Searching for the Identity of “We” in the Dynamism of Time and Space

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My Impression of Recent Artwork by Rona Hu -- Li Song

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? By Paul Gauguin, 1897, oil on canvas

How should “we” be defined? When French post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin unveiled his painting titled “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” in 1897 (see inserted picture) Artists have been more than willing to join the philosophers, historians and politicians in the debate on the responsibilities of social evolution. The identity of “we” can only be defined with constant reflection and comparison. Imagination is an important source of thought development. In particular, an imagination thoroughly connected with history can enrich the life of contemporaries. The imagination, when applied through artistic lenses, can uplift the human spirit in the face of secular pains, as well as purify the human mind, cultivate fine temperament, and foster compassionate sentiments. The recent collection of brightly colored and meticulously detailed oil paintings by the artist Rona Hu exhibits her own investigation and deep reflection of the role of cultural and social history: “We” the past and “they” the contemporary, groups and individuals, past and present, the east and the west, the poetic and reality, and contrast and connection all come to co-exist in her paintings. In particular, the series of two partially torn pictures coming together amid a backdrop of vividly contrasting colors depicts the dynamism of time and space, demonstrating in a dramatized fashion changes and contrasts over long periods of time.

The artist tries to characterize the generational change with “chiaroscuro”: black and white (and/or often faded) colors along with flaming red tune paints a picture of the past and is the backdrop for a collection of dignified heroes. These men and women epitomize a generation of aspirants precariously short on basic necessities but full of ambitions and aspirations. Meanwhile, the other end of the chiaroscuro is characterized by a colorful and indulgent contemporary world: a world full of garish, modern ladies, gadgets-indulgent children, never-ending jam of urban traffic, polluted air, ubiquitous yet strangely detached communication, and the sorrowful financial crises. This vibrant world of today is so much full of material goods, but has ironically become increasingly dependent upon materialism for happiness and its standards. “Globalization” has expanded the cultural landscape of “we”, yet forced a diverse world into boredom of uniformity.

It would appear to me that the artist is trying to iron out an often compressed and wrinkled history, painting today’s world in contrast with an already fading memory.

As a result, she primarily views the canvas as a platform to express her reflection of life and to continuously search for the identity of herself. She is pursuing her childhood dream, that is singing the melody of life in pure artistic form, yet at the same time she uses the brush and canvas to portray the dynamism of the life and society, having a dialogue with younger generation, with history, with foreigners simultaneously. She represents “we” the past and portrays her subjects through the lens of multiple angles, connecting the dots between the revolutionary past and the “reform and opening” contemporary, between the simplicity of the golden era and the chaos of the information age, and between oriental gentleness and grace and western emotion and precision.

Towards this end, the artist has observed every detail of the Terra Cotta Warriors in the Western museum, of an Asian boy’s meditation in front of Van Gogh’s masterpiece, and of differing aspirations of an interracially married couple. She is no doubt an idealist, immersed in childhood fairy tales, critic of contemporary cultural clash and yearning for justice and perfection.

The invisible “we” observing the history in the artist’s paintings shows the same mettle of an idealist. Her style differs markedly from those of traditional Chinese ink and wash paintings as well as French post-impressionistic oil paintings. Her paintings have all the trappings of the relaxed, witty, helpless and humorous elements often associated with the contemporary arts.

(Li Song, Famous Art Critic, Dean and Professor in Beijing University, College of Fine Art)

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