"Eastern Abstraction VS Western Figuration--Tan Ping Dialogue with Luciano Castelli", a 10-day exhibition opened on May 21 at the National Art Museum of China, featuring the work of artists Luciano Castelli, from Switzerland, and China's Tan Ping.
The exhibition offers insight into the practice of contemporary Chinese oil painting, which developed largely independently of neo-expressionism, said Huang Mei, from Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany, the curator of the exhibition.
It is for this reason domestic art critics have hailed the arrival of Castelli, a representative of neo-expressionism painting who has been active since the 1980s.
Tan is already established in China and his style of neo-expressionism is quickly winning the praise of Western art critics for its underlying oriental philosophy.
"Castelli and Tan had not met before the exhibition, but their practices resonate with each other, and both are excited about the exhibition. Most importantly, they both have a desire to push their practices forward," said Huang, who has been active in facilitating Sino-German cultural exchanges for decades.
Castelli, 64, said that he was on board with the exhibition as soon as Huang showed him photos of Tan's works.
Unlike traditional oil painters, Tan, 55, vice president of the Chinese National Academy of Arts, has turned his back on his easel. Instead, he lays his canvas horizontally and looks down when painting. He also refuses to sign his works as, he believes, even a tiny mark would intrude on the composition and could distract the viewer.
"There is no up and down, left or right in my paintings. Nor is there a right way to appreciate them. Whatever direction the viewer prefers is the right way," said Tan.
When Huang showed Tan pictures of Castelli's paintings, Tan said he immediately recognized the painter.
"I have difficulty remembering foreign names, but his works were familiar. When I was studying in Berlin, neo-expressionism was such a hit," he said.
Installed on the back wall of the exhibition hall, Castelli's six revolving paintings, which were especially commissioned for this exhibition, juxtapose Tan's monochromatic static works on cubes on the ground.
"In this space, Castelli displays infinite freedom and movement while Tan shows calmness and restraint," said Huang.
"His paintings revolve, so he paints very fast. And he paints with his body. Every stoke speaks with a power," said Tan when asked to comment on Castelli in a panel discussion on Eastern and Western art dialogue before the exhibition opened.
Chen Rongyi, director of the Meilun Art Museum in Changsha, Hunan Province, said: "Although one is from the West and the other is from the East, they are both playful boys. Castelli might like painting in a broad avenue while Tan might prefer to paint in an alley; the former being flamboyant and the latter temperate. But they are equally expressive."
Western artists have been exposed to oil painting for much longer than their Chinese counterparts, as realistic ink and wash painting has dominated Chinese practice for thousands of years.
Academic art schooling in China continued to focus on realistic representations until after the opening-up and reform drive began in the early 1980s, a time when neo-expressionism highlighting subversive power, impulsive instincts and emotional expression was popular in the West. Such a style, using figurative images to express abstract thoughts, excited Chinese oil painters who were eager to explore abstraction.
At the seminar at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CCAFA), Huang described Castelli's experiments with a variety of art forms since 1980s, including forays into punk rock, film, photography, sculpture and performance art.
A number of students were taken aback by his chaotic youth and were bewildered as to how he had survived such a decadent period.
Tan, himself a former vice president of the CCAFA, said that Castelli's flamboyant and subversive painting style was cultivated by Western culture.
"China's art schools put a lot of emphasis on aestheticism. Castelli was free to try different kinds of art forms when he was young but students here have little exposure to cross-discipline artistic practice," said Tan on the sidelines of the panel.
Huang thinks that it is because of his rich experiences that Castelli can use his paintbrush to express music and lyrics on the canvas, making his expression of the love of hedonism more visually stunning.
Tan agrees that without a rich life experience and a familiarity with different art forms, an artist can hardly make new breakthroughs. "This is what the Chinese artist lacks", he said.
Gao Chenyang, 73, a landscape painter who attended the exhibition, said he preferred Tan's work.
"With only a few strokes here, I could see a beautiful forest," said Gao. In contrast, he found Castelli's pieces "a bit restless".
"Art appreciation is based on intuition. Intuition means you can not explain why but the reasons are there, perhaps buried deep down in your own culture and life experiences," said he.
Gao doesn't agree that abstract art is foreign to the Chinese audience.
"Be it figurative or abstract, it is a visual representation. What people see depends on what is in their mind. Chinese calligraphy is abstract, but if you wish, a single stroke can express the longing of thirty horses galloping toward a bubbling spring," he said.
Tan did admit that however much he tried, he could not cast off his own culture and training.
"I used to think I was one of the flamboyant Chinese abstract oil painters. But next to Castelli's art, I am more like a Tai Chi player who is playing alone quietly and slowly. Castelli is like a passionate boxer on a stage," He said.
"But you never know. If my works are displayed with someone else's, I might be the one who takes up the boxing role. This is the charisma of art," said Tan.
After the Beijing exhibition, the show will continue on to Shanghai, Zurich and Geneva.