|Sun Wanling, September 2012|
Sun Wanling is a traditional Chinese painter, trained specifically in brush painting of animals and plants. At first, I found it difficult to believe that a man so constantly in motion, so loose and amenable at the drop of a hat to any American experience, could be a master of this venerable art form. In many museums I’ve stood breathless among these exquisite, enchanting jewels of natural observation. They are slow and careful, I think, made without revision, with complete focus, in a state of mind that must be like grace.
|Potter at Red Wing Pottery forming pots at Sun |
|With Scott Gillmer, owner of|
Red Wing Pottery
|Sun Wanling, Chinese vase completed|
The unfired pots showed the traces of blue slip only faintly, but Sun Wanling's fresh designs were nevertheless clear and animated and miraculous to all of us. Though the pots were very small by his standards, he adapted well and his imagination shone. On a bowl with an oscillating pattern raked into its rim, Wanling painted diving fish, thereby turning the rim into ocean waves with playful fish swimming beneath.
|Fish beneath the waves.|
|Sun Wanling, Chinese vessel, painted|
Against this absorbing naturalism, the traditional painter places his flora and fauna in the least Western of landscape perspectives. The extended forms of long or tall and narrow papers allow the painter multiple focal points without regard for literal distances or measurements; the relationships of feeling and symbols are what count. The attenuated papers also reflect an aesthetic that permeates a cultural worldview of which fine art is only one aspect. Horizontal paintings allow for a long, swooping arc to enter from the top right and cross toward the right, where it always stops, blocked by vertical lines of calligraphy or other design elements. As we looked through several images in which this was borne out, Wanling sprang from his chair to execute Tai Chi movements that were exactly the same, the comprehensive, circular spanning of the arm, brought to the center of the body and arrested. “The circle!” he told me, smiling.
I love the painting to the left, of the fishes swimming by the bank of some body of water. Sun Wanling explained that in this style of painting, sky, air, and water are represented by no more than blank paper; nor are horizons represented. So the ambiguity that I feel about the placement of the fish is quite natural in a tradition in which perspectives aren't fixed, as they are for Westerners.
What's more, what Sun Wanling has painted—and this he burst upon me to the greatest delight of both—is a mere fragment of a landscape that encompasses the whole world. He took my pen and showed me the house on the land above the river with its ground that sloped down to this rock. We saw the village on the other side of the river and the mountains behind. And it didn't take all that long for our imaginations to complete the circle and stop before our hearts and eyes, in Red Wing, Minnesota, where we could see ourselves in the painting too.
Point well made! Viewers: You are in this picture. It is a fragment of the world we all inhabit; our eyes, imaginations, and responses are part of what completes the circle.