Seeks challenge and delights For Yao Kui
David Pariser, Professor Faculty of Fine Arts, Concordia University.
Translated by Han Zhenhu (Chinese Professor of McGill University of Canada)
Long before the European Romantics discovered the spiritual qualities of high and far-off mountaintops, great artist-monks wandered Chinese peaks and valleys in search of new material and spiritual perspectives. In the tradition of these slightly eccentric, gifted, adventurous and observant artists, Yao Kui also sought a new vantage point. But instead of climbing a mountain, he left the world in which he learned his craft and turned his face to the West. He moved to Canada and began a courageous experiment in looking at a new world through the eyes of an ancient culture. With little material support and with only a basic grasp of both official languages, Yao showed the energy and optimism of a far younger man. He uprooted himself from his native China, and became, in truth a "A stranger in a strange land" - painting and teaching art in Montreal. His family and his art were the only foundation for his new life. I doubt that many artists would be prepared to take an equally perilous jump into an unknown world with only their art to serve them as a parachute. This was indeed a demonstration of Yao's unwavering faith in his chosen path. It is perhaps no coincidence that among those artists that Yao finds inspirational, there is Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). For Gauguin also turned his back on a comfortable existence and voyaged to an exotic land relying only on his energy and his art to sustain him. From looking at the pictures in this collection it should be clear that the daring cultural experiment has been a great success. Trained in the Fine Arts in China, Yao brought his discipline and knowledge with him to Quebec. Here he observed a new world of places, people and things. His paintings reveal his technical mastery, his quiet self-confidence and his delight in new problems and subjects. Psychologists have found that one indication of the artistic temperament is that the true artist has the desire to continuously find new and intriguing problems to solve. Artists are in fact not "problem solvers" but "problem finders". This desire to find ever new and challenging problems is as much a part of Yao's character in life as it is in his art.
The work that he produced in Canada is a unique mixture of his own cultural roots and the new places and views that he observed. His eye is acute and he catches the nuances of faces, landscapes and cityscapes with unerring economy. For example, anyone familiar with Montreal will recognize the majestic apartments that climb skyward along Cote Des Neiges, shown in the highly atmospheric painting Mount Royal Under Snow. Here the artist creates space through the use of the vertical dimension and through the suggestion of space around a set of monumental objects in accordance with longstanding Chinese landscape tradition. An equally successful treatment but this time of a human subject is his Halloween carol-where the North American custom of Trick of Treat is shown in a glowing evocation of childhood pleasure. Here color and line suggest the spirit of the children's delighted play. The children are presented in a shallow pictorial space, like a sculptural frieze that extends the length of the page. Using a more restrained technique in his painting, Montreal Spring the artist demonstrates an eye for complex line and subtle color. This image is a remarkable hybrid consisting of a Chinese drawing technique and a choice of colors that is much like that of the American Impressionist Maurice Prendergast (1861-1924). Like some of the Impressionists of even Matisse (1869-1954), Yao plays with the surface of the picture in such a way that we have a highly decorative flat pattern that functions at the same time to suggest light and space. What is most evident from this collection is that Yao does not compromise with his duty as an artist. He does not choose easy solutions. We will not find the cute touch of the commercial artist here, instead, we see an artist who insists on taking risks and exploring new possibilities.
Although Yao speaks with his own voice, he acknowledges the inspiration of certain key artistic figures. Among his own countrymen there are three who have served as important reference points, the painters Qi Baishi (1863-1957), Ba Da Shanren (1625-1705), and Shih-T'ao (1641-1717) The last two artists are characterized as individualists who, according to the art historian Michael Sullivan, "Made the first sixty years of the Ching Dynasty one of the most creative periods in the history of Chinese painting." These artists reacted to the stale academicism of the literati painters of the time. As might be expected, the artists from whom Yao draws inspiration were strong characters who wished to overthrow the rule of a tradition that had outlived its usefulness. The two individualists believed in the use of powerful and expressive line laid down with certainty and justice. Qi Baishi is a modern Chinese painter. This great master is especially well known for the brush paintings that he completed in later life, of crabs, flowers, shrimp and birds. His approach is economic, for with a minimum of detail he invokes the essential nature of his subject. It is easy enough to see the legacy of these individualistic masters of line, in a work such as the painting titled Highway. This relies on the drama of the brushstroke to bring dead concrete, steel and asphalt to life. The bold verticals and sweeping horizontals dramatize the thundering energy and whirling space of the highway-a quintessentially North American motif-but rendered in the direct language of the masters. Likewise the animated strokes and washes of Bird's Eye View of Toronto owe a lot to the special legacy of the three artists. Techniques that were already well known in the 17th century are applied to a subject that is anything but antique. Here, ink washes and spirited lines help us to see the energy of the sprawling city.
Three western artists have also inspired Yao: Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso (1881-1970). He became acquainted with them in his formal studies, and has maintained an affection for them ever since. We have already spoken of the influence of Gauguin. Matisse is of course a modem master of line, and line is an essential part of Yao's art. Like Yao, Matisse explores the tension between flat, decorative pattern and the suggestion of pictorial space. When it comes to Picasso, Yao is quick to point out that he does not share the Spaniards' fascination with distorted space. What is truly inspiring to Yao is Picasso's playful spirit and his remarkable and long-lived creative energy. These paintings are the results of an on-going exploration of artistic problems that can never be totally solved. And it is the difficulty of the task upon which he has embarked that ensures Yao a long and productive career. For we witness the way that Yao seeks to transplant his own deep and wide ranging knowledge of his own artistic traditions and practices from one cultural context to another. For all that the subject matter may be Western and the approach a mixture of traditional Chinese techniques with clear references to older styles, there is no doubt that the attitude behind the work remains quintessentially Chinese. For it seems to me that in these very successful images we see how it is possible to make foreign approaches and foreign philosophies serve the Chinese point of view. A point of view that seeks challenge delights in difficulty and rejects formulas that lack the breath of life.