Free and Unfettered: On Lu Peng¡¦s Works
By Zhang Zhaohui
Unfettered freedom is a state of mind that is often referred to in traditional Chinese culture. The concept originated from the first chapter of the Daoist classic Zhuangzi, entitled Free and Unfettered Wandering. The text describes a giant fish named Kun that transforms into a giant bird called Peng. When Peng journeys to the Southern Ocean, its wings flap over the water for three thousand leagues [li]. Then it ascends on a whirlwind for another ninety thousand leagues. These metaphors were used to describe unbounded openness of thought and imagination ¡V an ideal spiritual state that many Chinese intellectuals aspire to. It is also what Lu Peng has been trying to explore and express through his artwork for the past decade.
The theme of unfettered freedom and wandering at will runs through all of Lu Peng¡¦s works, as is evident from his earlier series, Three Travel-weary Loafers and Through the Wall; to the later works from A Fighting World of Female Beauty, as well as the recent Free and Unfettered series. A myriad of images and scenes are used freely to depict layer upon layer of complex social phenomena and bewildering culturo-psychological schemata, all of which reflects his thirty-years of life experience. For example, Three Travel-weary Loafers captures his childhood fascination with traditional Chinese martial art stories; Through the Wall expresses his youthful yearning for freedom and rebellion against social constraints; and A Fighting World of Female Beauty portrays disillusionment with one¡¦s shattered ideals and the ensuing pursuit of desires. The latest Free and Unfettered series, however, conveys the artist¡¦s musing on the value of culture and life in his forties. Interestingly, these clear-cut stages of development run parallel to the psychological trajectory of Chinese people born in the sixties.
Lu Peng has painstakingly studied, researched and collated traditional Chinese paintings, especially the contouring, colouring and composition of meticulous works. He has also produced a large number of outline drawings. These have helped him to grasp the characteristics of shapes and forms, as well as the general aesthetic of traditional painting. Later, as it turns out, this earlier training has enabled him to borrow and appropriate traditional patterns and images and use them in his own works with skill and proficiency. Unlike most painters, he takes great interest in Tibetan Tanka painting. Line drawing is used profusely in Tanka painting, but in a different way from the meticulous painting of the Han people. The former puts emphasis on the painter¡¦s craftsmanship and religious piety, and the time and energy dedicated to the production of the painting. In contrast, the latter values the flavour and quality of lines. Lu Peng adopts and embraces all of these qualities. As a result, his works demonstrate technical richness and complexity through layering, spanning a diverse range of mediums including ink on paper, or acrylic or oil on canvas. We see in his art techniques and craftsmanship that are irreplaceable. He once said, ¡§Unlike those artistic geniuses who rely on sparks of inspiration, I see painting as a slow and mellow process of self-training and self-perfecting.¡¨[i] He is, for sure, only one of many Chinese artists who uses Chinese symbols in their work. However, instead of producing a uniform or clichéd interpretation of these symbols, he looks for a method of his own. And with this method, he is able to convey his own perception and ideas about contemporary society with clarity and precision.
Lu Peng grew up in Beijing ¡V a city that despite 20 years of charging forward towards modernity and cosmopolitanism has remained steeped in history and ancient culture. He is therefore naturally influenced by tradition. During this drastic social transformation he has invoked recurrent debates about traditional values and cultural identity. Living in such an environment, it is only natural that Lu Peng would have some feelings and ideas on the issue. In fact in the past thirty or forty years, Beijing has become not only the melting pot of a range of Chinese social problems, but also the focus of global attention. It seems to pull the conflicts between East and West centripetally toward itself and has become a battleground between modernity and tradition. As a result, artists who grow up in Beijing tend to have a deep relationship with traditional Chinese culture, as well as a subtle and accurate understanding of everyday political life. Both of these can be seen clearly in Lu Peng¡¦s art.
Art critic Li Xianting once coined the term ¡¥cultural fragments¡¦ when writing about Lu Peng¡¦s works. ¡§Lu Peng has been deeply affected by traditional drama, martial arts fiction, electronic games, and Hollywood films. Thus, these elements have become the main thread of his works. His works enable us to process the confused state of today's culture and comprehend it in terms of adventure stories - painting with absurd humor and a sense of violence.¡¨[ii] Sensitive and precise Li¡¦s critique may be, but it still fails to unravel the deep message that the artist wishes to convey buried under the piles of cultural fragments.
What the artist has done is more than piling unselectively layers and layers of random and unconnected cultural fragments onto his paintings. The visual symbols that represent the ¡¥cultural fragments¡¦ are closely related to contemporary society, politics and cultural life. They even, to a large extent, constitute the visual culture of our society today. For example, the painted masks of characters from the Peking opera that regularly pop out from Lu¡¦s pictures are cultural symbols with a political connotation. In the political atmosphere of China, cultural symbols are seen as a stronghold against infiltration by Western civilization.
Furthermore, young males in green or red and naked females also feature importantly in Lu Peng¡¦s paintings. First of all, the juxtaposition and contrast between Cultural Revolution soldiers¡¦ green with red guards¡¦ red invokes the image of a public memory - Mao appearing on the Tiananmen Square tower in green army uniform and red armband at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Despite the old-fashioned clothing worn by the people in his paintings, the contrast between green and red refers directly to the social present of a state run by the military. Another important character in his paintings is the half-naked woman. Her body oozes the odour of desire. Her expression looks either shocked or dazed. She indulges herself in the caress and intimacy ¡V partly resisting the ravage of being violated, and partly expecting the pleasure of arousal. In the artist¡¦s eye, she represents the psyche of some modern-day Chinese women. Handcuffed by both the angst of contemporary life and the constraints of traditional ideology, today¡¦s Chinese women find collected aplomb and shelter hard to come by. To some women, self-respect and self-love has become an unaffordable luxury.
In contrast to the Fighting World of Female Beauty series, works in the Free and Unfettered series all contain images of traditional landscape painting. The mystical Orient is portrayed by the signature combination of soaring mountains interspersed by misty clouds and cascading waterfalls, with shimmers reflected from the rippling waters at the foot of the waterfall. These dreamy scenes are painted in grey and create a texture somewhat like wall paint. Although the traditional format is retained in these paintings, they are devoid of traditional content. This kind of treatment and attitude toward traditional culture is widespread in China¡¦s everyday scenes. Sculptures in the form of miniature landscape in the streets, and the adoption of traditional rooftop motifs on Beijing¡¦s many public buildings are both good examples. This kind of cheap and cheerful adoption of traditional cultural symbols exposes people¡¦s lack of confidence when it comes to their own cultural tradition. The artist feels powerless in this general social atmosphere. But his cultural conscience as an intellectual motivates him to reveal its absurdity and pettiness nonetheless.
Other symbols that often appear in his paintings include galloping horses, flying cranes, gonfalons, armor, maps, and ancient books and texts, etc. These visual symbols are intermingled with and wrapped around by dancing and writhing human bodies. The result? A concoction of disarrayed and entangled elements, somewhat like a pile of bric-a-brac spiraling up into a tornado. This, in itself, is a powerful and distinct visual metaphor. In the past century or more, the corrupt Chinese feudal system was under continuous attack from Western civilization and gradually lost its footing. Lu Peng¡¦s paintings portray people stuck in cultural interstices ¡V those who have lost touch with their own cultural base yet fail to identify with the contemporary alternative. Therefore the tones of the picture are edgy, the people dismayed and frightened, the symbols and images intertwined and entangled. Despite all of that, some people refuse to sink into dejection, nor will they go with the muddy flow. Instead, some of them immigrate overseas, some find solace in religion, while others adopt Zhuangzi¡¦s philosophy of unbounded ease and freedom; observing China¡¦s social vicissitudes with a cool eye. Lu Peng belongs to the last category. He observes and records the era and its accompanying culturo-psychological schemata as an outsider with the attitude of a free and unfettered wanderer.
In many respects, Lu Peng does not fit in with the stereotype we have of artists. He is thorough but relaxed, disciplined but easy-going. He feels a lot more like a teacher or a doctor. But he is an artist after all, and a brilliant one too. He is also a very genuine person. Thus unfortunately in the face of moral obligations, he still finds it nearly impossible to be free and unfettered, like a wanderer and an onlooker.
Noted art critic and director of Joey Art Gallery, Beijing