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The Art of Zhimin Guan- 30 Years in America

Essay by Pamela Sund


“Freedom is the greatest masterpiece.” -Joseph Brodsky


In a high-tech and group-think saturated world, it is often the individual artist who keeps a precious, human-centered commodity—individuality—alive. Whether visual or literary, the necessity for experiencing, fostering, bolstering, and cataloging the accomplishments of individual artists stands as a bulwark against an ever-increasing homogenization of the human experience, against the squelching of freedom itself.

The human person gravitates, by biology and inclination, toward the tête-à-tête, the one-on-one experiences in life; this is a pattern in art, as well. The artist goes face to face with the materials of production. The viewer goes one-on-one with the creation. The entire process encourages the enlivening and preservation of individuality, that of the artist and of the person experiencing the art.

Zhimi Guan’s great strength and genius lies in his spirit of independence, and his artistic evolution as a free-bird practitioner proves it. While many, if not most serious artists evolve toward a fixed identifiable style, Guan continuously morphs his oeuvre, breaking the mold, changing subjects, and evolving stylistically as personal consciousness changes, as intellect and spirit evolve, as degrees of artistic freedom are altered. 

His experimental approach has led, from his mastery of academic realism, to surrealism, and to a neo-abstraction of his own order, with multiple iterations in between, turning each group of paintings into significant, cohesive, powerful bodies of work. His prodigious output in each collection is substantive in mastery and quantity. This self-directed departure is a tribute to his passionate pursuit of self-realization and transcendence through art. As the artist has aptly described this process: “My art is my experiment on myself to discover myself.” Guan’s disciplines and mediums include drawing in pencil, charcoal, and pastels; brush and ink wash; calligraphy; plus painting in oil, acrylic, and watercolor.  Painting is passion and mainstay. 

  Guan’s overarching aesthetic is grounded in the oldest continuous art culture in the world, China, and in his adopted country, the U.S., where the postmodern art style he stepped into in 1998 was characterized by a free-for-all amalgamation of art genres. This dual and dueling juxtaposition--holding to tradition while also embracing innovation, set his own artistic pursuit on a new path. The result is East meeting West, ancient meeting the newbie culture, and the artist meeting himself in new environs where he would find his own “new” way. 

Another striking aspect is Guan’s fluency in each style and the cohesiveness which ties all the groupings together. The glue that binds, that underpins his overall aesthetic is his mastery of realism, a result, in part, of his training in China in the European academic style of drawing where the focus is on realistic representation of 3-dimensional form, particularly anatomy. Add to this his facile, energetic ability with abstraction, his poetic metaphysical approach with surrealism, and his ability to escape paradigms with his signature morphing of style. 

Guan’s philosophical influences include Daoism and Confucianism, the belief systems of his parents and grandparents, philosophical ideas that Guan, too, holds dear. Daoism stresses cultivating harmony in life, striving to live the “no action is the best action” approach; while Confucianism stresses living as an active participant in the world, creating order in one’s life and showing concern and respect for social norms, tradition, and convention. The following quote aptly characterizes these approaches: “If the Daoist goal is to become like a piece of unhewn and natural wood, the goal of the Confucians is to become a carved sculpture. Daoists put the piece before us just as it is found in its naturalness, and the Confucians polish it, shape it, and decorate it.”1 Guan’s extensive repertoire represents both nature and culture, order and flux.

How are the aforementioned approaches expressed in Guan’s work?  On the tradition side, or one could say, the Confucian side, he implements the ancient Chinese laws of painting from the “Six Canons” of Xie He. One especially poignant canon that is easy to identify in Guan’s work is “Spirit Resonance,” the artist’s sensitivity to the subject and the ability to express the “vital spirit” of said subject.  Another is the “bone method” in brush work, i.e., using the brush to delineate form accurately and powerfully, to express personality through line. 

Add to this, ideas regarding line from 17th century Chinese landscape painter, monk, and art theorist, Shitao, which Guan has absorbed and masterfully utilizes. Ancient Chinese painting followed codified patterns; fledgling artists learned their craft by copying works of ancient masters. Shitao broke the mold, writing and creating paintings that expressed individualism, not just formulaic norms. In Sayings on Painting from Monk Bitter Gourd (what a title!), Shitao defines a single brush stroke or primordial line--also termed the Holistic Brushstroke--as the genesis of all representation. He speaks of the brushstroke as an avenue to a higher reality, as well: “A single brushstroke can define even that which lies beyond the borders of the universe.” Whether in his realistic imagery, or in the surrealistic or abstract forms, the power of Guan’s use of the Holistic Brushstroke stuns, whether in creating energy or subtlety, excitement or calm; whatever the mood calls for, Guan executes the exact line quality, which includes suggesting higher realities, i.e., spiritual essence.

Guan’s influences from the West include: from August Rodin’s intensely expressive sculptures, Guan discovered that he, too, could tap into his own emotional reservoir more forcefully, unleashing his imagination and producing work “with a stronger emotional feeling.”  From Dali, he recognized the power in juxtaposing incongruous, dreamlike images in partially understandable, but mysterious ways, showing how disparate images can create provocative new realities.  From Antoni Tapies, Guan saw that he could heighten the power of his own calligraphic gestures, thereby gaining more freedom in expressive mark-making in his own rambunctious abstract expressionist works. 

An insightful quote from Oriental artist Liu Kuo-Sung, an artist and thinker Guan admires, applies to Guan himself and symbolizes his art practice of the last 30 years. “Painters must have new ideas, new feelings, new stories and a strong desire to express them.” Guan’s desire to explore life, to move from one culture to another, to commune with other artists, to travel and explore historically diverse art cultures, to live life close to the ground, in touch with the landscape and social scape keeps his own art fresh and his personal iconography and painterly approach, refreshing.

Expressing individuality but staying reverential to tradition is a Guanian goal; his respect for beauty, quality of representation, being able to mime reality, but to also break out into expressive abstract visions are important to the artist, but above all, beauty is of ultimate value. (You will never see Guan taping a banana to a wall and calling it art).  Guan’s aesthetic position and practice reminds me of a quote from Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents: “Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it.”

On the following pages, you will witness, in each of six categories of Guan ouvre, the ideas expressed above.  Each series is prefaced by detailed explication of that body of work, plus close examination and detailed descriptions of individual representative works. Enjoy the show!

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