The Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg rarely devotes more than one of its half-dozen galleries to a single artist or exhibition, so when curators decide to allocate three galleries to one show, one is obliged to pay attention.
Last week, the center unveiled a sprawling collection of Asian art that highlights the so-called Yunnan School of painting that emerged from the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Remarkably, it is possibly the first public showing in Oregon featuring the work of the artist widely regarded as a key founder, Jiang Tiefeng. The show intrigues on several levels.
One, it was produced by artists who, either by choice or dictate, were sequestered in the southwestern province of Yunnan (which shares a stretch of its own southern border with Vietnam) during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Two, the work is the quintessence of “melting pot” art. The paintings were produced by urban, university-trained Chinese artists who left familiar surroundings to live in an isolated rural area, bringing with them European influences, New Age perspectives and, of course, a knowledge of traditional Chinese art, which dates back thousands of years.
Far from the scrutiny of Beijing, the artists found themselves working in a rural region with its own traditions of folk and indigenous art. More significantly, they used the freedom afforded by isolation to experiment with styles and content.
Finally, all the pieces in this show are “generously on loan from the Royal Arts Gallery.” Except that there isn’t a Royal Arts Gallery. Upon inquiry, I learned that this is shorthand for: They’re from a private Oregon collector who wants to remain anonymous and whose identity the curators aren’t releasing.
All of which is to say the exhibition, which runs through April 26, is unique, unorthodox, and must-see.
The paintings in this collection that represent Jiang and 11 other artists are a far cry from what you’d associate with traditional Chinese art — the light color washes of mountains, landscapes, and birds, to pick just one trend that emerged over centuries. The history of artistic development in China is long and both intellectually and geographically complex, so generalizations are unwise. But it is undeniably true that art took a hairpin turn in the service of revolution when Communists took over in the mid-20th century, reaching the absurd extremes of Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution starting in 1966. You’ve probably seen propaganda art from the period, much of it featuring Mao himself in bold colors, looking benevolent and larger-than-life.
One of the artists who created those images was a man named Jiang Tiefeng, born in 1938 in Ningbo in Zhejiang Province. Exposed as a child to the extraordinary murals found in China’s Mogao caves near Dunhuang, he went on to earn a degree in art and was put to work by the government producing triumphant images of Communist revolution and posters illustrating what to do in case of a nuclear attack. According to the Chehalem center’s promotional materials (gleaned from two books I also had a chance to look at), Jiang and several other artists volunteered to work in Yunnan Province, a region called home by nearly two dozen indigenous tribes with their own customs, traditions, and mythologies.
The melting pot was thus mixed and stirred in secret for the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution. The artistic ideas developed there wouldn’t be seen by the rest of the world until after Mao died in 1976. The Beijing National Art Gallery in 1981 featured the work of Ten Artists from Yunnan and the term “Yunnan School” was coined. Many of the artists, including Jiang, immigrated to the United States, where they continued their work.
One of the few scholars to put the Yunnan School under a magnifying glass is Joan Lebold Cohen. In 1988, her oversized book Yunnan School: A Renaissance in Chinese Painting was published, followed a decade later by her Jiang: Father of the Yunnan School. With the fall of Communism releasing the stranglehold on artists everywhere, Chinese art was able to “rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution,” she writes.
The artist himself is quoted in one of the books:
“My deep love of the colorful earth and for Xishuangbanna, a region of the Yunnan Province, has encouraged me to explore and create unceasingly. Such a mysterious land blessed with unique beauty offers innumerable subjects to be painted. My paintings are not only pictures — they are also music and poetry that is bewitching, sweet dreams that are being dreamed.”
The paintings exhibit a variety of influences: The elegant, free-flowing line work found in the ancient Mogao caves, which contain more than 50,000 square meters of Buddhist murals; depictions of the human form (mostly women, nude) that hint of Picasso and Matisse; imagery that was likely central to the folk art of the region — horses, flutes, cherry blossoms.
But again, careful with the generalizations. Because the show contains a number of pieces that, if placed side-by side (and in one instance, they literally are), would defeat any attempt to find similarities in style, theme, or content. I’m thinking particularly of Jiang’s Proud Mother, which depicts a lumbering elephant with her calf. Black dominates, but bold blues and reds are imaginatively incorporated into the piece.
Next to that is possibly the largest piece in the exhibition, an unnamed work by He Neng that depicts life in an idyllic village dwarfed by the surrounding jungle. I was surprised to learn that this colorless work is actually an unfinished sketch. Try not to examine the dazzling line work up close; every single flora is meticulously approached with a different touch and flair. But they gel into a cohesive whole that depicts a sort of epic calm.
Regular readers will be familiar with my occasional disclaimers about lacking expertise in visual art. This particular school of painting, which emerged out of a remote Chinese province half a century ago, is even farther off any track I’ve beaten.
Not that it would have been easy, as an Oregonian, to hear about it. In a list of more than 100 of Jiang’s exhibitions dating back to the 1970s (most of which were held in the United States) none was in Oregon. The nearest, and most recent, was in a Seattle gallery in 1996.
What’s hanging on the walls of a public arts center in Newberg right now may well be the first show of its kind in the state, one that puts the Chehalem galleries in the same league as any in Portland. Which is to say: Attention must be paid.
Asian Art Collection featuring the Yunnan School of Painting runs through April 26 in the Chehalem Cultural Center, 415 E. Sheridan Street in Newberg. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Admission is free.
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.