Wandering in between Visual Symbols

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Dissecting Rona Hu’s Artistic Languages -- Shen wei

(1). “The entire history of paintings has always been a history of visual arts. A change of visual methodology will inevitably be followed by a change in technique. Technique changes in response to the change of visual habit, which in turn is strongly correlated with humanity’s views of the world. When people form certain views of the world, they do so through the lens of such an attitude.”

This is the quote by Hermann Bahr (1863-1934) from his commentary on impressionism.

When I first came across the collection of paintings by Rona Hu, I was instantly reminded of Bahr’s such comment. It was in 1918 when Bahr made the remark. Nearly a century later, the phrase appears to sound passé to those contemporary artists who don’t attach any importance to the visual element in contemporary paintings, many of whom declare visuals dead in today’s art world. Ironically, it appears the painting world has gone through a full circle, returning to where it originally started a century ago.

More specifically, modernism arts had abandoned the traditional way of communication which is emphasizing entertaining visual means, and had instead given way to deliberative lecturing and thinking. A series of “revolutions” in the painting world had rendered the “visual” obsolete and enabled “thinking” to become everything. However, the dilemma starts from here. The essence of artistic language makes people realize that it is counterproductive in trying to seek the liberation of the art from its previous “boundaries”, as it ends up making the art a barrier to human communication. As a consequence, many traditional arts have gone back to their original roots. In line with this thought, painting artists have started to explore the harmonious synchronization of form and content, and of painters and their viewers. This trend makes a strong argument that Bahr’s proclamation should not be passé.

From Rona Hu’s forewords, we detect that she does not seem to care much about those debates about “art” in the artistic circles. All she wants to do is to “tell stories” and “express emotion” through her paintings. In this sense, she is carrying out the original function and meaning of the art.

(2). When viewing the paintings by Rona Hu, my first impression is to notice the meticulous detail and touchy feely features usually associated with female artists. She portrays a series of pictorial symbols with her uniquely feminine and gentle brush strokes.

The presentation of symbolism conveniently cut and paste specific visual examples representative of certain historical or cultural significance. Led by Chinese avant-garde artists under the influence of the international contemporary movement, this modus operandi seems to add a unique authenticity to her “made in China” model. However, all this interestingly acquires different meaning for Rona Hu. The visualized pictures connect directly to her real life experiences and introduce viewers to the pages of her personal file. The artist proclaimed in her foreword “China Melody”: “my heart and passion has never been more than an arm’s length away from the artistic world I often dreamed of being part of. I have never put my paint brush down.”

There is no doubt where she has been dedicating her passion and love from childhood till today: the painting world. She seems to constantly observe, absorb and summarize the visualized world from an artistic point of view. If she impresses upon the viewers many symbolist features in her painted images, it should be known that this is primarily because of her ability to pick out various pieces of her memory that are resonant with those of her contemporaries and with an entire era.

(3).The artist likes to create series of paintings based on specific themes. This facilitates consistency of idea development and harmony of technique and format.

The “Terra Cotta Warriors Aria!” series is clearly the reflection of contemporary world culture, history and daily life. The Terra Cotta Warriors are known around the world to be a typical symbol of China and one of the world’s eight wonders. They are also the carrier of the abstract concept of ancient China. To create this series, Rona thought of the Confucian decry of “breaking down in rite and ethic code and decaying in art and music,” of globalization dragging the human race into an unprecedentedly diverse contemporary world, and of the constant evolution of technology and its inability to adequately cure the rapidly growing emptiness of the human spirit. This thematic collection of paintings resembles the series of “montages” in a movie; it leads the audiences into pipe dreams and fantasies, into various conflicts and illusions and into the tunnels of time and space.

In terms of abstract symbolism, the “Terra Cotta Warriors” represent the real things and the “aria” is just an intangible adjective; in terms of Rona’s search for calm and comfort, the “aria” has the real calming effect while the “Terra Cotta Warriors” are yesterday’s creatures. This is the essence of the aria, but the real meaning of it is still subject to different interpretations and deliberations.

(4). In the “We the Past, They the Contemporary” series, the artist seems to lead us through a journey of her personal experiences.

“We the past” denotes the assembly of all visual memories from the era of China’s planned economy. “They the Contemporary” epitomizes post-modern visual images so inundated in the contemporary world. The artist is trying to peel off the memories of popular images at various points of time in history and present them in the plane of the canvas.

Visually, as the eyes move from one canvas to another, viewers bear witness to revolutionary model operas, military satchels, fashion models and name brand logos, real symbols and abstract memories, all pieced together to tell visual stories. When we look through the symbols, we can appreciate Rona’s knowledge of her native society and comprehension of the world culture.

In contrast to the ideologically influenced Chinese contemporary pop arts, she is displaying the real stories in her series with pop art visual effects, charming viewers with story-telling pleasantry.

(5). In the “One World, One Dream” series, the artist weaves together a series of fairy-tale like gentle images in a light and humorous tone.

On the surface, the artist portrays a series of daily life scenes which come through with “post-modern” flavour and make viewers revel in the charm of gentleness. In fact the paintings, by integrating society, history, humanity, and heart and soul into one subject, enable their viewers to capture the essence of human subsistence through the glimpse of an instant moment and/or an episode of visual images, allowing them to ponder “the relationship between human beings and the surrounding world”.

With Rona Hu’s rich experience in both eastern and western worlds, the artist establishes a firm grip on the true meaning of painting art. From her point of view, painting is not just a profession; it should be the interaction between one’s heart and mind and the outside world.

Needless to say, the artist here attempts to downplay any specific ideology and seeks the common wisdom of humanity. The ultimate aim of this direction is to unveil a beautiful future. From this perspective, this series of paintings should not be simply viewed as the author’s obsession with the magic of the paintbrush; rather it is more a reflection of her attitude towards human subsistence in a harsh contemporary environment.

(6). Goethe once remarked: “The moment we take a glimpse of the world is the moment we sort out the world.”

The collection of Rona Hu’s paintings tells a “dream,” which in the artist’s own words is “to use my brush and my sense of color to reflect my observation of the contemporary world, the world that is simple to understand yet filled with deep meaning, the world that is puzzling but humorous.” This is a conviction worthy of our appreciation.

In today’s art world, imitators overwhelm serious artists, artistic innovations started by avant-garde artists evolve into commercial and profit platforms, while at the same time, the content and techniques of paintings are returning to their roots of visualizing history by sorting out reality.

Alongside this evolution, Rona Hu shows her determination and persistency in pursuing her unique way of artistic creation. Indeed, her visual symbols are the backbone of her painting world. In the time of ubiquitous self-serving artistic concepts, it is refreshing to watch those simple and unadulterated paintings that could only come from the artist’s deep inner soul and feeling. They are pleasant to view and fun to analyse. They will win over the audiences with their unique and individualised creativity.

(Shen Wei, Vice Chairman of Association of Art Critics of Hubei Province)

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