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2018.04.25 Issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper

Exploring the Currents Connecting Cultures

East and West

By Ilene Dube

It’s hard enough becoming an artist in the U.S. — overcoming obstacles that begin with recognition of “talent” in grade school (forget a particular view of the world and a burning desire to make art if a particular teacher does not recognize “talent”), putting together a portfolio for acceptance into a course of study that may include a path toward an MFA, finding a gallery and a way to earn an income while making art. But how must it be in China, where there are so many more people and fewer opportunities?

Zhiyuan Cong (pronounced Zhiy-uan Ts’ung) grew up in Bencha, Rudong County, in China’s Jiangsu Province. After he finished high school, his artwork was selected for an exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in 1974. “This was a big event in my country,” he says. “From my small countryside town I took a plane to Beijing. My name was in the newspaper and on the radio. A lot of professors from very good schools don’t get into this exhibition, and it changed my life. One of the top Chinese art schools sent a special professor to come to my home town to see me.” As a result he was selected to study art at Nanjing University of the Arts, one of the oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher education in China.

“It’s very tough to get into this university,” says Cong. “They took a five-hour bus ride to my home city to see my work.”

Cong is one of four Chinese American artists whose work makes up the West Windsor Arts Council’s exhibition “Cross Cultural Currents,” on view April 30 to June 22, with an opening reception Sunday, May 6, from 4 to 6 p.m. The exhibition highlights the cultural influences on these contemporary artists, all professors at New Jersey colleges, and is being presented in partnership with the Center for Chinese Art at William Paterson University and the Chinese American Art Faculty Association.

“Through this exhibition we explore the currents that connect East and West as each culture influences the other,” says West Windsor Arts Council Executive Director Aylin Green. “These four artists have roots in China but now live and teach the arts in New Jersey. In seeking the artwork, we considered the influences that informed their work. How has Chinese culture, American culture, and teaching students influenced their art? We were interested in finding common threads and how each artist synthesizes their experiences.

“Professor Cong, for example, was trained as a traditional Chinese painter,” continues Green, “but within that tradition, he developed through generations of masters to synthesize his own style.”

These days Cong is a professor of art at William Paterson University and director of the Center for Chinese Art, which he founded. Since 2009 he has helmed the printmaking center at William Paterson — he teaches etching, lithograpy, screen printing, and monoprinting. The Center for Chinese Art brings visiting professors from China to interested American students for study. These Chinese artists give lectures, demos, and exhibitions, and the program offers an exchange for students seeking to study in China. 

In his own work Cong combines elements of traditional Chinese art with contemporary art “embedded in the cultural heritage of the world … For an artist to reach the peak and achieve artistic eternity, he needs to be conversant with things present and past, drawing from the best of all traditions,” he says.

Chinese Han human figure stone relief combines with what he describes as “an indispensable part of American life, the sport of basketball.” 

He says his 30 years of exposure to Western arts have “given me an ideal opportunity to compare, to develop, and to construct a new artistic language. In the process of immersing myself in Western art, I have deepened my understanding of Chinese arts as well. Before I had the impression that the two art worlds had more differences than similarities, but now I have discovered that there exist more common points between the two, such as two-dimensional space, multiple perspective composition, the pursuit of textural effects, and rhythmical treatment of images with points, lines, and areas.”

The subject of the painting he made as an 18-year-old that brought him so much acclaim was of three young women working a harvest machine. Cong grew up in a rural part of the country, and this is what he would see around him. In fact, after high school graduation he was working on the farm depicted in the painting. “I worked in the field, doing everything. I understood (the farm workers’) feelings.”

His parents were not farmers — his father worked as a factory manager, and his mother was a textile worker — but his grandmother had been a farmer. Cong began making art when he was 11 years old, copying cultural images he saw on the street, such as Mao’s portrait. His parents and neighbors all commended him for doing a great job. 

“With their encouragement I did a bigger one,” and then in high school he was taught to sketch and to copy the masters. He says his teacher was a once-famous artist and museum director, and he was fortunate to have such good teachers encouraging him. “People thought I was very talented, had a gift, but the real gift was the encouragement I received from parents, teachers, and friends. That is why one succeeds, because of the encouragement from teachers.”

After earning a BFA and MFA in Chinese painting from Nanjing Arts Institute, Cong became a professor there, then came to the U.S. in 1984. With limited English-speaking skills, he could not get a professorship or even a scholarship to study. His advisor helped him to find a teaching assistant opportunity in printmaking at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, where English was not essential. He fell in love with printmaking, earning a second MFA in printmaking at Indiana in 1994.

Not only was he handicapped by lack of language abilities when he arrived in the U.S., but he also had no money, he says. Once established with his scholarship, Cong sent for his wife and daughter, now 32. Cong’s wife works as a dental assistant, and his daughter, whom he describes as “talented,” told him “‘Daddy, you work so hard as an artist and it’s so hard to get money,’ so she got a degree in economics and philosophy at Duke University and works for a television commercial public relations company in L.A.” 

The Wayne resident became interested in basketball as subject matter while at Indiana. “Hoosiers are crazy for basketball. It is like their religion, and their excitement inspired me,” he says. “Basketball is the symbol of modern American society.”

After initial success with a basketball print in a state competition — it was purchased by an insurance company and was his first collected print — he continued a series on basketball, and it became the subject of his thesis project, ultimately winning first place in a painting competition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “This is my dream come true, to have my artwork hanging there alongside Manet and Gauguin.” 

At the opening reception for an exhibit at the United Nations in 2003, Cong was repeatedly asked if he liked Matisse, if Matisse was an influence. Cong stood up and announced to the crowd, “I do not study or copy Matisse. I love Matisse, but Matisse studied from me.” That is, Matisse loved Chinese painting and Chinese painting influenced much of his work. “I studied a style that came much earlier than Matisse, centuries earlier, so my background in Chinese art is what you think looks like Matisse,” he told those gathered.

And while his work is now influenced by Western art, Cong says at its heart are three elements from Chinese philosophy: Confucianism, Taoism, and Zen. “Confucians talk about the relationship between people and society, and through art we learn from culture and tradition to understand the relationships between people. From Taoism we learn that artists should paint the natural world, should be inspired by nature. It’s about our relationship to the natural world. With Zen, it’s about your relationship with yourself. Some people are good at relationships with other people but not with themselves. 

‘As an artist it’s important to study, read, and train to gain knowledge about the self. An artist has to extract the feeling from the self so the artwork can follow your heart. Extract what you see, what you feel, the soul of the artist is very important. So these are my three teachers: tradition, nature, and the heart/self. I combine this with composition, color, texture and ideas to create my style.” 

The other artists in “Cross Cultural Currents” are Chung-Fan Chang, assistant professor of art at Stockton University, whose Kite series of paintings, works on paper, video, and wall installation represents the Eastern influence of imaginary personal landscape; LiQin Tan, professor of art at Rutgers University-Camden, who uses what he calls “spirit levels,” as in the device that is commonly used to indicate whether a surface is level, as a signal to illustrate a natural phenomenon in humans, where brain development is an equalized process — his work is impacted by Native American culture and history, from early digital rawhide prints, to animation clips; and Jing Zhou, associate professor at Monmouth University, whose digital imaging series is inspired by nature, Chinese culture, meditation as an ancient healing method, and the search for inner peace through Zen. 

Reflecting on the choice of having all three artists who are also educators, Zhou says  

“Teaching is a truly human activity. Teacher and student are both the educators and the educated. My students often inspire me with original perspectives and questions … the shared wisdom comes into being in the art-practice of both the student and the teacher.” 

Cross Cultural Currents, West Windsor Arts Council, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction. On view April 30 to June 22, opening reception Sunday, May 6, 4 to 6 p.m. Free. 609-716-1931 or westwindsorarts.org