Qi Gu Jiang

at Walsh Gallery, through April 4

Robert Rahway Zakanitch

at I Space, through April 4

By Fred Camper

From Warhol’s pop icons to Malevich’s absolutist abstractions, much of modern painting has continued the Western sacred tradition in secular form: in some sense such works are compositionally closed, the picture’s rectangle represented as a complete world–just as earlier depictions of sacred subjects were understood to be sufficient in themselves. The implication is that the artist has some special knowledge or vision to impart.

But this has hardly been the only tradition. A millennium ago, Chinese landscape painters offered focused but incomplete views of a geography that was understood to spread far beyond the picture’s edge, while lines and shadows evoked the scene’s ineffable spirit. And even within the modern Western tradition–at least since Redon’s large decorative paintings and Monet’s huge water lilies–we’ve had pictures that don’t focus on a single subject, don’t congeal into a monolithic view. Two painters currently on exhibit, though they come from very different backgrounds and make work that at first seems to have little in common, both reject compositions with a single perspective in favor of an allover look that’s not simply a stylistic choice but suggests a particular way of seeing. For Robert Rahway Zakanitch, who’s showing nine paintings at I Space, the sensuality of paint becomes part of his content; and Qi Gu Jiang’s combination of Chinese and Western influences results in remarkably open and suggestive compositions.

Autumn I (1990) is perhaps the closest to traditional Chinese art of the 18 works on rice paper in Jiang’s show at Walsh. A cliff with a few trees on its ridge and vertical stems and leaves in front of them are depicted mostly with single brush strokes in the manner of classical Chinese painting, which emphasizes spontaneity and whose technique is closely tied to calligraphy. The empty white of the paper loosens the ties between the objects depicted despite the composition’s relative formality. Leaves and branches seem to float; nothing is tightly bound. The loose brush strokes evocatively suggest foliage.

Jiang, who was born in Shanghai in 1956, has been shaped by China’s tumultuous history. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966 his parents were sent to labor in mines and factories due to their “bad background”–his paternal grandfather had been a wealthy banker. A baffled Jiang hid out, alone, in his parents’ house for months, often drawing under the table to pass the time, before going to live with his maternal grandparents. While still in his teens he became a book illustrator. Like other intellectuals he was forced to perform rural labor for months at a time, but “in a way this was rewarding,” he told me. “I learned a lot–planting, spreading fertilizer. I learned to have a sense of the seasons, and I understood how hard a life the peasants had.”

When the universities reopened he studied art at a teachers’ college. He’d worked in a Russian-influenced socialist realist mode before going to school; but he got in considerable political trouble over a large installation he did with another artist: the authorities closed it, judging it “not healthy.” He was advised to switch his studies to traditional Chinese art, which puzzled him at first. Gradually, however, he came to see it as “very free” and “more profound” than what he’d been doing, based on evoking “vitality, spirit”–a translation he offers for the untranslatable Chinese word qi, used by ancient writers on painting. Jiang moved to Chicago in 1987 to further his studies at the School of the Art Institute and find greater freedom of expression.

A number of untitled works that Jiang made in his first few years here not only fuse Eastern and Western traditions but offer little dramas of the clash between them. One combines the outline of a man’s arched torso with several thick black and gray lines and smears. These lines have a calligraphic quality, but they’re also both gestural and abstract, suggesting the influence of abstract expressionism, which Jiang confirms. The figure and smears have a dynamic interactive relationship: the man appears to be seated on one, and his extended arms lean on another.

What’s striking about these works is the powerful aesthetic difference between the figures and the abstract shapes. The figures are supple, sensual (Jiang also acknowledges Michaelangelo as an influence), and almost photographic: the curve of a leg suggests not only flesh but the fat beneath it. Though created with the simplest of lines, these limbs almost ask to be squeezed. The abstract marks, by contrast, are mysterious, evocative, recalling the shadow worlds of many traditional Chinese landscapes–dark mazes in which lines never seem to represent objects literally but evoke some unnameable essence.

Drawn from different worlds, Jiang’s human figures and abstract marks tell a kind of story. I found myself identifying with the subjects: though none looked like me, they all fit my sense of the body as touchable flesh. They led me into the picture, into an encounter with the less accessible marks. I read a little drama into Jiang’s naturalistic kneeling woman arching back, her face almost buried in a chaos of gray wash and tan smears: Jiang’s individuals seem to encounter a whole range of subjective experiences, among them the feelings evoked by traditional Chinese art’s nonliteral representations.

Such dramas have an even greater complexity in Jiang’s scroll painting, I See (1992), 23 feet of which are on view. A number of figures, outlined in red, are seen in different poses, and heavy black calligraphic marks alternately repeat a few Chinese characters that translate “good person” and “bad person.” The scroll is stamped with the kind of seals traditional Chinese painters once used to sign their works–one of which reads, “Qi Gu, you make mistake,” the artist told me–and there’s also a variety of smaller, abstract marks.

Almost by definition, the scroll painting rejects the idea of a fixed composition; one must encounter it over time. Moreover, Jiang’s views are never static–the work must be read in terms of dynamic oppositions. The self-deprecations of the texts are mirrored by the work’s intentional incompleteness, which is partly a product of its sprawl: the elements hover in space, their relationships unfixed, forming a seemingly endless dance of opposites, a dance that the unwound portions of the scroll suggest could go on for ever.

Robert Zakanitch was born in New Jersey in 1937; he later added the name of his hometown, Rahway, to his name in proud acknowledgement of his working-class roots. When he moved in the 50s to New York City, where he lives today, Zakanitch began painting in the style of abstract expressionism. But after two years, he says, he realized that “these aren’t my ideas” and wondered, “What is my way of looking?” He estimates that it took 12 years before he could say, “I’ve discovered the visual me.” His work first became known in the mid-70s, when he was part of an informal group dubbed by critics the “pattern and decoration movement.” Eschewing high-art models, Zakanitch based his paintings on floral rugs and linoleum designs; artists in this movement, which included many feminists, sought to reclaim as fine art much of what was traditionally regarded as women’s work.

Zakanitch’s brightly colored, sensual paintings seem the opposite of Jiang’s: as opposed to his single brush strokes, most of Zakanitch’s works are filled or nearly filled with thick, tactile layers of paint, obviously the result of repeated applications. Gallery director Mary Antonakos mentions that while her toddler, Jacob, has seen a lot of art, these are the first works he’s expressed an interest in eating–and with good reason. Their sensuousness appeals directly to the gut: object collides with color, pattern with pattern, recalling Zakanitch’s description of the ethos of the pattern and decoration movement as “more is more.”

Yet every one of these touchable, tasteable paintings has a curious and ultimately affecting subtext–in many, drawing attention away from the object ostensibly at the work’s center. Parrot Bat (Platter), a large painting of a plate, makes part of its statement by monumentalizing an ordinary piece of decorated ceramic. And at first the work seems focused on the picture at the center of the plate, showing a parrot against a floral background whose diverse colors contrast with the larger plate’s repeated leaves in yellow, red, and orange. Two black bats whose wingtips touch the plate’s edge also face the plate’s center.

Look longer, however, and something curious happens. Though the parrot and flowery background have the more varied palette, the bright, dense colors of the rest of the plate and the background also command attention. The plate’s leaf pattern is laid on as thick as a forest, and peculiar depth effects result from some colors seeming more transparent than others. This junglelike maze is itself enough to distract one from the parrot, but outside the plate repeating circular shapes suggestive of a kitschy tablecloth are no less eye-catching. The bats add an almost surreal element; their stark colors–mostly black with white lines–intensify the plate’s reds and yellows. And unless there’s a meaning I missed, the bats don’t serve any narrative purpose. Their meaning might be something like “make the colors as lush as possible,” which would imply that–as Zakanitch himself says–the “content” of his work is painting itself.

It’s significant that Zakanitch was first attracted to the abstract expressionists, as he said in a published interview, for their “continuous kind of…dynamic and infinite space.” In Zakanitch’s version of continuous space, the world is alive with pattern and our attention is deflected from single objects even when they’re at the center of the compositions. Night Stirrings (Sofa) seemed to me another study in pattern until I read the title and, stepping back, perceived the outlines of a large sofa.

Smaller paintings with single pieces of jewelry at the center seem at first to celebrate the object fetishism of our culture, and Zakanitch’s love of decorative patterns might suggest he shares this fascination. But in every work the thick paint asserts its own sensuality over that of the object depicted; tiny marks outside the object also deflect attention from it. Finger Adornment Amethyst uses a design motif–an abstract shape offsetting a product in front of it–common in advertising (indeed, Zakanitch worked in advertising art in the 50s). A purple stone mounted in a gold band faces us; the slightly angled band creates a strong depth effect. But behind the ring is a painted purple rectangle rendered so similarly to the gem–pale smears of yellow, purple, and red repeat the thickly painted colors of the amethyst–that the abstract shape has the same power as the object it supposedly offsets.

Just as Jiang’s pictures place the individual within a larger flow of things both seen and unseeable, so Zakanitch subordinates objects fetishized by mass culture to the act of painting. His pale smears may seem random, but the thick, offhand smears within the amethyst also answer the geometrical absolutism of modernism with the natural variations of the hand. Setting culturally prized gems against apparently random daubs of paint, Zakanitch argues that neither is more precious–or more accessible–than the other.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited art by Qi Gu Jiang; “Finger Adornment Amethyust” by Robert Rahway Zakanitch.