A Metaphysical, Spiritual Conversation

Fang Zhiling



Together with a series of freely-crafted, irregularly-shaped, large dots painted red, yellow, light purple, light green and dark purple, a couple of equally bright, unconstrained fan shapes abundantly rest on the jet-black background, showcasing a simplistic contour, concise color and natural strokes in addition to changes remained while smearing by hand. The artist’s works resemble Joan Miró’s innocent, unworldly qualities but are free of incisive anxiety, featuring a touch of mysteriousness and reservedness like Paul Klee and not touching upon the deadly, religious atmosphere and indicating an inclusively humanistic feel as Pablo Picasso yet shying away from indulgence and addiction in all likelihood. Since the exhibition of his works including “Primavera(2002), and “Dream(2002), John McLean’s abstract paintings have gained wide recognition in China’s art scene.


Dream, 2002, Acrylic on canvas, 199 x 194.5 cm


John McLean was born in 1939 in Liverpool, England to Scottish parents. In 1960, John McLean was then a student at St Andrews University, he happened to see the catalogue “Situation” of the same-titled exhibition of British contemporary, abstract art in London. The artist was largely impressed by the black-and-white photographs of the participating artists who were deeply influenced by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.


John McLean’s paintings had been assuredly influenced by the American abstract expressionist painters up until 1980, the “Capercailzie (1969), “Spring Tide (1979), “Untitled (1974) and “Blue Coast (1976), “Minkin Pink (1984) and “Batoche (Homage to GR and MM)” (1989) were respectively inspired by Jackson Pollock, William Morris, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, all the works were premised on his keen intuition of “zeitgeist”. Comparing with the rather complicated visual structure and mysterious artistic logic of Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich as well as the old-generation abstract artists from Europe including Joan Miró and Paul Klee, the American abstract expressionist art emerged in the 1950s was more concise and straightforward, meanwhile, it was easily closer to the “modern experience” of a new generation grown with the emergence of popular culture.   


Minkin Pink, 1984, Acrylic on canvas, 153.3 x 103.7 cm


Apart from the abstract expressionism, the “pop art” prevailed in Europe and America since 1960 influenced John McLean’s paintings. Such impact was, in particular, well projected in the works including Jacobs Ladder”(1977), “Neuenlage”(1985) and “Duck Leg”(1985). In contrast to the elitist, existentialist characteristics of American abstract expressionist paintings, not only did John McLean’s works incorporate the visuals of industrial printing in “pop art” in terms of color, but they also echoed the buoyant, expressive tone of being “public” and “popular” that the pop art asserted.


Jacob’s Ladder, 1977, Acrylic on canvas, 110.5 x 62.8 cm


John McLean, however, manifestly differs from the American artists. Even though the visual structure and lyrical tone are profoundly influenced by American art, his “internal experience” is utterly rooted in the singular European “tradition of color”, which continuously brings together a bunch of artists from Tiziano Vecellio, Peter Paul Rubens to Eugène Delacroix, Pierre-Auguste Renoi and Henri Matisse as part of the “tradition of color”. If the “structural tradition”, from Leonardo da Vinci, Nicolas Poussin, Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to Paul Cézanne, corresponded to the changes in public order and views, such a rather perceptual “tradition of color” resonates with the subtler and more private “internal experience” in the ever-changing social order and public views. As of 1990s, therefore, it’s not surprising to see that John McLean’s paintings approximated the visual interest of the European artists such as Joan Miró, Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso. Comparing with the American art with an emphasis on the changes of viewpoints and the interest of the times, after all, it was precisely the more profound, affectionate “human nature” behind the intriguing visual appeal of Joan Miró, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.


Based on the simplistic yet offbeat contemporary visuals, the unsophisticated and detached tones, the unpolished but compelling artistic language as well as the sincere and sentimental internal experiences, John McLean’s works since the 1990s such as “Chateauneuf”(1999), “Primavera”(2002), “Dream”(2002), “Solstice”(2008), and “Acrobat”(2011), have unmistakably demonstrated the fully-developed and independent artistic characteristics of a new generation of European abstract artists, utterly suggesting the intense and individual “tradition of color” namely the vitality of the times, which harmoniously corresponds to the variety of new movements and new trends that manifest the “self-fission” of social and cultural views.  



Only one or two lines either smooth or folded or winding are patently presented on the unoccupied surface with a unpainted linen background, which features a minimalist visual hierarchy based on the naturally spread and sunk coloring of the thick charcoal lines, or a multiply-layered visual texture resembling a worn wall as a result of weathering. Portraying the simplicity of “minimalism” and implicit manifestations of “graffiti” or “abstract expressionism”, the artist, however, frees the works from either indifference employed in industry or any kind of indiscipline and indulgence. In the course of “rampant” abstract art in China, Wang Jian’s recent works such asHuantie H6(2016), “17HYD1(2017), “17HYD3(2017) prominently stand out owing to the “minimalist” visuals and intense, obscure and gloomy qualities. 


 7HYD 1, 2017, Acrylic, charcoal and traditional Chinese medicine on canvas, 150 x 180 cm


Wang Jian was born in 1972 in Handan, Hebei province, and worked as a stoker on the steam locomotive after dropping out of high school. He suddenly became interested in reading, as he recalls, “I bought all of the art magazines I was able to get, in addition to literary magazines. Since I felt bored with reading literary stuff, I turned to books about archeology, history and religion”. He ended up with painting afterwords and began with ink wash painting. Being deeply influenced by artists like Gong Xian and Georges Seurat, the works created in 1999 such as “Dreary Background”(1999) and “Pump Factory Street”(1999) attempted to keenly express the delicate yet intense psychological experiences during the new Great Reform of China in a rigorous and flawless form of art.  


Around 2011, Wang Jian underwent a rather serious crisis in the course of his experiment of ink wash painting. The artist abruptly suspected the importance of his own “ink-accumulating laws” that he put a great deal of effort into. Considering the keen psychological experience, he wondered, was the realistic, spiritual smearing more natural than the reserved, impeccable visual atmosphere? This triggered the series “Nanxin Yard(2001)of varied, complicated artistic language in addition to theHappy Themes(2001) in which the artist integrated the delicacy of ink wash painting and the simplistic geometric shapes. However, what followed was a harsher situation, that is, the “spiritual fragments” created out of vivid and lively visuals turned out to submerge in the varied labyrinths of artistic language, and fail to express the strongly-felt sensations that were attached to a sense of articulate imprint of the times. Up until 2006, through the works including “Where the Ongoing Dreams Are”(2006) and “When the Rivers through the City Intersect at a Distant Point”(2006), the artist “disintegrated” the landscape and reconfirmed that he had again gone on the “right track” as long as he reached the “trinity” of straightforward images, layered strokes, and forceful emotions.  


Nanxin Yard 4, 2001, Ink on handmade hemp paper, 24 x 31 cm 


The following year brought an outbreak of “emotion expressing” to Wang Jian. His works such as “When the Rivers through the City Intersect at a Distant Point”(2006) readily broadened his horizon in two aspects, firstly, in “Image”(2007) and “Undefined Noise”(2007), the landscape was further simplified while the artistic language and emotions were enhanced, secondly, in “Rivers Converted to Roads after Repeated Transformations”(2007), “The Slaughtered Land”(2007) and “The Axis of North City”(2007), the landscape, owing to the change of perspective, was transformed from everyday scene to a more distant, overlooking “topographic map”. In such a perspective, the outer contours and features of “landscape” appeared to be pulled away, becoming a construction of point, line and plane and thus completely being converted from figurative to abstract form. 


Accordingly, not considering the specification of visuals as the fetters of his artistic creation anymore, Wang Jian allowed himself for a unfettered “abstract” stage. Soon after, he easily moved to a wide range of abstract vocabulary, such as the bold, unconstrained “No Words on the Other Shore”(2007), the graffiti-inspired “Yabu in Love”(2007), the guileless, archaic “Prehistoric”(2007) and “Yun Gang”(2007) as well as the indifferent, obscure “Late Winter”(2007) and “The City in 2007”(2007). Because of the concurrent experiments in terms of both language and psychology, the diverse abstract vocabulary in the works were at its finest in a charismatic, dynamic manner.   


By 2008, Wang Jian’s experiment in painting focused on a kind of arbitrary, graffiti-like abstract style, however, unlike the expressionist works such as “The Curtain of the Moon”(2007) and “Yabu in Love”(2007) dominated by the graffiti-inspired “figurative symbols”, in the series “Black Noise”(2008) and “Two Lines Intersected along the Skyline”(2008), “The Windmills” (2008) and “2”(2008), there were more genuine abstract paintings predominated by the“X” as a symbol throughout. The recurrence of such a symbol full of resolute and denying meanings implied the enhancement of the artist’s own subjective will together with his reflections on excessively subtle, psychological experiences in the past behind the rich vocabulary. 


Since the “Diagonal Lines” created in 2008, Wang Jian gradually turned his abstract paintings to the minimalist-influenced “diagonal” stage. When creating the series including “Shuang Bridge” (2013-2014) and “Jiang Nan”(2015-2016), the resolute meaning and denial that the “X” portrayed had been transformed into a way of his metaphysical, obscure and reserved investigation into the world. Comparing with the passionate, sentimental, fragmented “abstract expressionist” stage, “Shuang Bridge” and “Jiang Nan” functioned as a tranquil consideration as a whole. Despite the titles “Shuang Bridge” and “Jiang Nan”, such a collection consisting of dense yet scattered, intersected lines in varied length and density, in effect, turned out to be a metaphysical interpretation of the realistic society in his way. 


Yabu in Love,2007,Mixed material on canvas,160 x 210 cm


The 2016 series “Huantie” marked another turn of Wang Jian. On the one hand, “Huantie H12”(2016) and “Huantie H10”(2016) extended the jet-black background and simplistic lines and the acute, sensitive emotions that had been exhibited throughout the works such as “Jiang Nan H5”(2015); on the other hand, in the works “Huantie H6”(2016) and “Huantie H8”(2016), the jet-black background was altered to the natural linen, and lines were finished along with spreading marks. More importantly, the lines appeared to faintly depict “images”, which served as a symbolized physical element indistinctly concealed in the disconnected and thick lines, however, “Huantie H3”(2016) and “Huantie H4”(2016) showcased more unequivocal “shapes” of lines and the return of enriched layers of the background.


From “Huantie H3”(2016) to the 2017 series “17HYD”(2017), in general, Wang Jian’s painting practice had fallen into a more diversified, liberal “comprehensive phase”. Wang Jian’s “comprehensively abstract paintings” have just begun up to now, however, it somehow indicates another turn of his spiritual concerns, in other words, comparing with the metaphysically spiritual investigation into the social realities throughout the works such as “Diagonal Lines”, “Shuang Bridge” and “Jiang Nan”, the spiritual experiences portrayed in “Huantie H3”(2016) as well as “Huantie H6”(2016) and “17HYD”(2017) articulately focus on a kind of enthusiasm entangled with calmness, obscurity, profoundness and restlessness. And such a livable affection is precisely the intrinsic source of the return of vibrant visuals.


Huantie H6, 2016,Charcoal on canvas,100 x 120 cm



Being intensely influenced by “abstract expressionism” together with a number of European masters of painting such as Joan Miró and Henri Matisse, however, the affecting passion for life displayed in John McLean’s paintings, needless to say, naturally originates from his genuine, authentic psychological experience, which can be seen through the sublime “Capercailzie”(1969), the delicately provoking “Minkin Pink”(1984), the exuberant “Reach”(1994), the tranquil and genial “Shoal”(1992), the demure yet brilliant “Primavera”(2002) as well as the subdued but mellow “Acrobat”(2011). The artist has transformed the abstract contours, colors, strokes into melodious notes that may allow us to be as delighted as “singing and dancing”.


Shoal, 1992, Acrylic on canvas, 81 x 229 cm


Wang Jian has converted abstract form from “abstract expressionism” to “minimalism” and to “comprehensive phase”, and his internal experience has ranged from intense social concerns to enigmatic, impenetrable imaginations about the world and to cautious, restless involvement in life, however, he contends that he has never dissociated his painting practice from his own “emotional memory”, instead, he views such memory as a “spiritual autobiography” of his own.


John McLean mentioned that the “thought” was simply reflected in his art in a way resembling “singing and dancing”, while Wang Jian argued, “Memory is embedded in each work of his paintings”. When it comes to the Korean ceramic art that had affected himself, as John McLean stated, he was fairly interested in the simple colors on the surface of the painted ceramic wares, in particular, the brown enamel was so inspiring to him. He also noted that each stroke was done with an effortless finish, each mark implied a complete set of motions such as of hands and brushes instead of a thoughtless process of making, such a way was quite agreeable to him. Considering his understanding of architecture at home and abroad, Wang Jian explained, “The straight-outlined, Gothic buildings seem to constantly rise, as if they emanate from above and approach God and all saints. Take the Forbidden City as an example, there are no high buildings inside of the Forbidden City, however, in terms of Chinese architecture, there is unexceptionally a straight ‘divine’ pathway between buildings, pedestrians are supposed to walk on either side of it. Straight lines readily give rise to the ultimate level of spirituality, only through straight lines could the prominence be manifested”. And John McLean added, “In abstract paintings, there are more things to discover, more possibility to explore”. Wang Jian also suggested, “I am attempting to perceive the spirituality of lines as well as the abstract, spacious relationship between straight lines and curves and their internal association with the spirituality of human beings”.


As opposed to the abstract painting that typically functions as an indication of “beauty of form”, when talking about “abstract painting”, both John McLean and Wang Jian happened to mention the relationship between abstract painting and their own “thoughts”, “memories” and “spirituality”. With extraordinary understandings of visual forms and abilities to “discover more possibilities” in abstract paintings and to “perceive” the correlation between the straight, curved lines and the spirituality of human beings, both of them chose to insist on practicing abstract painting.


The 1960s was not only a decade for John McLean to start his artistic career, but it was also an era that enabled the Western societies to progressively recover from the consequences of World War II and prompt the social and economic development, allowing the popular culture to broadly spread through Europe and America along with the prevailing commercialization. In terms of ideology and culture, it was an age of the increasingly trending “postmodernism” of all forms. The once predominant “abstract expressionism” was being replaced with the rather postmodern artistic trends such as “pop art”, “conceptual art”, “video art”, and “installation art”. With the rampantly widespread “death of painting”, painting (not to mention the abstract painting) had been progressively excluded from the “contemporary artistic system”. When it comes to Wang Jian’s comeback to abstract painting, it was also an era that enabled China to prompt its social and economic growth and widely spread popular culture, and to welcome the unprecedented rise of “postmodernist” consciousness, meanwhile, it was an age in which the “contemporary art” of all kinds predominated the academic trends of Chinese art and the less “contemporary” abstract painting was academically paid little attention to. Accurately in such a context, the two artists who live thousands of miles apart at different age ultimately ended up with practicing abstract painting in a way “without compromising or drifting aimlessly”.


Although the artistic language and spiritual implication of the two artists’ abstract paintings are largely different from each other, their artistic works turned out to manifestly exhibit their own psychological experiences and also exquisitely touch upon a kind of genuine “trait of the times” since the restlessness of the society diminishes bit by bit and the prevailing trends of up-to-date concept pass by. In other words, John McLean’s elegance and affection simply imply the authenticity of the post-existentialist Europeans, meanwhile, behind the intense, obscure vocabulary of abstract painting, there is precisely a hint of the forbearance and anxiety among the post-1970 artists who are getting more and more mature in many ways. Thus, painting as a form of art is no longer the carrier of “avant-garde” or “contemporary” concepts, at this point, the visual vocabulary of “beauty of form” has been eventually transformed into complicated and intensified psychological experiences. The idea of exploring and appreciating the spirituality of individuals as well as the times in a rather concise visual form, in all likelihood, could be of one the shared commonalities between both John McLean and Wang Jian’s abstract paintings, again, it is an essentially distinctive feature of the “contemporary art”, which has somehow exempted from extravagance and returned to the poetic quality of its own.