Mang Ke, painting and a poem

Here again working on poetry-art intersections. One interesting case in point, I think, the Chinese poet Mang Ke, one of founding members of Jintian 今天 (Today) poetry journal, and otherwise major forces in the opening up of poetic and other artistic expression in the 1970s and 1980s. Since around the year 2000, though, Mang Ke has been turning his attention more and more to oil painting, principally landscapes. For a poet towards the end of his career, particularly a career as distinguished as Mang Ke’s is, to suddenly pick up visual art is in itself an unusual event. His own explanation, in typically self-deprecatory fashion, is to suggest that he needed money to support his family, and paintings are more lucrative cultural objects than poems. Perhaps so, but one cannot detract from the rather extraordinary progress he’s made in the realm of painting in a very short space of time. Below an untitled work from 2012


Mang Ke, 2012, oil on canvas, no title, 800mm x 800mm

This I pair with “A Poem Presented to October”, here in translation by Gordon T. Osing and De-An Wu Swihart. The poem in context of painting is, to quote Octavio Paz something like translation, replete with “shadows and echoes”

1. The Crops
Quietly the Autumn fills my face;
I am the wiser.

2. Working
I want to be with the horses and carriages
pulling the sun into the wheat fields . . .

3. The Fruit
What lovely children,
what lovely eyes;
the sun himself is like a red apple,
beneath it the countless fantasies of children.

4. The Forest in Autumn
Nothing of your glance is here.
no sound of yours,
just a red scarf fallen by the way . . .

5. The Earth
All my feelings
have been baked by the sun.

6. Dawn
I wish you and I with one heart
could sweep away the darkness down the road.

7. The Sailboat
When that time comes
I will come back with the storm.

8. Sincerely Yours
I bring one rose-red petal of sunlight
and dedicate it to love.

Zhong Biao selections


I thought I’d repost some of my favorite old Zhong Biao works along with newer work marking among other things changes over time.  The image above,  “Today” (今天) (acrylic on canvas 400×280 centimeters), strikes me as good a starting point as any for such an exercise.

There was not much new in the “Today” image in 2009 when it was created, as an abstract method juxtaposed with human and other animal figures have both been core elements of a Zhong Biao picture since 2005. The figures themselves are also not particularly new, with birds and airborne human beings being about as close to thematic constants as Zhong’s work provides. The most notable element of the canvas, the belly-flopping corpulent fellow, on the other hand, had not emerged in any work before, as far as I know. He, spectacular as he is, seems more variation on a theme.

I couple “Today”  this with his 2013 “裁云剪水” (acrylic on canvas 130 x 388 cm):


The title is a challenge to translate. Literally its “trimming clouds and cutting water,” a phrase drawn from Ming dynasty critique of poetry that is miraculously perspicuous and creative. The work is expansive, sharing many features with Zhong’s largest painting to date “Mirage,” most particularly its panoramic quality. What is new here is relatively minute point of the abstract box, new to the vocabulary of his painting. Rather like pointillism of Seurat, one needs to take a few steps closer to see them:


Upon closer inspection, the polygons, all white in this painting, emerge as angular portals of light, like windows or other apertures in fixed structures. They also refer to pixilation, interruptions in what should be seamless digital universe that may or may not intersect with (un)virtual reality.  This is particularly true when they are in a background of darker colors, such as the street level boxes around the pedestrians’ feet:


What also intrigues me about the geometric elements is their implication in terms of practice. As I’ve observed Zhong work on painting, the abstract component is usually applied first, and human and other figures drawn out over time from them. The abstract brush work is dynamic, rapid, and in larger canvases involves something very much like dance to execute. The squares are a different kind of image production altogether, it seems to me.  In order to find out just how this comes together I guess I’ll have to make another trip to his studio and hang out there for a few days and watch what happens.