November 14, 2010

Two into One

Two Into One

“Whatever the thing, it is always a case of dividing one into two and not combining two into one”
-Qi Zhen Hai

For the past week, I have been preparing documents for an application which entails telling a life story in art and publications. These documents span just over twenty-five years - a quarter of a century! Despite aching muscles from hovering over paper cutters, desktops, and photocopy machines it has been a humbling overview thus far. Yes, I had done a lot of work, but I wish I had done more, done better and organized it all more efficiently.

What has been particularly interesting this past week was the occasion to review very early exhibitions. Had I known twenty-five years earlier that I would be called upon to provide documents of these events I would have been a more diligent archivist. The original invitations and documents from some of these early exhibitions long lost or discarded, I’ve been filling in the blanks by retrieving images from these bygone eras and putting them together in a presentable format with the help of my sister’s superior graphic design skills.

The first replaced piece of history concerns the very first one-woman exhibition I had in the United States. A naive newcomer to the art scene in America, I had no clue as to how a gallery or museum should be approached a gallery about exhibiting a body of work. So my first exhibition was at a dance studio - the Aparri School of Dance in Princeton, New Jersey in 1985 to be exact. I had not even included this exhibition on my resume, but I am now rethinking this documentation because in recent years I’ve been working more frequently with dancers. Now this early liaison makes for a more cohesive narrative.

Mila Gibbons, the director of the Aparri School of Dance passed away a number of years ago and her lively school is no longer in operation.. Madam Gibbons was a fascinating international character and a fluent speaker of French and German. She was old Princeton. Someone who might best be described as a Princeton Brahmin, if such a term even exists. Madam Gibbons had an old-fashioned Victorian sense of propriety that in retrospect was rather quaint. She could meet you for a weekly tea over the period of, say, about a decade, without ever even alluding to previous marriages or unhappy family relationships. Madam Gibbons carried herself with the deportment of a dancer, gliding through a room with consummate posture and head held high. I never saw her in a state that was not well-groomed, well coiffed, and impeccably dressed. This venerable matron could be described as my first mentor in the world of art exhibitions.

And what a pleasant exhibition it was. It provided me with the experience of putting together a body of work for an American audience and some cash in my pocket for my relocation to Europe.
What I would give to have that hand-lettered invitation!

Fortunately, I do have pictorial records of the work from that time. Perhaps the most intriguing examples of paintings from that show was the series of works on paper called collectively “Two into One.” These paintings were completed in China shortly before my husband and I left the country to teach in Holland. I had not put them onto silk scrolls like my more traditional brush paintings and had neither the time nor inclination to frame them. My father came up with the ingenious idea of creating an installation for them made out of four tall wooden doors affixed to one another to form a pillar. This stood in the middle of the Dance floor with the leaves of “Two into One” pinned to it.

The paintings of “Two into One” were executed with inks and watercolors onto thin, transparent cafe-au-lait colored rag paper. The paper was created in Hebei province, China and had a deliciously warm cotton blanket like softness. The Beijing Art Academy professor Li Xiao Wen taught me how to use these homemade papers in 1984-1985. With a judicious use of inks and pigments, professor Li was able to create effects on this paper that looked similar to batik. The secret was to paint on both sides of the paper. Professor Li showed me some of his own paintings with lines and highlights on one side of the paper with darker inks and pigments washed onto the obverse side. The effect was that the darker pigments would seep through the fibers of the paper and react with the lighter pigments on the other side to create a crenulated look. I used a variation on this technique to create the paintings I have shown examples of here.

My “Two into One” series of paintings raised some eyebrows in China. It perhaps took some nerve to call the group by a title that had a volatile history. On one thematic level, they were simply naive and childlike depictions. I painted them thinking of the colors and shapes of children’s wooden building blocks. They were for the most part about adult relationships, however. To be specific they represented conditions of war, love, study, worship, commerce, play, meditation, and dance. In addition to the paintings, I carved a series of small stones with comparable images that I printed onto the page below the paintings. A fellow ex-patriot further embellished these with some lovely poetry.

One reason that there was some consternation about this little series of figurative paintings in Beijing was because the heads were floating above the bodies. The second reason had to do with the descriptive phrase “Two into One.” This phrase had a significance with regard to the Cultural Revolution that China in the 1980's was still coming to terms with. During the late sixties the subject of whether “One Becomes Two” or “Two Becomes One” was hotly debated. To a western person, the fact that people were persecuted and may even have lost their lives over what appeared to be a circular argument that would enervate even the most stalwart Sophist, seems a tragic waste. But at the time it was serious business. To oversimplify, “One Becomes Two” was a code for the dialectic philosophy of Marxism while “Two Becomes One” could allude to western style capitalism.

The paintings of “Two into One” were executed in a style that was very different from the one I came to China to learn. Towards the end of my tenure there I think that a western aesthetic began to reassert itself and these paintings were like a Chinese tale told in translation on the road back west. The only time they were exhibited in the United States was through the gracious support of Mila Gibbons at the Aparri School of Dance so long ago. The collection has since been dispersed - sold, traded or given away. In seeing them again I wonder if they were two into one or one into two? Were these figures defined by their enclosures or was the space defined by their dual actions? At least it does no harm to wonder.

No comments: