Mansheng Wang: Art and Artlessness
by France Pepper - exhibition essay, Godwin-Ternbach Museum, Queens College, CUNY, 2010

At a cursory glance, Chinese painting is visually appealing and calming because of its minimalist presentation. It is only when one goes deeper into understanding the brush work and the history behind this centuries long tradition that the true beauty is revealed. For the artist, collector or scholar who devotes a life time to studying and learning from these seemingly simple paintings, the journey will lead to self-cultivation rooted in discipline, aesthetic appreciation and connoisseurship.

Mansheng Wang’s path to becoming an artist began in a humble way. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), he started practicing calligraphy on his own by copying examples of famous Chinese calligraphers on a daily basis. This practice was a refuge from the crowded courtyard house he grew up in among his six siblings and the dreary landscape of a coal mining town.

In 1981, Mansheng Wang was among the top students to be accepted at the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai and majored in classical Chinese literature. It was through references in poetry and dramas of past dynasties that he was introduced to Chinese art history and which led him to the Shanghai Museum to observe genuine examples of works of arts. He became acquainted with the Shanghai Calligraphy and Painting Association (shu hua xie hui) where he had access to great professors and scholars of literati painting- a genre that flourished in the Yuan (1271-1368 dates) and Ming (1368-1644 dates) dynasties as a means of personal expression in contrast to the formal academic painting being created at the court.

After graduating, he was assigned a position at CCTV- China Central Television. Until then, he had been absorbed in classical China through his studies in literature and art and now had the opportunity to connect with modern China. He worked for twelve years as a producer of programs about the performing arts, which were mainly folk singers who were not allowed to perform during the Cultural Revolution but had since been able to resurface and reclaim their traditions. From performing arts, he began to produce documentaries and teamed up with a young Tibetan cameraman to create a series on location in Tibet. The exposure to Tibetan Buddhist art would have a lasting artistic effect on him as it resonated with the famous Buddhist cave-temple sites from his home province in Shanxi.  In 1998, he left CCTV to become an artist and emigrated to the United States.

At first he lived in Texas where there were few opportunities to see fine Chinese art so he continued to read about painting and calligraphy on his own and to practice regularly with the brush. For the past twelve years, Mansheng Wang’s auto-didactic approach has led him to experiment with different types of paper and other surfaces such as wood and canvas, which react in unique ways with the brush and ink to create new styles and techniques. He paints not only with a variety of brush sizes but also with reeds he harvests along the coast of the Hudson River, near his current home. He also experiments with ink and pigments, often concocting his own color by soaking the fruit of the walnut to make black walnut ink.

Mansheng Wang’s process is a daily routine. He works in his studio from about noon until 3:30 PM. He eats lunch, works until 6 PM and then cooks dinner for his wife and daughter. He grows a garden in his backyard where he can study the development of branches and leaves directly from nature.  When he needs to relax, he practices calligraphy and listens to the music of the guqin, a zither-like instrument associated with literati painters that shares similar roots with calligraphy. The strumming gestures of the guqin echo calligraphic brush stroke movements, and the discipline in learning how to play this instrument follows the same path of self-cultivation as that of a calligrapher. For weeks at a times, he paints only bamboo- a favorite subject of the literati painters of old. The act of copying and repetition are not viewed as unoriginal. Rather, it is an essential part of the process where the outcome is that the brush strokes become second nature, so effortless and fluid. It is this quality that adds to the seeming simplicity of a painting.

Landscape painting is always at the heart of a Chinese ink painter. It embodies the spirit of its times, a vehicle to express personal sentiment and was often used as a metaphor for political dissent in ancient China. It remains a touchstone for Mansheng Wang and a theme to return to over and over again, each time taking him to a different level of understanding, appreciation and sensitivity.

The challenge of a contemporary artist steeped in classical Chinese painting is to be able to embody the tradition while finding a new visual vocabulary. For the untrained eye, it may appear that there was little innovation in classical Chinese painting from century to century. However, the innovation was there- subtle yet groundbreaking, and even revolutionary. It may have been a new style of brush stroke, or a new way to play with the tonalities of ink, which are viewed as shades of color- not just black or grey.

It isn’t easy to label the type of art Mansheng creates. At a time when contemporary Chinese artists are at the forefront of the contemporary art world, where would someone like him fit in? He focuses on specific themes: landscapes, botanical subjects, Buddhist motifs, waterfalls and ink painting-all traditional in inspiration. He may be referred to as a ‘contemporary-traditional,’ or ‘neo-classical,’ or ‘modern literati” artist. Regardless, he is modernizing a tradition in his personal way, contributing a fresh perspective and offering a reference point for anyone interested in dwelving into the richness of Chinese painting.

Copyright © by France Pepper 2010