In Chinese mythology, the Kunlun Mountain is home to many gods and goddesses, it demarks the center of the four points of the compass, and it’s the place where Earth and Heaven meet. For artist Xu Longsen, it served as the inspiration for an ambitious serious of site-specific paintings and sculptures that calculatedly respond to the architecture of the Art Institute of Chicago’s suite of Asian art galleries.
Xu Longsen’s works are unmistakably contemporary but nevertheless draw from centuries of tradition. There are certainly strong visual and thematic parallels between Xu’s work and the thousand-year-old vertically-oriented scroll paintings of Fan Kuan, who portrayed nature as overwhelmingly vast and awe-inspiring. Xu works are also a contemporary take on traditional shan-shui painting, a sub-category of Chinese landscape art which, rather than present a literal depiction of nature, aims instead to visually articulate the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that landscapes evoke in our minds. By its nature, shan-shui is an introspective art form.
Many of these paintings are ambitiously large, and viewing them is an immersive experience. Xu applies many washes of, variously, dark ink or paint, creating moody landscapes bathed in mist. Up close, some of his works seem as abstract as a splatter painting by Jackson Pollock. But step back, and unintelligible shapes magically metamorphose into discernible hills, crests, and valleys.
His paintings are frequently sculptural. For this exhibition, Xu created a series of ink paintings on stately columns of velvet (in photographs, they deceptively mimic marble or granite). The largest of these is an imposing multistory painting which responds to the Institute’s Morton Staircase, which swoops around the work. Washes of ink cascade down the velvet, conjuring images of a mountainous terrain.
Xu’s works respond to the Institute’s space particularly well in the dimly-lit Ando Gallery. Here, his paintings surround the viewer on three walls and seem to literally radiate, acting as the light source for the space. And the Ando Gallery, removed from the congestion and foot traffic of some of the museum’s other spaces, seems the perfect, serene setting for meditative works intended to take the viewer on an inward journey to a place of quiet introspection.
So should you find yourself at Chicago’s Art Institute between now and June 24, you’ll certainly want to take in such megastar paintings as Wood’s American Gothic or Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte, though these works are generally shrouded behind a several-layer deep wall of people, each jockeying for a reasonably decent spot to take a take a selfie worthy of an Instagram post. But afterwards, work your way to the Ando Gallery, tucked deep within the Asian gallery suite, and collect your thoughts as you surround yourself with Xu Longsen’s mystical, other-worldly mountainscapes, and simply linger in the serene and meditative calm.
More information on the exhibition Heaven’s Light can be found here: http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/xu-longsen-light-heaven