Asian Pacific Art Institute of America
Jiashan Mu: In Search of a Universal Link*
By Julia Bordiga Grinstein, Ph.D.
Everybody is running forward to pursue
something; but I am trying to step back
to my own position, to find myself and
feel myself and express my own feeling
about nature, societies, and life.
Jiashan Mu is one of a few chosen artists who transcend his own artistry into a world of introspective landscapes and suggestive figures bridging two worlds. Raised and trained in the traditional Chinese art style, and nurtured in ancient Chinese philosophy and the Martial Arts (Kung Fu), he has lately immersed himself in the realities of the Western world. After distinguishing himself with works in the New Literati style, Mu’s masterful and artistic blend of East and West, has produced a group of paintings that reflects his viewing of the new landscape rendered in his distinctive Chinese style.
Jiashan Mu (a.k.a. Qing kou Shan Ren) was born in 1961 in Lian Yun Gang, on the eastern shore of the Jiangsu province, China. The second of three boys, the six-year old Jiashan was encouraged by his father, a skilled electronic engineer, and his mother to study calligraphy and painting at an early age. There is a charming story by Yan Nan that attributes Mu’s early training and interest in being a painter to “the huge waves in his hometown.” (Yan) Apparently, the parents kept young Mu indoors to prevent him from swimming, and he, thus, found entertainment in scribbling and doing sketches. Mu denies the anecdote and says that actually it was he who insisted in learning painting. Moreover, after the initial encouragement, his parents wanted him to change professions and become a carpenter, because that would assure him a more stable economic future. Mu’s will prevailed.
His artistic inclination was also encouraged and appreciated by his teachers at the elementary and secondary level schools. After high school he entered the military where he served for three years as a gunner in the Army. Aside from his routine duties, Mu found time to continue learning more about art through self-exploration and teaching it to his fellow soldiers as well as publishing his art in a local newspaper. Out of the military and with the unusual experience acquired from this environment he began working at a county cultural gallery. After three years he decided to continue his studies and major in Chinese Art. He entered the prestigious Nanjing Institute of Fine Arts where he graduated with a Masters’ degree in Traditional Chinese Painting and Calligraphy in 1991. Alongside his academic studies, Mu devoted much time to reading the ancient Chinese philosophy (i.e. Taoism and Confucionism) and folk literature. During those formative years he was deeply influenced by the teachings of his masters Chen Dan Yun and Lui Haisu. When Mu approached Zuo Zhuangwei to show him some of his works, the master was not only impressed by his “powerful and natural strokes,” but also by his appearance, “he was in a Zhongshan coat and blue jeans with his long hair covering a delicate face.” (Zuo) Young and gifted, Mu already nested a very mature personality and depth of thought, a “middle-age mind” as he recalls it, that made his fellow students at the Institute nickname him “old Mu.”
Upon graduation he began his teaching career at a college in Nanjing. In 1991 he was appointed Professor and Research Artist at the Nanjing Institute of Fine Arts where he had previously been a student, a fact that reflects on his own high standards and the degree of appreciation he had received in academic circles. At the same time he began to exhibit nationwide and to have his first solo exhibits. In 1995 he was invited to visit the United States of America to teach master classes and to deliver a series of lectures. The Chinese government appointed him Cultural Ambassador in charge of promoting Chinese art and culture, an honor he has deeply cherished and continues fulfilling. He has subsequently established his residence in the U.S.A. where he continues exhibiting, lecturing and teaching.
Teaching is as important to Mu as his paintings,-- it reflects his pride as an artist and a follower of the Chinese cultural tradition. He began teaching in China in 1982 and still returns there every year to teach graduate classes. In America he has had extensive experience teaching elementary, secondary and college students, adult education groups, and private students at his Ink-Rain studio (averaging 120 students at any given time). He has extended his teaching to the public through interviews on radio and television programs, and in demonstrations in front of live audiences. He is a gifted instructor and a dynamic presence in the classroom, and his students appreciate and respect his advice. Recognizing that Americans students tend to pose many questions while Chinese students silently follow with their eyes the hand of the master, he understood the cultural differences and gracefully adapted his teaching style to accommodate it. Master Mu’s inspiration to his students is reflected in the larger number of prizes and awards the latter have received at state and national competitions. This is Mu’s legacy: the passing of his art to hundreds of young and older students, Asians and Americans, who become artistically acquainted with a millenary culture.
His artwork has been recognized throughout the world and his paintings grace the walls of several museums and residences of private collectors in China, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the United States of America. His paintings have also been regularly included in professional journals, and recently the China Postal Service has issued postcards with eight of his paintings, and ordered new paintings for a set of stamps to commemorate China’s 30 year-old enactment of the national open-door policy.
He has been granted a large number of prestigious awards and was appointed member of the board of several Chinese and American institutions. He has been recognized as one of the Eight Prominent Contemporary Jingling Painters by the China Art Institute, Beijing. But his foremost achievement has been the founding in 1998 of the Asian Pacific Art Institute of America (APAIA), over which he presides. Dedicated to promoting Chinese-American cultural ties, the institute sponsors musical gatherings and exhibits by Chinese and American artists and classes of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy.
Mu’s first works, especially those from his college years, fall in the New Literati style, a revision of the Literati style that encompasses the Literati-Expressionist and Neo- and Post-Traditionalist schools that were introduced at the end of the eighteenth century and remained in fashion until the late 1980s. The Literati from the Yuan dynasty were influenced by Buddhism and Taoism and applied their control of brushwork, derived from calligraphy, to paint landscapes that represented the artist’s response to nature and “expressed the artist’s unique self and perspective.” (Traditional ...) The New Literati were exposed to both Chinese and Western influences by training or travel and “devote themselves to search for the artistic essence with modern meaning from the abundant traditional reservoir in order to serve modern society and modern people.” (Zuo) Mu was influenced by this style during his time at the Nanjing Institute, and his work reflects the influence of three masters: Lin Fengmian, Liu Haisu and Li Keran. Mu himself was one of the leading painters in this group of New Literati.
One of Mu’s most acclaimed works from this period is Autumn Expectation (1985). Zuo has interpreted it as the portrayal of “a leaning ancient woman [that] looks far to the endless water meditating. Her perplexed facial expression reveals her worries about the future.” (Zuo). When asked to explain this painting, Mu said that his intention was not to portray either a woman or a man, but humankind reaching middle age. Autumn is Mu’s favorite season. According to him 80 % of his works represent autumn and winter landscapes (mainly autumn), and very few times he has painted spring or summer landscapes. He identifies autumn with middle age, harvest colors, poetry, tranquility, peace, experience and inspiration. It is the highest possible station according to Chinese philosophy. Middle age is a time in man’s life that Mu cherishes the most; he has always felt middle aged, even as a young man. This feeling attest to a veil of melancholy that tinges his works, that it is not the “bitterness and sadness” suggested by Jiang. Autumn Expectation is the artist’s self observing the world at the distance with his own eyes, and thus experiencing anger in his desire to reach happiness and tranquility, and fostering social justice.
The Contemporary Chinese Water-Ink Paintings Period represents his moving beyond the traditional Chinese style and the emergence of his own personal style that was achieved by experimenting with illustrative (Literati) and expressionist landscapes (New Literati). But he did not stop there, “he continues searching the best way to express himself and getting rid of traditional restraints.” (Xu) Traditional Chinese paintings are often local, but Mu’s landscapes are the product of his imagination; they are timeless and clueless with regard to location. His works are pure abstractions and reflections of the self in a constant pursuit for an international art language. This period is also testimony to a series of personal cathartic experiences, that while they lasted they inhibited his creativity, but when overcome let him achieve his best moments in art. Mu believes that an artist must suffer in order to transfer his emotions to his work and find truth in life. “Jiashan concentrates on feeling during painting by putting himself into the subject to search and grasp the glittering moment . . . An artist’s feeling and thoughts and his ideal of art are based on his personal experience.” (Zuo)
Many of the works of this period were included in Treasures of Contemporary Chinese Paintings (Beijing, 1995). Mu’s favorite painting is Clear Autumn (1995) because he painted it at a time when he believed he had reached his highest point of responsibility in his private and his artistic life. He defines this work as healthy, bright and happy. It was done in China before he knew he would travel to the USA. A well-balanced composition in his favorite shades of black, the mountains, valleys, village and groups of trees invite the viewer to enter into this peaceful and harmonious place. Another work of this collection, somewhat emotionally related to Clear Autumn, is More Dreams Season (1995) which Mu dedicated to his now ex-wife. Secluded Valley (1995) is perhaps the most mysterious and revelatory of his paintings, “a mastery of the surreal Chinese landscape.” (Raymond) A landscape of massive groups of rocks and fishnet-like lakes surrounding a valley, and a line of humanized and oversized bare willows engaged in a mystical dance over the horizon translate the imaginary world of the artist. Mu himself confesses that he is the secluded valley from where he observes and tries to understand the world. In Damo Buddha in Contemplation (1991), a common theme in Chinese painting, Mu innovated by digging “deep into the soul and reproducing Damo’s feeling with his own apprehension. The scene which transcends time and space is to express the unlimited freedom of humankind.” (Xu) In Zhong Kui (1986) Mu introduces another form of deviation from a common theme of Chinese painting and folklore. In general the mythical exorcist has been depicted as a fierce-looking male brandishing a magic sword, but Mu painted him giving his back to the viewer. The artist wishes to provide the viewer with space to imagine the horrific features of Zhong Kui, and to hypothesize over why he does not want to be seen. It is an open invitation by the artist to the viewer to complete in his mind the painting, to become a painter himself.
The International Color-Ink Paintings Period reflects his expanded contact with Western art and culture after moving to the USA in 1995. He acknowledges the influence in his work of the French post-Impressionists (i.e. Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin), Matisse, Picasso, de Kooning, and the American Andy Warhol. It must be pointed out that Mu had already been acquainted with Western art at the Nanjing Institute through the experiences of his masters and the New Literati style.
Two major sets of paintings represent two different stages of this period. The first one corresponds to the eight paintings issued as postcards by the China Postal Service. These are stylized representations of the Chinese landscape; some of them are in vibrant red and blue hues reflecting the rich colors of Western art (in contrast to the limited use of only muted colors in Chinese brush painting), others are in softer colors, including silver and white. They introduce a synthesis of Mu’s themes: imaginary landscapes, secluded valleys, oversized and stylized vegetation, Suzhou-style houses with white walls and fishnet –like roofs, and occasional wildlife. Strong strokes combine with delicate ones and reveal the intensity of the artist inner self.
The second group corresponds to his latest creation resulting from his working visits to the Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks in the USA in the summer of 2006. These four sketches “show a tremendous comfort with mountain masses, waterfalls and alpine trees. The paintings speak to the simplicity of Chinese ink and pen depictions of nature.” (Raymond) Mu named these four ink pen sketches: The Yellowstone Symphony in a High Note; The Yellowstone Symphony in a Low Note; The Grand Canyon, Sublime Grandeur of This World; and Yosemite, Water Flying From the Sky. The first two are meant as a musical composition and visually transcribe the sound of the water of the Upper and Lower Falls in the park, in high and low pitches. The Grand Canyon reproduces the overwhelming impact experienced by the artist in contemplating this marvel of nature; strong lines define the first mountain mass, and thinner lines the succession of mountains that fade in the horizon. Yosemite, Water Flying From the Sky is closer to the traditional Chinese style composition wise; successive and connecting waterfalls run the length of the work surrounded by subtle masses of rock framing them. Mu’s technique emphasizes the differences between Chinese and American art in his representation of this very American landscape. His are realistic representations of nature as depicted by an inside mirror (his heart) instead of an outside mirror (the eyes) as favored by Western art. His own words, “the eyes see nature, the hand shows the heart, which understands nature.” While in his previous periods the presence of waterfalls was limited, they figure prominently in these sketches. Mu smiles when confronted with this observation, he explains he has done falls in the past and while not visually present they were nonetheless there. He, the artist, thinks of himself as the waterfall, an inner waterfall meaning knowledge and talent, a force that interprets the shapes of nature.
As a final note and looking back to a career that spans thirty years, Mu thinks of his art as unique and personal, “an expression of his ego.”(Xu) It is a reflection of the way he looks at the universe and he understands the world. It is a positive feeling that inspires him in his pursuit of universal discovery and understanding, “the world looks as a mirror that reflects very deeply in my heart.”
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Xu, Jiakang. “Illustrated Scenery, Portrait Spirit and Expressive Soul. About Mu
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Yan, Nan. “Jiashan Mu, Keeping His Tranquil World On the Busy Earth.” China Today
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Zuo, Zhuangwei. “Trascending Form. About Modern Literati Paintings By Young
Review Articles about APAIA and Mu Jiashan