THE RELEASE OF “PAINTING” – KANG HAITAO’S VISUAL COMPOSITION
When Kang Haitao painted a group of abstract works, people familiar with his “night scenes” were astonished: how could he go from his “representational” works to this? It became an oft-asked question, but is not all that strange. Because most people’s comprehension of painting enters directly through the images, they are used to the imagination given by “forms”. As soon as the forms on the canvas transform, comprehension suffers from inertia and lags behind, which is what happened with Kang Haitao’s two series. Kang Haitao has realized this situation and put forth a clear answer: these seemingly abstract works are really what is left over from his “night scenes”; it’s a casual painting, expressing an individual understanding of painting at rest.
Is this really what happened? Are these abstract pieces really not at all connected with his “night scenes”, just the product of an idle hand? The answer is that it’s not necessarily that simple. Of course, some people will doubt this conclusion—the artist himself put forward this explanation, so why should we complicate the issue? There’s no question, the doubt is fair. But the artist’s explanation is not the whole story. For one thing, the artist’s intuitive way of thinking makes it difficult sometimes to express things clearly. For another, in the process of completing a canvas, he often doesn’t use visible logic, but proceeds in the hidden subconscious mind. Therefore, face to face with his works, it’s true that the artist’s own explanation is important, but it’s not a standard answer. This interpretation is not in order to negate, but to explain—let us break away from a fixed “description”, and look again carefully at the paintings to uncover a different kind of visual experience. Actually, the answer is not important. What is important is whether we can discover an even richer experience. This is, perhaps, the highest value of art.
So, facing Kang Haitao’s two seemingly unconnected series, how should we launch a completely new expedition of vision? The starting point, of course, is the canvases. First, let us turn our attention to these abstract works. In terms of the visual result, they are in line with our customary concept of abstract art. But looking more closely, we discover: they are not simply formalist abstraction because the pieces don’t have a specific abstract goal, but a kind of process of “revision” through constant overlaying. These particular works have kept traces of the “original sketch”, but this blueprint often has no relation to the finished work. In other words, when Kang Haitao was creating these works, the ongoing painting process altered the original plan over and over again. Of course, the revising effect of “the process of painting” on the “original plan” is not new. But generally, we don’t pay attention to those “process” traces—they are forgotten as inconsistencies, or it might be that they are blocked, thus guaranteeing that all we reflect on is the finished product. However, Kang Haitao is clearly different. He intentionally destroys our expectations, and maintains all the marks of revision—even if they have nothing to do with the finished work. Thus, in the constant adjusting and changing of his painting process, Kang Haitao gives us a “transparent” visual composition; in revising again and again, the value of the act of painting emerges, not just painting as a means to an end.
n terms of “painting” as a personal experience, not just a tool of expression, perhaps Kang Haitao is trying to convey some essential information. The so-called abstract pieces indicate that the artist is infatuated with “painting” for himself. They don’t necessarily have a specific visual goal, only to release him from the use of painting as a tool. And through this “release”, we can delight in painting’s original experience in a new way. These abstract works are, in Kang Haitao’s infatuation with the experience of painting itself, an attempt to show us a transparent vision.
So, how is this kind of attempt at transparency connected his “night scenes”? To answer this question, we have to return to the differences between Kang Haitao’s particular “night scenes” and normal night visions. In regards to the visual result, his “night scenes” transform normal visual experiences into unfamiliar visual paradigms, and in this uncertainty, create a kind of calm and distant mental projection. But how does he get from the things we see at night to these projected “night scenes”? Returning to the canvas, we can see that Kang Haitao’s “night scenes” are different from night scenes in reality because he gives us night with disorganized layers of shadow and light. This is an extremely distinctive way of viewing things. Logically, the appearance of images at night depends on some kind of focused light source, and the concentrated area of contrasting shades. But this logic is not what we see with our own eyes. To our eyes, light is not necessarily that focused, but soft and diffused. Kang Haitao grasps and emphasizes this point, giving us a different kind of “night scenes”. So, the question is, how does the artist utilize this angle of observation?
Once this question is put forth, the relationship between Kang Haitao’s two series of works begins to clarify. The reason is simple: the pervasive layers of light in the “night scenes” depend precisely on the multiple-level revision and layering style in the abstract works. Actually, the unique visual characteristics of colors of night under Kang Haitao’s brush originate in his unique language of acrylic application. Looking at the surface, this kind of language serves painted forms, like landscapes of trees and walls. But this process of layering the details is not necessarily “re-creation”, but the rhythm of painting language itself. We have a hard time seeing concrete representations of objects; it’s more a process of layering accumulated colors. This feeling is exactly the same as the multiple-layer revision of painting language in his abstract works: it is process of experiencing “painting”, and this process emerges perceptibly in his works.
Even though Kang Haitao’s works take us in two seemingly opposite directions, they clearly show us the process of the “act” of painting that he experiences, thus differentiating him from other artists of his generation. Looking from a certain angle, this “act”, in the release achieved through the works’ detail, gives Kang Haitao a special place amongst his contemporaries—he displays painting at its pinnacle, imbues the language of painting with his own experience, and even demands a metaphysical understanding. Unlike art that relies on “pictures” to speak, Kang Haitao speaks through the language of painting, using the release of painting to express himself. In the tide of today’s popularized images, this is especially rare, and deserves our continued attention and interest.