BEST WISHES TO A TRAVELER
Dong Qichang of the Ming Dynasty of China once said in On the Principles of Painting, “One should read ten thousand books, and travel ten thousand miles. Only then one can get rid of the mundane in one’s life and creates remarkable views in one’s heart.” His theory of painting has become the key for all Chinese painters since then. So Chinese painters love to travel far and wide to expand their knowledge and views. But, in the past, the literati were limited in the extent of their travels, having to rely on slow means of transportation in an agricultural society. And one often sees exaggerated expressions such as “The Number One Mountain of the World” because they couldn’t have known that there are bigger mountains than the one they saw. They had to be content with marveling at the mystical abilities of the legendary monkey who would be able to travel thousands of miles in a day. In comparison, such travels become easy in modern days of traveling by air. The fundamental technological advance made it possible for us modern painters to experience all spectacular sceneries within the country as well as abroad. This advantage, however, was made available to us only from the 80s on, after the policy of reform and opening up. And Zhiyuan Cong is among the fortunate painters who were able to go across the Pacific, to the United States, and started his long journeys for art.
The hardships of someone on a long journey are only known to himself. It is harder too for someone who not only travels long but also has to be immersed in the culture he finds himself in. Not only that, but in the process of immersion, he can still keep his own identity. Zhiyuan Cong, like other painters of his generation who went abroad to study, had already a stable profession and had made quite an achievement in the art circle before leaving. He was already an established professor of Chinese art at Nanjing Arts Institute in the 80s. His works of art were chosen to participate in national art exhibitions in 1974. His fine brushwork figure paintings and his master’s thesis had been well received by his predecessors and contemporaries. But at the push of the times, he chose to go to the United States, a country where dreams come true for numerous Chinese, and re-started a new journey of life. He began as a new art student, and then became a teacher of art, from Indiana to New Jersey he went through several institutions of higher education. The biggest change for him is the change of focus in his profession, having embarked on the new path of printmaking, as a student, as an artist and as a teacher. Many learners before him, from the early 20th century, when Li Tiefu, who went to the United States to study and to paint, to the end of 20th century, none of them had made much of a splash in the United States. But today, in the 21st century, Zhiyuan Cong as professor of art in the Printmaking Department of William Patterson University, and many others like him in other art institutions of higher education have established not an insignificant presence. And what is more important, they have become the bridge of art communication between the two countries.
Zhiyuan Cong and many other professors of art from China in the United States like him can’t avoid the clash between east and west arts, and they all have to face the reality of the union between the two. Zhiyuan Cong, who has the advantage of having received an education of both the east and west arts, benefitted from China’s policy the reform and opening up and exposed to the trends of the modern art, experienced the fission of contemporary western art, and participated in the transformation and reunion of arts of the east and west. With all this, when he was at the forefront of the clash between the east and west cultures, he could rise to the occasion, apply his understanding of the east and west arts, merge them and come out with his unique personal art style, a path in the art world of the United Stated walked by an artist from the east. Zhiyuan Cong has been charting and pursuing this journey more than twenty years. He aimed far and he has journeyed far, and now he is bringing to us exciting and remarkable sceneries along his long journeys.
Zhiyuan Cong is from China, his art is imbued with Chinese art and carries with it the soul of Chinese art. It’s his strong belief that an artist has to be conversant with the old and the new and to be able to unite the east and west before he can reach the cultural zenith, to create art for the eternity among the cultural heritage. He also believes that nature is the source of art creation and that an artist needs to draw his inspiration from nature and real life. Only thus could he be able to create art of everlasting value. He insists that the revelation of the mind is an artist’s intuitive sense of and spiritual transcendence of the external world, an individual experience and instantaneous eternity. His pursuit is a perfection of individuality enriched by an artistic spirit, an expression of his inner world based on tradition, and a unification of himself with his art.
Zhiyuan Cong rides the trends of his time, but he never goes with the flow. On one hand, his art draws from the southern style of Chinese paintings, delicate and spontaneous; on the other, he is after northern style of Chinese paintings, majestic and heavy; he endeavors to express the brush strokes of the typical ink wash paintings, and the delicacy and magnificence of the realistic techniques. His art shows the eastern poetics and appeal while drawing from western exquisiteness of structure and form. In the United States, he is therefore considered an artist from China; while in China, he is viewed as an artist who comes afar from the United States. He resides in the border zone between the east and west, at the crossroads of the east and west. Only someone with a clear direction will not go astray in such a situation, and build an artistic path that suits himself, thus journeying further and further.
A traveler may take a break and look back. Zhiyuan Cong is coming back in June to hold the largest exhibition of his works in the National Museum of China. This is a milestone for his achievements, and a starting point for his future journeys. The exhibition is divided in four sections: 1. Tradition and Inheritance, including copies of Yongle Palace murals and Jiyi Temple Murals, traditional ink wash paintings, Lithographs and etchings; 2. Nature and Mind, including figure paintings in Shandong, Zhejiang, Sichuan, Qinghai and Tibet that reflect his rich experience in life; 3. Collision and Union, paintings in the United States, such as paintings of the basketball series, scenery series and 911 series; and 4. Passage and Sublimation, focusing on his printmaking series in the United States. These works of art reflect Zhiyuan Cong's determination and intelligence, his persistence and pursuit, and more importantly, his efforts in combining the east and west.
Apart from his great achievements in art, Zhiyuan Cong’s efforts in art promotion are also highlights in his career. In 2009, he founded the Center for Chinese Art at William Paterson University, the first of its kind in the United States. In 2012, he was honored with the Chinese Cultural Ambassador Award by the New Jersey Chinese-American Chamber of Commerce. In 2013, he re-established the Chinese-American Art Faculty Association and was elected its Chair. In 2014, together with China's International Culture Association, he co-founded the Across the Pacific: Face to Face with Masters, a highly successful exchange program between China and America artists.
Journey long relies on determination, and determination prompts one on long journeys and long journeys reflect ones determination. I wish great success to Zhiyuan Cong’s exhibition.
April 21st, 2015
ABOUT LYUSHENG CHEN
Lyusheng Chen is the Deputy Director at the National Museum of China in Beijing.