Bingyi: The Artist at Work


Bingyi comes to her paintings by means of an intricate path. Born in China, she moved to America after high school, and directly enrolled in Mount Holyoke College, one of America’s best liberal arts colleges. After finishing her bachelor’s degree, she took advanced degrees in art history and archeology at Yale University and became a professor at the University of Buffalo. But her academic leanings have always been challenged by her equally driven desire to paint, so that her current concentration on what must be called postmodern literati painting looks like the most important job she currently has. Bingyi’s exuberance and ambition must be taken as the outpouring of a joyous personality and a thoroughly erotic view of life. Her paintings, at once direct and implied, composed of subtle thought and sensual engagement, allow us to see a thoroughly contemporary mind at work, albeit one who knows Chinese tradition extremely well and has an equally decided passion for its subject matter and styles. Bingyi’s art flirts with narrative in traditional ways – it usually is possible to read her screens from left to right – but she also asserts a command of the lyric, the simply beautiful. Indeed, her art’s strength, which is considerable, derives from her willingness to maintain tension between categories of art, Asian and Western, private and public.

What I find most interesting about Bingyi’s paintings is their resolute determination to embody mystery – the hidden matters of form and experience. Asked if her work is narrative, Bingyi declines the tag. We see again and again in her art an essentially visionary approach, which doesn’t treat experience as pure story telling but emphasizes the sensuality of artistic relations as they occur in the real world. Often her work is filtered through personal experience; in the left-hand panel of I Feel the Flowers Growing Over Me, we see a colorful vision of lovemaking, albeit discretely hidden beneath a gray-blue blanket. As Bingyi explains it, the woman is exploding with pleasure, and true enough, we see an expanded pattern of brush marks hovering over her. The discretion with which this scene is painted adds to its intensity; however, we know that because the scene is directly about sex, it ties into a contemporary vision meant to invoke pleasure as the given right of women as well as men. As a result, Bingyi uses her discretion not as censorship but rather as a treatment of desire; we are meant to identify with the image as mental travelers empathically identifying with the figure’s physical enjoyment.

Part of the problem facing anyone as educated as Bingyi derives from an overly developed sense of one’s position, historically speaking. Bingyi doesn’t meld her influences so much as build upon them; we sense her grasp of tradition, even as she ventures upon new ground in her art. For someone who knows as much as Bingyi does, it is very hard – but not impossible – to break through the long accumulations of Chinese culture in favor of a thoroughly contemporary stance. This is why Bingyi refuses to call her art narrative; the description boxes her in, resulting in a false conception of the essentially improvised nature of her art. She challenges us, then, to see through a thoroughly provisional filter, one of considerable sophistication, even if the paintings themselves have unmistakable references to traditional art. In a way, Bingyi is developing a constancy that prevails over her incorporation of a past, mostly in the form of a style that is simultaneously new and practiced in the legacy of Chinese literati paintings. The consequent departure of Bingyi’s manner of painting, from the past and then toward the future, reminds us that. like all artists, she is under pressure to make it new. Without doing so, she would succumb to a technical reading of her art that emphasizes proficiency over subject matter.

Still, proficiency does count in new art. Is technical skill the only visible result of the past in Chinese painting? Bingyi’s naïve style tells us a lot about the way she processes and reports on experience. Her paintings recall exact, and true, events that she transforms into a language of affectionate abandon, in which even violence becomes an excuse for a light-hearted treatment of their visual presence if not their actual meaning. The couple making love offers, finally, an explosive presence, in which the woman takes on the mythic characteristics of a fox, becoming a stone in the next scene. A man with one eye, consumed with desire, looks on. He accosts her, but she has changed her nature to a rock; nonetheless, he conceives a child with her, and in a tormented scene, she dismembers herself in order to bring forth the baby. The man, now changed to an orange Buddha figure, can only look on at the charged, heavily violent event, in which we see the woman’s feet cut off. This leads to an image of considerable mourning, with the man literally serving his liver to the audience, represented by a woman in a turquoise chi p’ao embroidered with flowers. It is literally a dark scene: the man’s deeply melancholic face, seemingly at the end of life, is painted in black, while an owl hovers over him.

In the last scene of the five-part mural painting, the man has died; flowers are growing over him. His pinkish body can be seen through the greenery that covers him, and his head is turning quickly into a skull, with the hollow eyes of the dead. Bingyi may claim that she is simply illustrating, in a postmodern sense, a story that has survived as myth, but I suspect that the unquiet of the story resonates with her sensibility. (It is unwise, of course, to quickly or wholly identify the artist with her creation, but we are nonetheless tempted to do so.) The magic of the painting derives from our ability to negotiate the narrative from the viewpoint of our own lives. In the case of I Feel the Flowers Growing Over Me, meaning results from the colorful viewpoints enumerated by the artist; we sense that the story begin with erotic love, moves through several translations of form with regard to the woman/fox/stone. The man endures both psychic and physical torment, only to die alone, albeit with flowers growing out of his grave. The painting is a small opera, whose story attracts the interest of all viewers, no matter what culture they come from.

By By Johnathan Goodman