger than a walk-in closet. But unlike its approach to traditional forms of European art, the museum does not ignore a traditional Chinese painting just because it was made recently. In 2018, the museum filled five galleries with the monumental landscapes of Xu Longsen. Now equal space has been given to the landscapes of Tai Xiangzhou. European painting has not looked back so far since the neoclassicism of the French Academy. But as Tai quotes Confucius: “Students of the past study for themselves, students of the present study for others.”
What Tai has studied for himself are the canonical landscapes of the Song Dynasty. He has researched and mastered their techniques and materials and occasionally even copied them. His “Mountain of Heaven” (2014) is a close copy of “Winter Landscape with Temples and Travelers” by Fan Kuan (c. 960-1030). But as you might notice from the title given to his piece, it says nothing about travelers. Tai left them out—and indeed, does not depict a single human figure anywhere in this large exhibition. Why introduce those quarrelsome primates when the time-space universe emerged over thirteen billion years before us and our stay will likely be brief? Yet it does appear that some kind of harmony between Man and Universe was intended by the great painters of the Chinese tradition. The age-darkened silk of Fan Kuan’s painting makes it difficult to view online, but its pictorial energy still flows from its towering mountain peak all the way down to the tiny human figures who cross a serpentine footbridge far below. One might also notice that Tai has handled the details of rock and foliage somewhat differently. Where the rock feels worn and the branches softly bend in the Song original, Tai’s brush strokes bite into space more aggressively. Powerful gentleness has been replaced by awe, coldness and perhaps a little fear, and that continues throughout the exhibition, which includes two quite different multi-piece projects.
In Gallery 101A hangs an album of thirty-six paintings of flowing, rippling or choppy water, based on a similar project done 800 years earlier by Ma Yuan. Straddling the busy main corridor of the museum, quite removed from the rest of the show, this is not the best place to view meditational art works. They’ve also been poorly lit and rather than being set into cases, have been matted flush against glass that reflects everything else in the gallery. It’s not fair to judge them with all that distraction, but you can compare Ma Yuan’s and Tia Xiangzhou’s depictions of autumn waters on the museum website and determine for yourself which piece has a relentless rhythm of tension and elegance, and which piece feels grim, shabby and disposable.
The Ando Gallery contains the showpiece of the entire exhibition: nine floor-to-ceiling scrolls which together are called “Parallel Universes.” They are just as impressive as the ten-foot pillars of the Xu Longsen exhibition. Untethered from traditional Chinese art, the aesthetic is more about confronting the infinite rather than creating an enjoyable experience—and it’s been done on a gigantic scale. It’s a world without people, plants, animals, rivers, mountains or even gravity. It’s a world of flying matter that often seems to coalesce into shapes that resemble the decrepit skulls of monsters. The ambition, technique, compositional variety and cosmological concept are all admirable. It’s not possible, however, to survive in such a world, much less find harmony. Sooner or later that massive chaotic disintegration is the destiny of every person, tribe, nation and even the planet itself. Such bold nihilism is one way to “bridge the gulf between ancient traditions and contemporary artistic practice,” as exhibition verbiage proudly affirms. But it’s also a bridge to a lifeless world and obliteration. If the arts won’t lead us toward a better life, what will? (Chris Miller)
“Cosmoscapes: Ink Paintings by Tai Xiangzhou,” at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, through September 20.