HyperFocal: 0
In a constant dialogue
—Feng Lianghong: Painting as a life commitment
and sublimation from common standards
Alexandra Grimmer
When meeting Feng Lianghong around his working rituals, one gets the impression that there are probably only a few others in China who follow their work as self-absorbedly as him. The art world as well as social events, Feng Lianghong only pursues along the way and his social life is limited to the maintenance of a few important friendships, without having any professional ulterior motive as an artist. “A middle-aged man lives unnoticed in this city, but this mind has no close contact with this world”, describes him Liu Xiaodong in his text “Da Feng”, in the introduction to the catalogue for Feng’s solo exhibition 2007 at TRA Gallery Beijing. These attributes almost make him an exception in the day-to-day life of Beijing. The sales of his artworks and his presence in the media
count less for him than his work in the studio.
For this reason it is a logical conclusion that the planning of every day is coordinated with his time of painting. This planning is without habits, every day considered a new day.
standards of living
they’re rising daily
This attitude makes an association with the lyrics cited above, sung by Bryan Ferry in “In every dream home a heartache” in the album For Your Pleasure (1973) from Roxy Music. The general context of the song has nothing more to do with Feng Lianghong’s work, but his standards of living do definitely rise daily. A matter of fact, which is maybe even more difficult to be imagined in the well-organized and pre-planned western world.
How much is the concept of personal life in general related to the actual artwork of an artist? Basically this is a question for the boulevard press and magazines to write about for their readers waiting at the hairdresser. But in the case of Feng Lianghong, there is an important relation, as he leaves all necessary freedom to his mood for painting in order to establish the natural, not-planned flow of work. And in further consideration, this spontaneous, random flow of work will turn out to be one of the most important aspects in Feng’s work.
Feng Lianghong has no concept before starting to work. His paintings result out of the process of painting, out of a dialogue between the artist and the canvas. It is a spontaneous dialogue with questions and answers or a conversation which can be taking its flow in a serious way, with beautiful poetic elements: a conversation between poets.
Similar to what Gerhard Richter said “my paintings are smarter than me”, Feng Lianghong is not considering himself superior towards his works. Their reaction and the result on the canvas is every time an experiment, sometimes a surprise for him.
The mood of his paintings can swift from poetic to weird melancholy, which is not real melancholy but rather the enjoying thought of the artist imagining melancholy. As his works are neither sad nor happy, they have no judging sentimental meaning. Neither do they have any melancholic notion. But what is interesting to see is the outcome, as they definitely do bring out personal notes through chemical combinations of colours and random constitutions of elements, where each one of them has a certain character. These are personal notes, to which every viewer will connect according to his individual interpretation.
For this reason, Feng’s paintings can be compared with processes of memory which follow a rhythm, which seem automated, and on the other hand with boundaries and implementations of thinking processes. This assumption occurs with a detailed consideration of the elements which are constantly repeating themselves: Elements which result from esthetical criteria of the artist, but probably come out of inner processes.
In general, the artwork is the trace of what the artist has been preoccupied with. Daily issues and thoughts stay in our unconscious, without being considered at will. But the influence from our unconscious cannot be totally denied. Also, one can talk of a more or less conscious concentration of thoughts and thinking processes by seeing somebody’s artwork. There is a certain speed and there are intense moments which become incognisable in a good painting. The work of the artist is to make his thoughts and personal traces invisible, so that the viewer can see an intensification without knowing its reason. 
In a video interview, Feng Lianghong talks of two inspirations: one is by Chinese calligraphy and one is by random splashing. It is interesting to see that in Chinese “freehand brushwork painting” splashing is a part of the technique, as well as in graffiti. Feng adapts these ideas for his work and creates his paintings out of cultivated random reactions.
By using the oil colour in a very diluted state of being, the colours become flexible for dripping and running and bring out a consistent texture, which matches with his ideas of a floating image, coming to its shape by the process of painting and the physical laws of running colour.
In a conversation in Beijing, Feng mentioned that the experience of the moment of time during painting plays a role during this process. This element of time and its moment, whose exact duration cannot be defined, is also very important in the work of Cy Twombly, a painter whose work is highly appreciated by Feng Lianghong. But in the case of Cy Twombly, the mystery is about the impression, that one artwork came out of a short moment of creation, as if there were no time of reflection and especially no time of actual “painting-work”.
So, while Cy Twombly’s work is about a definition of a spontaneous moment, the conception of time in Feng Lianghong’s paintings is more like the one of a piece of minimal art, like the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Feng’s paintings do not have a development like a piece of Mozart: with an introduction, then the development of a theme, a second and maybe third theme and then the conclusion which comes back to a variation of the first theme. Feng Lianghong’s paintings start from a theme and then this theme is being thought over in many forms and variations, which every time come out of the last form, with only minimal modification.
The overlapping point with Cy Twombly is that for both artists the impulse is spontaneous: The decision of how to modify the theme and how to span the timeline in the case of Feng Lianghong and the impression to the viewer that Cy Twombly did not even pick up his brush: that his work came out of a spontaneous thought.
In the same interview, Feng Lianghong says that he has no method when painting. He is curious about the progress of the painting and clearly considers every method as a limitation. His aim during the work in the studio is to break away from limitations, in the sense of the Chinese saying “to free the mind”. In 2006, when Feng Lianghong came back to China, he did not want to just continue with the graffiti and scripture elements, and the abstract works, which he had been working on during his time in New York. He opened up to something new and found his source in realistic context. During this first year back in China, Feng was painting elements of his new surroundings. He started with the context of the image and usually came to deleting some of these parts with splashing colour in order to destroy the regular image that we are familiar with and turn it into a kind of painting that is at once unfamiliar and unique. Some part of the earlier image stayed the same and the rest disappeared behind the dots of colour stains. Soon, after only a year, his works became abstract again and have stayed abstract from then on.
So, as Feng Lianghong does not rely on a predicted work flow, he brought these techniques of splashing, dripping and scratching into his work on purpose, producing results which cannot be controlled down to the last detail and so they become every time a positive or negative surprise for the artist. By having no method, random results became, especially since 2006, more and more important as parts of every painting, leading to non-planned consequences.
His habit is to work on different parts of the painting, which in the beginning do not function as one total. When he finished one part, he takes a look, making harmony between this one and the others as a goal. If the different parts do bother each other and the result does not please him, he over paints it again. For this reason, one canvas only becomes a total painting after he finished the whole piece; before, the many different parts are considered each one for itself.
To consider a painting as harmonious or not is a subjective opinion, and a painting which is only harmonious is not interesting, as exactly the inharmonious parts bring the necessary quantum of tension. For this reason the question will remain open as to what represents this harmony for Feng Lianghong’s esthetical perception and what are his personal criteria in the judgment as there are clearly harmonious parts, as well as parts with a certain tension.
Feng Lianghong’s paintings are abstract. Some have a horizontal base, which could be interpreted as landscapes; some have a pure architecture of space. One can look for realistic parts, human beings, objects, but these thoughts regularly get lost soon and one’s attention comes back to the abstract forms and moods of the painting. What can be found in some works is a perception for the geometry of space or maybe some abstruse, metaphysical landscapes which can be associated with landscapes in traditional Chinese ink paintings. But Feng Lianghong’s works have no obvious Chinese context. For sure, his paintings are full of details, which in some cases can be found at first sight and in others only after a while of consideration. They function in the given space without realistic context.
In a text about his work, Feng Lianghong writes that he wants to find a way to clear up the borderline between the concrete and the abstract in painting. He is talking about “random abstraction” in order to define the character of the abstract activity. In this way, his so-called landscapes can be seen as his stages in between abstract and realistic.
Feng Lianghong’s paintings are accomplished as a cultivation of random reactions. So, where we learn to control and direct, Feng Lianghong has, over the years, studied to let go and leave it to the unconscious. A process no doubt as equally difficult as controlling and directing towards a certain result.
When Pablo Picasso blindfolded his eyes with a cloth or Cy Twombly painted in the dark, they wanted to force themselves to ignore the same mechanism of control. Already Picasso and Twombly wanted to break with their education, to completely walk out and create something extremely dense, compressed and concentrated, all by receiving this impression of coming out of one spontaneous moment of creation. We are all educated and when seeing the work by these artists, we can feel this concentration and fascination at the same time.
Western art theory, which Feng Lianghong experienced at least during his 16 year stay in New York, is especially known for predetermining and categorizing art, best before it has even been created. So, when Feng Lianghong is working with his random mechanisms of non-control, he is right in the position of being able to laugh about this theory and its long history of art, as he is a step in advance. To orientate towards history and how we have been educated always means looking backward. But only who is happening to be in advance of this process, of lapping it is the winner.
Academical painting can be perfect and thousands of Chinese and International artists are working this way, but it will never be independent and for this reason not be in the position of making actual history.
Feng Lianghong starts a painting with the common idea of an initiating situation: some basic colours, the size of the canvas and then leave it on its way of development. What he does influence while painting, next to selecting the colours, is when to decelerate, when to charge the space with material, and when to loosen up – to aerate and interrupt it with scratched lines and transparent surfaces. The fluidity can be seen as a quality of easiness. Feng can decide, through the proportion between line and colour, about the movement and statics in his final result. But through the way of realizing his dripping and scratching, he cultivates random reactions, in order to receive the consequence of what he calls himself some kind of “random abstract” painting.
For Feng Lianghong the process of painting configures itself as this way of dialogue between the work and himself. He constantly sees the outcome on the canvas and by every measure he is taking, he approaches the final result – or gets further away, when it turns out to be in a wrong direction and has to be changed again. But for him, this process of painting means experiencing a process of work, in search of creating tension and magic moments, which can never be forced: either he is able to switch off everything and “dream” while painting, bringing the dream on the canvas, or he is not able and the canvas remains uncharged.
There is no way to learn how to “charge” one’s brushstroke. As Jean-Michel Alberola told his students at Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts Paris: “We can meet an important personality by accident, which can on the other hand not be searched for; and if we create the conditions while painting, interesting results can probably be realized.”
When coming back to Feng Lianghong’s actual paintings, some of them may represent exactly these dreamlike landscapes which have just been theoretically described. It would explain the painter’s fascination for the work in the studio, while creating his functional parallel worlds.
Because of their high influence on Feng Lianghong’s personal life, his paintings are considered as his life companion or having some sort of very deep relationship with him.
But since Feng’s beginnings in painting around early 1980s, they all do have a common trait which obviously comes out of his personalities’ development as a painter, out of the language he developed. This is a very important characteristic: After having seen Feng Lianghong’s artwork of the last 20 years, one can probably recognize his paintings among others.
Feng Lianghong’s paintings are open to the interpretation by the viewer. They can be seen from totally different points of view and do not lead the viewer to any way of thoughts. As the traces of the artist disappeared, they function as a perfect artwork, hiding the singularity of the artist and inviting the viewer in a sovereign way to add his feelings and personal interpretation, without stimulating a path of interpretation. After finishing his painting, Feng Lianghong leaves it a hundred per cent open to other people’s perception. By this, Feng’s paintings are equal with what Umberto Eco describes as an open artwork: an artwork where the viewer can connect with his ideas, being open in a way of forming a ground for other thoughts.