This is Nothing more than a Painting

I have been presented with a collection of Tu Xi’s oeuvre, the year of 2015 as a watershed for the two files. Tu gave me no special mention about the classification, so I’m wondering whether he deliberately did it so. Nevertheless, poring over these artificially divided works, I discover something intriguing, a common formal attribute among the post-2015 ones: the separation between the image and the frame. In other words, he manages to isolate the image from the frame in the traditional sense by fragmentizd and irregularized edges, a practice referring to the signified/signifier correlation by linguistic Saussure rather than the sense of the form.

The majority of paintings spanning from the ancient times to the contemporary have a unitary space of the image and the frame, a metaphor for the unification between the pictorial space in the frame and the real space outside the frame. Put another way, the signified and conceptual real world, together with its signifier of the painting, forms a basis structuralism for the real-world, a symbolic linguistic structure of time and space, and a first-tier linguistic system about the concept of time and space. Entering into the second layer of linguistic system as a sign, the first layer transforms into a new signifier denoting the concept of the real. Following this logic, a progressive metaphor appears: the image signifies the pictorial space, which signifies the real space.

However, by separating the image and the frame, Tu Xi disrupts the first layer of ‘image-pictorial space’ structure and imbalances the equation between the pictorial space the real space. I wonder why he did this and have to turn to the origin of the optic principles in painting, i.e. the visual and cultural experience in human history.

Speaking of which, we have to delve into the evolvement of our ways to observing the world. Taking a look at the childish doodling or the rock paintings from early human history, we can detect two characteristics of the visual behavior in human instinct: subjectivity and motility. They feature distinctively in the spontaneous folk art in all the civilizations, unaffected by professional training, as well as in Chinese visual traditions before the observational reform of the painting-centered western art in the last century. Therefore, the physical structure of the eye, our visual device, rules that it is by way of the optical difference between the two eyes, that the sense of depth and space is acquired. To explore further, the optical difference comes from the reception and subjective processing of a variety of optical signals with the movement of our eyes. But everything changed with the advent of photography.

Then the question arises: what on earth is photography? In the narrower sense of the term, the invention of the Daguerreotype and the application of the photographic film have both been seen as the birthmark of photography as a visual art form, which, in my view, is an isolated and material way of defining the phenomenon. Photography, as a culture, appeared far in the distant past in the broader perspective of human visual and cultural history. The pinhole camera, alongside the focus perspective image brought about by the development of the optic perspective and glass processing technology, already hailed the visual reform different from the human instinctive visual experience. An earlier experiment in which street buildings that were constructed in the beginning period of the Renaissance and hadn’t undergone much change were photographed to be compared with their contemporary pictures shows that these pictures were created in accordance with the principle of focus imaging based on the optical perspective. There is also evidence among the contemporary worksheets and notes of architects and painters that it was after the discovery of the camera obscura and optic perspective that the accurate images with focus perspective were made by imitating the photos. Later, studies on Vermeer, the seventeenth century artist from the Netherlands shows that the working principles of the optic perspective and specular reflection making images on ground glass was commonly used by contemporary artists.

The evidence listed above shows that the photographic visual culture was initiated long before the physical invention of the silver plate and film used to create photo-copies, for the virtual three-dimensional image making on brown paper and ground glass had been established on the basis of the focus perspective. The only difference lies in the way of remaking the copies. In the visual nature of things, images drawn by painters copying the floating shadows on brown paper and ground glass on the basis of the focus perspective, are identical to those produced by the silver-plate and film photography, thus proving the argument that the broad sense of photographic visual culture was born long before the creation of photography in the narrower sense.

The initiation of the photographic visual culture brought radical changes to the human experience in the civilized world, in which the instrumental and rational way of thinking took as the only scientific outcome the visual misperception, an in-depth dimensional world built by virtual perspectival relations between light and shadow. Guided by this “scientific” way of observation, an objective world independent from the visual focus of observers was deduced in the classic physics, and the three-dimensional structure constitutes the cognitive basis in the observation of the parallel world of objectivity. In this light, the shadows made on the principles of focus perspective was elevated to the level of visual culture in the history of visual history, and was merged into the mainstream culture as the law of visual experience and spatial structure. Insofar as the painting process is concerned, even in those loosely following the copying process of shadow and light, people would close one of their eyes or narrow them to imitate the photographic visual impression of the optic perspective; sometimes, they would even try to coordinate the visual world with the focus perspective principle by creating a virtual horizon.

In the light of this tendency, paintings made from copying light and shadow on the principle of focus perspective were edging towards photography than ever before, and the painting theory and practice after the gestation of modernism in art thinking have been invariably attempting to disrupt the three-dimensional illusion through assorted means. With the dissolving of the legendary focus alienated from the objective world, the observer, calm and objective born with the observational focus, has vaporized. In essence, the scientific and progressive photography and its attendant visual and cultural experiences have been reversed so as to return to the more original and instinctive human visions.

When it comes to traditional Chinese paintings before their reformation by the western style following the focus perspective in the last century, they are more representative of the visual instincts, that is, subjectivity and motility, a unified concept in the human perceiving process in that subjectivity rules that objects of interest should be emphasized and magnified as opposed to those stirring no sentimental feelings, and motility features in the way human perceive his surroundings to make a comprehensive impression. In contrast, the photographic observation of the world forces the observer to make fragmented and isolated visual pieces in a static manner and mechanically places all the details without selection, an automatic process quite in discord with the natural instincts of human vision. It follows that the photographic observation of the world has its disadvantage in shackling the cultural diversity of human visions by putting into center the mechanical recording of shadows in the visual culture and aesthetics.

The western classic painting, in its observation and understanding of the world, bases itself on the classical philosophical framework of a stable cosmic structure, which relies on the three-dimensional spatial system and the one-way, linear features of time, giving rise to an intriguingly interdependent and circular mindset in which the objective constructs our cognition and knowledge system, which in return, underlies the objective existence.  

However, modern physics reveals a multi-dimensional, or multi-parallel cosmic structure in opposition to the three-dimensional system, and time, contrary to the one-way linear assumption, takes on a curved, or even folded form. The controversy of reason and scientific spirit lies in the fact that the clear and objective framework obtained through scientific reasoning incidentally leads to a subjective chaos.

The photographic technology, once popularized, serves to uproot classical paintings featuring a refined and accurate portrait of the objective world on the one hand, and on the other hand, constructs a visual hierarchy founded on pictures and moving images through modern popular media on the basis of photography. Thus, another paradox comes into existence between the modern visual culture represented by art striving to break down the three-dimensional structure and the mass media in its establishment of a broad and complete photographic visual cultural environment.

Sardonically, Tu Xi points his works to this collective unconscious, folly and chaos issued from the visual experience of mass image. On the surface, their internal space appears to be framed in the logical three-dimensional tradition, but elemental composition suggests otherwise. Semiology proposes the extended connotation onto the signifier from the signified and the formation of the extensive relations by understanding world order in accordance with traditional visual logic and mass pictorial experience. For instance, a connection comes into being between a picture and its object by displacing the image of the signified onto the canvas. On this level, the inherent value of the signifier lies, first, in its adequacy of the three-dimensional space and linear time, which has been rationalized in the conventional sense; second, in its provision of knowledge, memory, truth, concept and relative order. The unconventional composition of space, however, empties the signifier of its meanings and results in its being further manipulated and filled with denotations and connotations, the effects of which play their role on the second signifier/signified level with the primal meaning evacuated. The first level of conventionally constructed meanings lose part of their value on the second but manages to maintain their active elements in preparation for creating new meanings. In terms of form, meanings always stay in a historical moment and is partially transplanted in the rapid displacement. In terms of connotations, the infinite displacement of the signified gives birth to the meaning of the signs. In other words, based on the extended meaning of the signs on the first level after the first layer of relationship is established between the signifier and the signified, another layer of meaning is added to form another signified. Theoretically speaking, this process of addition seems to have no end.

In this sense, new meanings are not created from the corresponding signifier, i.e. paintings, and the signified, the objective world, and paintings are no longer a mechanic and passive copy of the outside world. In Tu Xi’s works, the signified has been reoriented towards the subjective and history.

This leads to the question: what is subjective and historical visual experience?  In Tu Xi’s works, this experience is no longer a fragmented visual episode obtained from an isolated perspective in the traditional understanding of time and space and observation, where an independent and observant subject is represented by an entity of observational visual field following the optic principle of focus perspective. Instead, his pictorial space deviates from the reference to an independent subject and displays more of inter-subjectivity, which features a commonality shared by a variety of minds, their interaction and communication, thus defining the existence of the object and freeing it from both the human mind and the sheer subjective and individual mind of the subject.

French philosophy Jacques Lacan believes that the subject is determined in its existential structure by the otherness, or inter-subjectivity. In this sense, the interplay between the subject and the assumed object has been replaced by the conceptual addition and meaningful merging between subjects. Moreover, the entity of significance cannot be explained with one single work; building its framework, we have to take into consideration the flowing meanings in different works, which have been achieved by the painterliness in his images.

At the point, painterliness in Tu Xi’s works is no longer subservient to the pictorial and emotional expression of images; rather, it has come to stand on its own in a self-sufficient manner. As is said at the beginning of this article, the frayed and irregular edges of his images are there to remind the spectator that “this is nothing more than a picture,” divested of its obligation to represent the well-known, popular and objective world. In addition, the painterly linguistic characteristics of exaggerated and highly visible strokes and unconventional texture manage to free the image from the traditional and mass visual experience. Techniques stop serving for the expression of images; nor are they aesthetic objects. Rather, techniques per se have become a linguistic device and rhetoric.

In conclusion, painterliess in Tu Xi’s works has been underscored not as a style, but as a linguistic rhetoric used to question the constructed knowledge, memory, truth, concept and relative order on the basis of traditional or popular visual experience. In light of this view, his works are subjective and historical with an intersubjective representation of minds and meanings. The rationale can be better explained in the likeness of the shared commonality of human minds to a super brain, the most involved and active area of which is the cortex. It is exactly from the creases in the cortex, signifying the dichotomy of the subjective and the objective and the merging point of knowledge and history, that Tu Xi creates his works.

by Wu Hong, art critic, curator, Editor-in-chief of, and Executive Curator of Songzhuang Contemporary Art Archive Museum