One of Cai Jin’s earliest works, still hanging in her studio, resembles a landscape painted predominantly in tones of red toned down to purple and close to black in some areas. It could be a view of rocks in a dense forest landscape of the type favored by Cézanne late in his career although in fact it represents the oor of her studio pulsating with an energy that is seemingly organic. This relationship between what we see on her canvases and naturally induced patterns, whether spreading areas of mold on a damp wall or uni- denti able stains on the oor, is the fundamental rhythm of her art, although for many years more speci c forms tended to obscure what lay behind them.
I am referring to the plant that has been her major source of inspiration since 1990 when she came across a dying meiranjiao plant in her native Anhui province. Something about this dusty, dying plant appealed to her a level beyond rational analysis, leading her to take several rolls of lm of other specimens shortly after. The recently published catalogue of her work lists 345 paintings on this theme painted between 1990 and 2012 and there is no indication that she is going to stop producing them. Painted on canvas, mattresses, shoes, bicycle seats, bathtubs and even the oor, the diverse forms assumed by this ubiquitous plant have come to de ne Cai Jin as an artist and rightly so. Underlying this proliferation of unidenti able, pulsating forms reminiscent to varying degrees of plant matter or bodily organs, natural processes of growth or decay, is another aspect of her artistic personality that has taken a long time to emerge.
For various reasons, personal, artistic and perhaps most importantly, psychic, Cai Jin has watched as her obsession with the meirenjiao has diminished to the extent that it no longer appears in her paintings. On a personal level it is not dif cult to point to the events in her life that might account for shifts in her painting style. Seven years into her exclusive attachment to this motif, she moved to New York and remained there for the next decade. While in New York she gave birth to her daughter Yi Yi and from 1999 to 2001 largely refrained from painting out of concern, misplaced perhaps, that the fumes might harm the baby. In 2007 she returned to Beijing with her daughter.
Cai Jin is a very private person and is generally not helpful when critics ask for help in interpreting her work, replying that no, she is not making feminist statements, that she was not thinking of blood when she started painting meirenjiao on shoes and mattresses and so on. She is no more inclined to discuss her work in formal terms, preferring to speak about the intense pleasure she feels in the act of painting. In fact, in conversation with her about the meaning of her painting she concentrates on the act of painting itself, the pleasure she takes as her paintings grow organically from a small area in one of her increasingly large can- vases, probably about shoulder level where it is easy for her to begin without stretching too far.
This was always the case but now that her paintings are essentially abstract, it is more than ever apparent. In 1991 when the meiranjiao supplanted the human gures she had painted before then, there were only glimpses of the environment in which they grew. Cai Jin grew up in the home of her grandmother in rural Anhui province, and has described how she was always fascinated by natural phenomena such as spreading patterns of mold and mildew and rainwater running down windows. As soon as she found her subject, she began to nd that her paintings grew in the same organic way, one mark generating the next without any preconceived ideas to guide them. In turn what remained of the canvas once the plants had emerged from her brush grew organically, just like the stains with which she identi ed so closely as a child.
In many of them the effect is claustrophobic, the paint layer dense and clotted, but on occasion the space behind opens up and there are intimations of air and space. By 2003 a de nitive break emerged for the rst time as we see if we compare Banana Plant No. 209 with Landscape No. 4. In the painting of the banana plant, a few leaves emerge from a more loosely painted stippled background whereas in the landscape the background becomes foreground. For Cai Jin, when this transformation of one state into another occurs the painting becomes a landscape.
In what sense are these paintings landscapes? To answer this question, we need to look at the way in which her paintings and drawings come into existence. Contrasting with the large expansive paintings in the present exhibition is a series of drawings of fruit, two pears that sit on her dining table, dry and shriveled af- ter she has been observing them for the last two months. Her drawing style is highly unusual, her distinctive mark not a owing line but a tight, circular rhythmic action through which distinct forms emerge only after hours of patient draftsmanship. It seems to be a highly inef cient way of conveying the reality of observed objects but through the varied density of the circular strokes, light in some areas and dense in others, she conveys the three-dimensional solidity of observed objects.
Close observation of the new paintings reveals a similar pattern of curled brush strokes, growing spontane- ously from the initial mark, that fade away into looser areas of brushed color before congealing again into more solid forms. It is an unpredictable process, not easy to describe in words as Cai Jin demonstrates by her own refusal to interpret, but the paintings that result are open to a wide variety of interpretations. Are we looking at nebulae in the night sky or the growth of organisms too small to observe with the naked eye? Are these forms animal, vegetable or mineral in origin? The blue she favors is equally suggestive of the sky and the ocean, the amorphous forms hovering between cloud formations and submarine life. In other words, they offer insights into a realm of great spaciousness, unlike the meirenjiao which stood rmly in the way of such release.
To the artist, then, these paintings are not landscapes in the literal sense but landscapes of the mind, the result of countless hours of wandering on the surface of her canvas wherever her intuitive grasp of the be- havior of her medium guides her. These journeys without destination are like long walks through imaginary landscapes, an activity that causes her a great deal of personal happiness. She loses herself in her painting in a totally agreeable way, the nished works re ecting a new level of psychic satisfaction that mirrors her new-found self- con dence and satisfaction with life as it is.
Without question the return to China after a decade in New York was a key event in her personal develop- ment as an artist. For ten years her contact with the country of her birth was essentially through a few tattered photographs of meirenjiao that she had taken as a young woman. Once back in China, her mood lightened as she re-immersed herself in the day-to-day routines of ordinary life in the country of her birth. Another constant source of pleasure and satisfaction has been the growth of her daughter Yi Yi who likewise seems to have ourished in her new environment, developing considerable skill in Chinese ink painting to the delight of her mother.
Reacting on the meaning of these events as they impacted her painting, Cai Jin felt that her new series of landscapes could best be described as a Return to the Source, to nature as inspiration and source of life and joy. Certainly, they are festive and celebratory in feeling, suggesting rococo skies before gods and goddesses swoop into the picture, rock-pools teaming with life or majestic events in outer space. Like stains on the wall or naturally occurring patterns on the oor, we can read into them what we like!