“Landscape after Wu Zhen” by Wang Yuanqi.
Image: Honolulu Academy of Arts

Sweeping landscapes flatten perceptions of Chinese painting

Art / The Honolulu Academy of Art is famous for the quality of its Asian art collection and the shows it puts together, so it’s easy to take “Masterpieces of Landscape Painting from the Forbidden City” for granted. That truly definitive art from China’s Forbidden City is on display for regular people in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a kind of satisfaction in and of itself–but only if you make the visit.

This work represents the distant foundation of the utterly casual understanding and ignorance of Chinese landscape painting that most of us have. Everything from the decor of restaurants and hotels to tourist junk, advertising materials and the pursuits of Sunday painters have been influenced by the often radical and experimental aesthetics collected in this show.

We all recognize signatures of the long vertical or horizontal formats: the almost-clickable elegance of the bright red chops; the multitude of brush stroke styles of applying ink to paper or silk; ancient cloud-wrapped mountain ranges, forests, cliff-leaping waterfalls, rivers; appearances by solitary sages, fishermen and woodcutters. Think about those shots of villages, landscapes and palaces in the animated Kung Fu Panda, and it may be easier to consider the effect that these painters have had almost 500 years later.

Although there are no overt references to popular culture in the show, the curator and exhibition designers have put great effort into offering the audience something more than walls hung end-to-end with scrolls, culminating with gift shop postcards and a catalog. Visitors can learn how to read the paintings and put them in historical, technical and aesthetic context. This is a dynamic, explorative space for encountering the paintings. Whether passing through a cloud-shaped archway between sections or contemplating an idealized reconstruction of a painter’s studio, the show’s artfully restrained Imagineering avoids stereotypes of Chinese or art institution culture.

No scroll simply hangs or lies flat against a plain white surface. Instead, each is protectively framed in red, yellow or green, isolated from its neighbors, inviting the individual to contemplate. This is particularly useful for properly experiencing works like Wen Zhengming’s “The Seven Junipers”–a startling movie-without-frames that unifies deep spiritual symbolism with a visual narrative, an experiment in depth perception and active manipulation of the viewer’s perception.

One can look up from pieces like this and see samples of the painters’ poetry boldly crossing some walls. This back-and-forth between images and words, plus timelines, visual guides and QR codes that link smartphones to supplemental videos, creates a rich resonance that grounds the viewer’s experience in the present. The gulf of time between the painters and us is thereby crossed via design and technology. Where a collector once added a stamp and a comment at the border of a scroll, we can now carry on the conversation about these works through tweets and status updates.

But what about the work itself? Here’s what viewers may want to keep in mind, especially if they lack a background in Chinese art history: 1) Though many of these paintings refer to actual places and features found in nature, all of these landscapes are imaginary. As explorations of technique and expression, they are no more “real” or less compelling than the scenery created for Avatar; 2) The paintings frequently reference, appropriate and remix each other as part of an ongoing dialog between the artists; and 3) The painters were part of the “literati” movement of non-professional, multidisciplinary personalities that worked in painting, poetry, philosophy, calligraphy and even government.

Every painting has a story behind it and they frequently surprise with how directly they might address our current situations. Take Ni Zan’s “Secluded Stream and Cold Pines,” a painting the anti-political artist gave to a contemporary who was going into government service. The poem accompanying this stark, pure landscape describes the health dangers of city life and declares the painting to be a “call to retirement.” How far is this from the sentiment behind idealized images forwarded between cubicle-dwellers?

“Forbidden City” is great by default, by virtue of content that, as Academy director Stephan Jost pointed out, “you will never get to see again in your lifetime…anywhere.” What makes the show significant, however, are the possibilities offered to the viewer who brings an appreciation for, say, manga (Japanese comics), computer graphics, surrealism or the pleasures of close and careful observation. If that isn’t enough, everyone should see Wang Yuanqi’s “Landscape After Wu Zhen,” and try to take home a bit of mana from a painting which once hung in the private study of the Kangxi Emperor’s Hall of Mental Cultivation.

Exhibit runs through Sun., 1/8/12.