【Taipei·DunRen|Taipei·RenAi 】Cao Jigang:Skypath 2024. 3. 2 – 5. 2



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‘Cao Jigang:Skypath’
Taipei·DunRen & Taipei·RenAi

"Even though perfection may not exist in the world, it is still worth pursuing." - Cao Jigang

Graduated from Oil Painting Dept. of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in 1984, currently works and lives in Beijing. Cao Jigang's artistic style combines elements of Eastern and Western aesthetics and literati thoughts. Cao once said: "I'm exploring minimalist landscape painting, without crossing the boundaries to abstraction." In Cao's early works, he depicted the ruins of the Great Wall using oil painting, then began several periods to explore different materials and create his own language. Pencil and oil and acrylic to imitate ancient Chinese Shan-Shui, and over twenty years he combined the European technique of “Tempera” and Chinese Shan-Shui landscape to create his style of serenity landscape. Cao's works are characterized by a unique semi-transparent luminosity and a jade-like quality, achieved through layered brushwork to express a sense of emptiness. Recently he moved towards a "minimalist" style, further expanding the imaginative space of the metaphysical. Cao Jigang's artistic achievements have been recognized and received the Silver Award at the 9th National Art Exhibition in China(1999), exhibited in museums including National Art Museum of China, permanently collected by the National Art Museum of China, the Shanghai Art Museum, and important Chinese private collectors.

Cao Jigang's artistic journey has traversed different phases, spanning over four decades of innovative evolution:

The First Stage "Oil Painting of the Great Wall" period: In this phase, Cao Jigang employed the pure language of European oil painting to depict the "Great Wall" series. Within the paintings, the artist replaced the intact Great Wall with desolate ruins, conveying a sense of defeat through the painterly qualities. Additionally, during this period, the artist began to incorporate the technique of glazing.

The Second Stage "Pencil Drawing Landscape Transformation" period: During the pencil period, a transition occurred towards an intermediate stage focused on landscape transformation. Innovating pencil techniques, the artist combined landscapes and scenery, portraying the scenery in a long rectangular composition from top to bottom, reminiscent of ancient landscape depictions. This approach generates a majestic and grand atmosphere in the style of classical Chinese ink wash painting.

The Third Stage "Acrylic Landscape Painting" period: During this period, Cao Jigang transitioned from sketching landscapes in low-altitude southern regions of south to gradually ascending to higher altitudes with expansive views of plateaus. The painting perspective began to open up and simplify as the artist moved towards higher altitudes. Utilizing the oily properties of acrylic paints, Cao Jigang introduced a misty effect in realistic landscape paintings, creating an ink-wash aesthetic. The landscapes are progressively transformed into traditional Chinese landscape painting “Shan Shui”.

The Fourth Stage "Egg Tempera" period: Since the 1980s, Cao Jigang has dedicated himself to the study and improvement of the intricate and fading European ancient technique known as Egg Tempera painting. Choosing Egg Tempera for its irreplaceable aesthetic values, semi-transparency, internal luminosity, and a texture reminiscent of porcelain glaze or jade, he appreciates its unique qualities. Due to its semi-translucent nature, one can discern details beneath the layers of color upon closer inspection, creating a sense of permeation. Similar to a meditative practice, the technique involves multi-layered polishing. Drawing inspiration from the glazing method in traditional Chinese ink wash painting, Cao Jigang retains the flowing quality of ink with thin layers. The resulting artworks, such as the monumental seven-meter-long landscape painting "Guangling San" which reference the classical Chinese tale of Ji Kang playing one last melody on the guqin before his execution, and the impactful series "Barren Cold," exhibit a semi-translucent internal luminosity and a warm, porcelain-like jade texture.

Egg Tempera, a painting technique using egg yolk or egg white mixed with pigments, was prevalent during the European Renaissance (14th to 16th centuries), employed by masters such as Da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt. Cao Jigang redefined traditional Egg Tempera materials and methods, finding a balance between the solidity of Western painting and the fluidity of traditional Chinese ink wash painting. Chinese landscape painting, inspired by Taoist philosophy, embraced the concept of "unity of Tao and nature," which was popular among poets and painters. Cao Jigang ‘s works blend the solemn elements of isolated landscapes with the spontaneity of nature during plein air sketching. Whether portraying stark contrasts in monochrome or neutral grays with almost no emotional tone, his minimalistic approach resembles the subtle traces of passing time.

Bluerider ART kicks off 2024 Programme with the touring exhibition Cao Jigang:Skypath at Taipei · Dunren and Renai. Apart from showcasing several new large-scale works, this exhibition expands upon the previous solo exhibition at Shanghai · The Bund by including representative works from different phases. Additionally, the exhibition showcases some personal art tools selected by Cao Jigang, inviting the audience to journey through the artist's 40-year-long creative process, from the ruins of the Great Wall to the mournful melody of "Guangling Melody"; from the tranquil landscapes to the chilling void of "Barren Cold." Through transcending earthly confines on the “Skypath”, experience how Cao Jigang integrates his spirit, emotions, and insights into nature, connecting individuals with nature through art and ultimately reaching the path of unity between individual life and the universe, as expressed in Taoist philosophy: "Harmony between Heaven and Man, Unity of Nature and Humanity."

‘Cao Jigang:Skypath’

Opening Tea Ceremony: March 2, 2024 (Saturday)
2pm – 4pm (Invitation only)
4pm – 6pm(Open to public)
Venue:Bluerider ART Taipei·DunRen
1F, No.10, Ln. 101, Sec. 1, Daan Rd., Taipei

Exhibition Date: March 2, 2024 – May 2, 2024
Dual Exhibition Venues:
Bluerider ART Taipei·DunRen
1F, No.10, Ln. 101, Sec. 1, Daan Rd., Taipei
Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-7pm
Bluerider ART Taipei·RenAi
10F., No. 25-1, Sec. 4, Renai Rd., Taipei
Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-7pm
T:+886 2 27527778



Cao Jigang
(China, b.1955)

Cao Jigang, was graduated from Material Expression Studio of Oil Painting Department of China Central Academy of Fine Arts, also was a professor at Foundation Year Program Department of China Central Academy of Fine Arts. Currently living, working in Beijing, China, and exhibiting widely in museums and curated exhibitions. Cao Jigang received the Silver Prize in The National Exhibition of Fine Arts in 1999. His work is included in public collection including The National Art Museum of China in Beijing, Shanghai Art Museum and New Hall of China International Exhibition Center in Beijing.

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Art Critique

The Four Phases of Cao Jigang’s Paintings and His Position in the Third Stage of Chinese Painting in Art History

Dr. Xia Kejun

Cao Jigang is an artist who I discovered. I was impressed when the first time I saw his artworks at an auction house a decade ago, and I attempted to contact him right away. Afterward, in the exhibition of ‘In Time - 2012 Chinese Oil Painting Biennale’ at the National Art Museum of China, I saw the tremendous 7 meter long large scale tempera artwork, ‘Guangling Melody’. The majestic sorrow with cultural-historical insight and the sense of classic had impressed me. I then invited him to participate in my series exhibitions of ‘Infra-mince art, which I started to have a deeper understanding of Cao Jigang.

His painting path can be divided into four phases.

The representative work of his first phase is ‘The Great Wall’ series created in the 1990s. Although the works showed the characteristic of Chinese academic art that revealed realism in landscape sketching, Cao Jigang particularly chose the Great Wall as his solely sketching object. The artwork demonstrated his attempt to set memorial still lives off with a vast background not only between natural ruins and historical symbols, but also broad poetry and individual loneliness. The work forms a painting language that consists of a firm shape with boundless meanings, as well as creating his dual-return mindset of naturalizing history while historicizing nature. He is capable of exploring the in-depth sorrow that hidden or buried in history.

The second phase started from the new century in 2000s. Cao Jigang began to explore the techniques of tempera with some other professors at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. During the first decade of the new century, he immersed himself in finding ways to combine the transparent glazing skills of tempera and the method of combining the skills with Chinese ink washed painting, which enabled him to obtain the forgotten jade texture and the glazing perception.

Stepping into the third phase from 2010s, Cao Jigang still focused on landscape sketching. However, he integrated the visual memory of literati landscape paintings since the Song Dynasty, and he ingeniously merged the natural vividness with historical-cultural images. Taking the ‘Guangling Melody’ as an example, he managed to mourn the historical sorrow with modern majesty. Meanwhile, he rejuvenated the mist vividness of landscape sketching by presenting the implicit textures as infra-mince shadows. On the other hand, regarding the series artworks of ‘Taihu Stone’, the paradoxical combination of the firmness of still lives and the vastness of quaint tone. The mountains and stones are like abundant flowing Zen, which injects the beauty of lightness that the glazing of tempera paintings never had. It seems like the objects were given spiritual breathes.

The fourth phase began from 2018, especially the latest paintings that exhibited at Cao Jigang’s first solo exhibition with Bluerider ART. The painting language of Cao Jigang simplified even more obliquely and separates the picture into black and white. Moreover, with a bit of extruding and staggering, the plain poetry and profound empty-cold feelings manage to calm the hidden sadness. The minimalist compositions of the paintings are similar to the calmness and peacefulness exhibited from the edge of Song porcelain. The perfect integration of the abstract concept of minimalism and natural, historical poetry is as the poetic aura of the Southern Song Dynasty lingers around.

To appreciating Cao Jigang’s paintings, we must comprehend systematically about the originality of modern aesthetic discourse in the art history of the Greater Chinese. As a philosopher, a researcher of art history, and a contemporary curator that criticizes and practices, I attempt to consider the modern development of Chinese painting from a comprehensive perspective and try to build a historical pedigree of the three generations.

The representatives of the first generation artists such as Yun Gee and Sanyu who lived abroad in the first half of the 20th century. Their works echoes with the cubism and expressionism in the Western world. Back In China, Huang Bin-Hong and Qi Baishi, who led the breakthrough to the modernity of ink wash paintings and their works show the transformation of freehand brushwork and daily lives.

The second generation led by Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun who lived in France in the 1960s and 1970s, the second half of the 20th century. They merged the delicate literati strokes of sketch, wrinkle, dot, and rub into the Western abstract lyrical colors, which forms lyrical, poetic landscapes with blurred changes between the sensation of natural and abstract. On the other hand, in China, there were Wu Guanzhong and his mentor Lin Fengmain in the 1980s. Stepping into the 21st century, Chinese artists had experienced the difficult exploration of individual words during the 1990s, which acquired insight learning or inherited the abstract lyrical strokes of Zao Wou-Ki. Later, they developed the language of paintings. This is the stage what I called ‘Neo-modernism in Imaginary Color’, and the artists including Qiu Shihua and Shang Yang. For a younger representative of this stage would be Cao Jigang.

The reasons why Cao Jigang’s paintings are the ones that manifest and represent the new direction of the third generation of Chinese painting specifically focused on language features and contributions of his artworks listed as below:

Firstly, Cao Jigang re-obtained the unique ‘Jade Texture’ of Chinese civilization, which restores the poetic memories with the accumulated ‘Patina’ in natural history. It was like the transparent beauty of “Ink Concealing Color” and “Color Concealing Ink” from the jade ware in Xia Dynasty that Huang Bin-Hong found in his later ages. Additionally, it was like the setting that the jade texture as the supreme life sensation from Song porcelain, in which only Chinese have remained and accumulated the natural sensation of “Patina”. It consists of the dual poetic memories that naturalize history while historicizing nature. The techniques that Cao Jigang uses to mix the repeated glazing technique of tempera with the layering skills of ink washed painting. This is a combination of two classic techniques from the East and the West, which brings back the long-lost ‘Jade Texture’. Such a cold jade texture contains the modern life perception and resistance, which balances the accelerated heat released from the over-busy lifestyles of modern people and calms our empty minds. It is a warm, delicate texture and insightful sensation of historical time that the previous two generations did not fully deliver.

Secondly, the artworks manage to express the classical literati beauty in the form of contemporary minimalism and elegance. Despite Huang Bin-Hong demonstrated some sublime blossoms in his late ages, he used mainly freehand brushwork with awesomeness, which had some gaps into the desolate and empty-cold poetry. Nonetheless, Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings after the 1980s were more closed to abstract and color field painting, which entered the sensation of beyond humanity and performance. It can regain the essence of Chinese aesthetics only by mastering the vast desolate aesthetics of Tang Dynasty and the plain lightness of Song Dynasty. This is the primary development of the third painting generation. The paintings of Cao Jigang in recent years demonstrate minimalist composition, the elegant tone of black, white, and gray, and the oblique separation and the calmness of the horizontal distance looks like natural scenery, but only a vanished shadow remained. The large white spaces reveal subtle changes of color layers, which the thin lightness seems floating and the slight waves are like the minds that suddenly move far away. Everything resembles indiscernible yet clears our hearts. The legacy dream of Southern Song appears again, and painting has reached the realm of fantastic masterpieces.

Lastly, from the perspective of graphic language in painting, Cao Jigang successfully merges the vivid changes of nature with the graphics of historical literati ingeniously. It presents the inward detachment of modern isolated individuals by utilizing the traditional Chinese art theory of ‘Three Distances’ which reconnects minds with nature. It will shape the aesthetics of our living areas when we exhibit Cao Jigang’s minimalist artworks that illustrate ‘the style of Song paintings’ together with Song porcelain or Ming furniture in a contemporary abundant ancient atmosphere space. The mixture of ancient atmosphere with contemporary artworks, and daily plainness with detached poetry perfectly are a ‘spiritual fasting’ experience which settle the tiredness and busy minds of nowadays people.

Dr. Xia Kejun
Philosopher, art critic, curator. Doctor of Philosophy, currently teaching as professor and doctoral supervisor at the School of Liberal Arts, Renmin University of China.

The Tempera Painting of Cao Jigang: Reflection of Jade, Deep Concentration, and Minimalism

Dr. Xia Kejun

Almost everyone in the world knows the beauty of Mona Lisa’s smile by Leonardo da Vinci; yet, people rarely understand the secret painting skills behind it. The magical smile seems covered with a mysterious veil, which comes from the painting skill, Sfumato. It was said that Leonardo da Vinci painted up to 30 layers of thin oil paint with the thickness of each layer was merely one to two micrometers. The imperceptible transitions show the obscure, light, and transparent effects that soften the rigid sensation of the outlines in oil paintings, and therefore enhance the charms and subtlety of the smile.

The material of Mona Lisa has been believed is in oil on panel. However, it may be more accurate to be considered as in mixed media during the age of ‘Egg Tempera’. In other words, the painting utilized tempera as the color base, despite that the oil colors were more obvious with little evidence of egg tempera. It indeed used some of such material. It is probably used the abundant color layers as the base, or the repeated glazing skill of tempera, which created the color layer effect of the oil painting. Additionally, one of the advantages of oil paint is that it can create extremely thin layers that are capable of repeatedly covering and amending after the coating dried. The Sfumato technique of the painting exerted such an advantage profoundly in the artwork and employed the skill of tempera and its perception theory as the color base.

Hence, what is the technique of tempera? It is a painting skill in the Renaissance that uses a painting medium consists of water and oil to precast the pigments for painting. The glutinous and turbid binder medium usually utilizes egg yolks or the entire egg as the emulsifier, sometimes with a moderate amount of oil and vinegar, to mix with pigments. The feature of the material is not only fast drying but also presents soft luster that shines as an eggshell. After repeated polish and drying processes, layers and layers of colors will remain and show its best appearance that may even with a texture of marble or transparency as clouds.

Except for the difficulty of the technique and the texture of the colors, such a complicated painting process may also possess a sacred sense of reverence from the artists toward arts or religions, presenting strong faith as the deep and indelible texture. The elaborate process is meant to enrich the colors, as like the tens of trapping halos from the heaven that shines eternally.

Kilns of Song Dynasty, such as Ru Ware and Ding Ware, is well known for its pure and extreme beauty. The name of “China” represents the meaning of “Porcelain”. Why do Chinese people pursue the texture of solid color for their daily utensils such as white porcelain and celadon with minimal form? How do they develop such a high-end metaphysical quality? The solid color has provided the object with an extreme purity, which delivers the “Jade Texture” with a plain yet faint aura. Such a near and far sensation has almost made it a holy relic.

Why “Jade Texture” becomes the supreme life quality in Chinese culture? There were secrets about “Color Breathes in Ink” and “Ink Breathes in Color” since Xia Dynasty, as the literati, Huang Bin-Hong, once mentioned. It transferred the morality and etiquette that were as clear as jade ware into the pure aesthetics as the jade texture. Being the pure quality of cultural life, no matter it is poetic jade dew or the psychic gem described in a novel; the jade texture has become the deepest secret of cultural life and individuals.

From jade to the jade texture of Song Dynasty porcelain, the jade texture differs from the Lapis Lazuli in ancient times, the shiny and waxy sensation in the western classics, the ink light of Chinese ink wash paintings, the monotony of contemporary monochrome paintings, and the dazzling psychedelic colors in modern society. It is a feeling we could touch yet feel mysteriously far away, a touch with aura, and a deep sense with the permeability of time’s patina that contains a gently and deeply peaceful beauty, which enables the slack contemporary souls to concentrate calmly.

If there is a reason for painting to be existed for its delivering a unique perception and touching beauty, it is necessary to “create” a jade texture. This is almost the only and the final secret of painting.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, couple of professors from the Oil Painting Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing attempted to retrieve the egg tempera technique from ancient western society. They have been exploring the skills for years, and Cao Jigang is one of the core members. In other words, twenty years ago, Cao Jigang had given up the oil painting skills that he had employed for a long time. Instead, he started to re-explore the contemporary value of tempera paintings.

Why choosing such a complicated technique as tempera painting? Tens layers of repeated glazing and covering with multiple times of handling to different pigments. It is similar to archaeological works that have complex procedures, as well as similar to the process of making prints. Still, it requires artists to be more patience, to pause, and to consider the light changes and transparency. Finally, the artwork will obtain a sense of gloss that watercolor oil paintings would never be able to present, a texture similar to marble, jade, and porcelain—the jade texture.

The jade texture condenses all kinds of technical skills, aesthetic purposes, and the work of mind cultivation. A task that needs endurance with time-intensity; the work requires tremendous concentration and exquisite sensitivity. These traits are the abundance that the modern accelerate era to be lack of, especially the sense of time in conceptual art.

What will happen when “Tempera” met “Shanshui”? The cultural visual memory of the entire traditional landscape painting and the flawless living memories of literati, aesthetics, mountains, and rivers will be reconstructed and perceived in modern ways. To Cao Jigang, he is not complacent about the challenges and the pleasure after learning tempera. He attempts to modify tempera with ink washed texture. In other words, he expects to address tempera painting with the ink washed texture as the artworks of Song Dynasty to demonstrate the jade or porcelain texture. And this caused the dual modifications, one is adding permeability as ink washed to the tempera technique that already has a transparency effect (although the plaster foundation of tempera painting corresponds to seeping), and the other is displaying the deep touch of time in jade texture (which is much richer and gentler than the jade texture in western tempera paintings). To Cao Jigang, this is not merely a research of “techniques” but the transformation of a “skill toward Taoism”.

When “Tempera” met “Shanshui”, Cao Jigang began with landscape painting which delivered abundant changes naturally without falling into abstract conceptual operation and repeated production. Unlike improvisational landscape painting, it has to engage in-depth cultural history ingeniously while preserving the plentiful changes of natural.

Secondly, Cao Jigang illustrates the cultural-historical memories of traditional landscape paintings through his works. Therefore, he created such a vivid landscape painting with the part of a valley seems to echo with the Snow Mountains by Guo Xi, an artist in Song Dynasty, which shows a flash of a classic part in a Song Dynasty artwork.

Thirdly, his paintings are definitely not like a partial enlargement but the accumulation of many layers of time perception that mixes the vitality at that moment with time differences. Layering the iconography of historical cultures and pushing the scene before your eyes to the extremely far away. It is not the extreme of the naked eye, but the extreme of historical memories, among which, mixing a pinch of vicissitudes. Take the tremendous artwork, “Guangling San”, for example, the scene contains in-depth historical tragedy.

Fourthly, by applying the layering skill repeatedly in tempera painting, the traditional black-and-white ink paintings display a heavier sensation. It feels like the accumulate-ink method of Gong Xian in the late Ming Dynasty that using layers and layers of accumulation is similar to print the historical trauma of hearts. It may seem nothing at first glance. Nevertheless, the delicate granularity and the mottled marks remain underneath the transparent layer with gentle care. Isn’t the tempera technique the care and protection to the broken patterns in lives? Isn’t it like a terminal lucidity of old memories?

Lastly, the value of paintings in this accelerating virtual era is to bring a pause to concentration and to re-confirm the mind to focus on this era full of scattered minds. The accompanying changes in life quality would become the vitality for us to speed up promptly. The more we feel enthusiastic, the more we need to be calm. The white-hot modernity requires extreme calmness; it is like balancing the poetic scenes with empty cold and quiet qualities. This is what the sensation of life need desperately, and such peace and extremes need to reflect via the jade texture! This far-reaching second wind and the desolate and empty cold feelings reproduce the coldness of jade texture, which transfers our restless souls. Consequently, the classic poetry can express in the contemporary era.

The contemporary value of Cao Jigang’s paintings is the repeated glazing in tempera layers. He changes our perceptions about life and rebuilds our souls by the memories in the poetry of cultural history and the jade texture triggered by empty-cold poetry.

In recent years, there are more profound changes in Cao Jigang’s artworks. In the Cao Jigang Solo show represented by Bluerider ART, we can see more masterpieces that are new and experience profound, heartbreaking exploration. This is the reason why Bluerider ART particularly named the exhibition as “When Tempera met Shanshui”, which indicates an encounter of two classics in the contemporary period and expects shining sparks to forge!

There are no straightforward landscape paintings. Instead, you will find something simplified, similar to a part of or the hemming of the Southern Song Dynasty, which is the segmentation of black and white.

Something seems like mountains, may it be a split of an abstract concept or even the contrast of black and white colors. Nonetheless, they are not abstract paintings but something with light creases. The gentleness of seams at the edges of mountains lingers the deep emotion of the artist.

The peaceful gaze from the distance of the horizon will bring an insightful intimation. The traditional Chinese art theory of “three distances”, in Cao Jigang’s masterpieces, will be demonstrated in a more simplified abstract way, which gives subtle tremble to the atmosphere.

There is a bit of gray appeared on the surface seems merely black and white, which are like the new three primary colors. The painting has again divided into three, which are the parts of gentleness, dimness, and poetry. These parts present the bright and elegant poetry to the entire artwork. Because the lightness at the edges of the outlines and the seams, the three parts seem to float secretly with meandering breathes.

In these minimalist works, unlike the minimalism in abstract arts, they only leave a touch of smoke shadow and the floating intangible color. It is exactly the smoke shadow lingers between vanishing and staying, gives a feeling of either impermanent or timeless. Charming yet blurred, transparent yet abundant, the artist managed to seize the moment on the painting naturally.

It is a world as virtuous as jade, like merely presenting the outline of mountains with touches of transparent and light marks, and like the rim of a Song porcelain cup. Are the calm peace and smoke lightness not the hidden poetry that attempted many times to deliver on the overlapped rock cliffs or in the smoke mist by Wang Shen in Northern Song, Ni Zan in Yuan Dynasty, and Dong Qichang and Wang Hui in Ming Dynasty? Under the dilemma between landscape painting and photography, the poetic sensation of skills seems to be lost in modern times. Nevertheless, Cao Jigang with the support of tempera’s technique, prosperity, and haze, as well as the dual transformation of ink wash and jade textures, enable the reappearance of the poetic calmness and aura.

Absentminded and floating, impermanent yet eternal, painting provides an implicit tension that offers those rushing, empty contemporary souls an opportunity to concentrate calmly. Nothing is more impermanent than those moments, and nothing is more eternal and stable than mountains. However, in Cao Jigang’s tempera paintings, those floating objects has been stabilized and eternal matters started to float, which rejoins after reversing. It is so simple and quiet which expresses the contemporary era by the deepest desolate calmness.

The new paintings of Cao Jigang are the representative of the contemporary aesthetics in imaginary color. It differs from the abstract landscape paintings of Zao Wou-Ki that show a strong emotional performance and brushstrokes, and it differs from Richard Lin’s abstract collage with minimalist bars, either. Instead, it is something that deepens into ancient Chinese poetic scenes; yet, with the mindset of minimalism and abstract logic.

When ‘Tempera’ met ‘Shanshui’, a divine intersection of two classics themes. Mixing two of the most supreme qualities is the modern conciseness and abstract, which enables us to absorb the essence from the classic and to combine it with the poetry. This might be a brand new contribution in Chinese painting: a return of the classic poetry while simplifying the abstract idea into something with higher purity. A reappear of classic techniques in the western and the prosperity while maintaining the timeless jade texture of traditional Chinese classic, which becomes the revival and combination of the two classics themes. Engaging the classical mindset and the elegant sentiment with the fashion of modern conciseness and purity to acquire in-depth sensation. Only to keep the tension of paradox can reach the internationalization standard in painting, and enable painting to go further and be more fascinating. Cao Jigang’s paintings develop in such a high-tension environment, supreme and elegant while being concise and subtle. We will all sincerely expect the path of its future.

Dr. Xia Kejun
Philosopher, art critic, curator. Doctor of Philosophy, currently teaching as professor and doctoral supervisor at the School of Liberal Arts, Renmin University of China.

The Tempera Paintings to Cao Jigang: Dark Valleys of Ink and Stones Transformed into Snow

Dr. Xia Kejun

Art is in a remnant state, and whether it faces nature or history, art is facing its own disappearance. In its pursuit of this disappearance, art becomes strong. When men enters into a so-called post history state, the existence of nature begins to be revealed. An increasingly naked nature reveals its tenacity. A stone, a so-called solid, sturdy stone, has no demands of human history, and seems to bear no historical burden. It just stands there for tens of thousands, even millions of years. Such stones have their own independent existence, with no need for human observation. They stand outside of mankind, staunchly revealing their existence. When human consciousness retreats, existence of nature begins to reveal its dignity. Yet it is only a matter of “tattered remnants.” because mankind still has its own memories, even if those memories are in the midst of disappearing.

When we see Cao Jigang’s painting, that ten-plus meter Guangling San, I firmly believe that he has heard the lingering echoes of the world and life. He has been pursuing and listening for that last note from zither before Ji Kang was executed in the Wei dynasty: there is only that one last time, and so there will never again be that ancient and tragic majesty of Guangling San. The act of listening to this lingering echo holds onto that passing ancient sound. When we stand before this painting, we see that muted, desolate ancient zither. It is merely a lingering shadow, as if made from an ink stain. The painting is filled with the writing from his letter of refusal to Ju Shanyuan, also traces of ink and brush. The lingering Sounds of the ancient music and the dispersing traces of ink filled the painting with a desolate air, as if bringing us back to that ancient scene of tragedy. Life is always in its last moment, and only a passionate song is high enough to strike back for a moment and impending tragedy.

It's worth wondering how Cao Jigang was able to produce such a profound and heavy work of art in contemporary painting. In this pursuit, I have no intention of tracing the inner trajectory of the artist’s mind. It is not by chance that a person in his fifties would produce a painting that Transcends the limitations of painting. It is an insight into life and history. The story of the life of Ji Kang and the scattering of this music have been transformed by Cao Jigang into an incident of painting that more clearly testifies to the remnant state of art: art is merely in a state of fading echoes, and all it can do is try to constantly extend this echo. This is the last moment, but the disappearing echo constantly returns. This is the purview of art. Like the memory of music, music is itself in a constant state of pursuit and listening, coming and passing. The Sound of Music is just an instantaneously coming and instantaneously disappearing temporal marker. To bestow this music with a tragic sublimity Brings a modern character to Chinese art. In the mourning and remembrance of a sacred thing, the passionate love for a tattered remnant, those who view Guangling San will be moved to tears. Tears are the only gift that art has left to give.

Thus, stones can weep. Stones have a spiritual quality. Battered by the wind and rain, stones have witnessed the coming and disappearance of natural things. The forms and textures of stones are the traces of time, and not at the hands of man—they are inscribed aimlessly and in non-action by nature. But that which has happened has already passed, leaving only remnant traces. To capture these remnant traces, both as a whole and in the details, awakening the spirit of the stones, this is the profound mystery of observing the mountains. I believe that Cao Jigang looks at the mountains with just such a lonely and heavy gaze.

How to view a mountain? Is it with the gaze of shanshui or landscape painting? Is it some combination of the two? How do we bring the natural landscape to think within us, just as Cézanne in his late period formed a unique gaze as he faced Mont Sainte-Victoire? How do we form such a gaze that is not the geometric abstraction of the Cubists but allows the mountains and stones to think within us? To effect an inner fusion between landscape and shanshui painting has always been the most fundamental task for contemporary Chinese painters.

The ways are many: life studies, presenting the appearance of nature, embellished with the expressive power of painting colors, or the perspective relationships and precise depictions of landscape painting. Chen Jigang painted the historical brilliance of the landscape painting in his Great Wall Series from the 1990s. Another approach is the formulaic expression of brush and ink. Shanshui painting awaits a new breakthrough in the blurring of its compositional modes. This can be seen in his return to the Great Wall theme with Desolation of the Great Wall, which was no longer a realistic depiction of the Great Wall landscape but what appeared to be a tattered historical scroll stained with ink. But the question remains: how to look at the mountain? If we set out from Western landscape painting and its paints, how can we bring the unique viewing method of traditional shanshui painting into landscape painting? Cao Jigang has confronted this challenge well.

He still began with life studies. He repeatedly faced a mountain, such as a particular peak on Mt. Hua, and conveyed the magnificence of Mt. Hua as Song dynasty painter Fan Kuan did in his shanshui painting. But for Cao Jigang, the shanshui painting and nature are mere infra-images, merely in a remnant state. The shanshui painting and landscape painting are in a remnant state, and the artist looks back with a mournful gaze at their infra-image.

This remnant state best corresponds to the predicament of the era and of art itself: we can no longer observe nature and shanshui paintings in the traditional way, because that mindset and condition have disappeared. Likewise, landscape painting has been turned into spectacle by photographic technology. If there is still shanshui painting and natural scenery, it is as a remnant shadow of cultural memory. But how can we grasp this infra-image? We must grasp the remnant perception of landscape painting.

Cao Jigang has consciously transformed the entire system of traditional shanshui painting, which he has in turn used to transform landscape painting, using the diffusion of ink to engage in an ink transformation of tempera. Though Zao Wou-ki had previously brought the brush and ink techniques of shanshui painting into landscape painting, integrating the two through abstracted textural traces, this still awaits further expansion through modes of thinking and spiritual mindsets. This will be an integration of "ink transformation" and "silent transformation," an integration between the seeping flows of ink and the wordless reservation of nature.

The observation of ink shanshui painting is unique in that it is not merely presented in visual form. Of course, it cannot do without precise expression of form, but it quickly transforms "visual" re-creation into the "tactile," just as the chapped brushing technique restores the form of stones to the sense of touch in brushwork, bringing the stimulation of rhythm through the chapped marks of ink scrubbed across the paper. The sensation of writing has been retained, and continues to grow, while this sense of touch further conveys a "sense of taste." This sense of taste is an aftertaste of comprehension, a taste outside of taste. This lingering flavor remains, and its conscious strengthening extends the taste of ink and brush into "remnant perception." This remnant perception comprises all of the changes seen when life suddenly looks back, the intersection where a time and space have been broken off, yet are also pulled swiftly back in, causing a trickle of tears. It is as if beginning and end have both found response. This aftertaste is subtle and barely perceptible. When Cao Jigang created Guangling Melody, this look back over cultural memory found individual affirmation, an affirmation full of the spirit of ink.

He chose tempera, which is an ancient, oil-based painting material that also best corresponds to the seeping and diffusion required by the touch and taste of water-based ink. The tempera painting technique requires repeated application to create a base, and repeated grinding. Every application leaves its traces, accumulating in multiple layers of transparent traces like the traces of ink diffusion. It is like each act of grinding is the retention of a thing which is disappearing, a constant covering by mere remnant traces. Thus, when Cao Jigang sets out to paint what appears to be a landscape painting, when he faces a pile of mountain stones, he only leaves an infra-image in the painting. This is his unique approach of emptying out the mountain landscape through the diffusion techniques of ink painting. Sometimes, what we see appears to be an ink painting, with large traces of ink trickling down. The overall atmosphere retains the grand bearing of landscape and shanshui painting, but when we look at the details of these giant painted works, it is as if the ink painting has been eroded by time, leaving abstracted traces and shadows of ink which are still breathing and quivering.by time, leaving abstracted traces and shadows of ink which are still breathing and quivering.

This infra-image viewing method has maintained both emptying transformation and substance, possessing a tension between seeping and shaping. On one hand, it appears emptied, because of the repeated washings and the abstract rendering of the details. It is as if the entire painting is shrouded in a diffuse atmosphere, both grand and heavy. Each stroke of the brush interacts with the others within a particular atmosphere. This is the sense of seepage brought out by the Chinese-style repeated return to aftertaste. Each stroke of the brush is connected, fusing together within a deeper background, seeping and savoring. On the other hand, the sense of texture of the stone is preserved through repeated applications. The stones possess clear outlines and forms, as well as a strong sculptural feel. Thus, this emptying is not simple thinking. It is infra-thickness, possessing an inner thickness. This is the strength brought out by the use of tempera, and where it differs from the materials of ink painting. Cao Jigang has somehow managed to integrate the two.

Not only that, but in the spiritual realm, Cao Jigang's works have integrated the "conceptual imagery" of shanshui painting and the "sublime" of landscape painting. The methods of diffusion and seepage in ink painting encapsulate China's unique attitude of the "silent transformation" of nature, pursuing the natural shifts of dispersing clouds while also bestowing it with vibrant rhythm, a rhythm that also maintains the changes of nature. Thus, clouds have become the best formal embodiment of this (rather than the formalized fixing of language in the West).

Cao Jigang's way of seeing is modern in that he is always viewing the mountain stones through a remnant perceptive method, rather than the plain view of nature in tradition. This is a gaze that confronts the transformation of change and the perception of existence. It is the writing of a modern Revelation. This is particularly apparent in the Image of Huashan Mountain, which is anything but a life study. Large swaths of black ink drip down from the mountain ridge, giving a sense of endless sadness. Abstract painters, from Newman to Rothko, all strived to convey a modern sense of tragedy. When faced with the inexpressible, they sought ways to convey the abyss of existence in formal language. For the Chinese painter, however, particularly Cao Jigang, it is the silence of nature, the destruction of nature. His quest is how to bring nature to return within this pitch black abyss, to come with inner vitality. On one hand is the predicament of the ruins of destructive change in modernity. On the other hand, it must also radiate with inner vitality.

Dr. Xia Kejun
Philosopher, art critic, curator. Doctor of Philosophy, currently teaching as professor and doctoral supervisor at the School of Liberal Arts, Renmin University of China.

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