The Long Journey Back to the Source / The Ends of the Beginnings
Today, China has incontestably established its place in the global, economic and political landscape, and is branching out into the world of art and culture. Four decades ago, the situation was quite different. Few visitors ventured into the ancient Middle Kingdom as reconfigured by the Great Helmsman. However, China was fashionable in intellectual circles that practised their own brand of ideological reeducation (a pretext for publishing). The descriptions of Chinese-style socialism that were stirred by the winds of enthusiasm rustling amid the great Maoist wave of 1968 flowed against the current that would carry them in the opposite direction ten years later, when taking a “second look at China.”1 After Utopia had been pinpointed to the post-1968 communes, it was relocated to American campuses2 – an ebb and flow that paid no need to its own contradictions, following the Chinese dialectic of self-criticism in that regard. The academics changed direction with the wind. For our contemporaries besotted with ideology rather than the art of living, that was the form taken by chinoiseries – immaterial trade goods of the new Western traffickers.
In this speculative context, my initiation to Asian art and thought took place personally, through contact with two Chinese friends who had left their country for Canada and knew firsthand what they were talking about. Both were highly cultivated: one was Mandarin by taste and attitude, but an idealistic admirer of Chairman Mao and the Great Leap Forward (1958) all the same, though from a distance; the other was younger and had experienced the Cultural Revolution launched in 1966 in body and soul – the atrocities openly perpetrated by the Red Guards and later castigated by a slave labour-based reeducation in the countryside under the same – the one and only – communist regime.
“I am a printmaker”
Andrew Lui, the young friend in question, was born in Canton on August 4, 1951, according to the Roman calendar, under the sign of Leo. That date corresponds to July 2 in the lunar calendar and to the sign of the Cat in Chinese astrology. And like a cat, he seems to have nine lives, not to mention a range of names: Jin Lui in Cantonese; officially Jin Lei in Mandarin; then baptized Andrew on his Canadian passport. Meeting him in 1977 was destabilizing. Several of those lives were already lodged within him, buried like archeological strata, riddled with fissures, the near future pressing in. A childhood kept secret among five siblings, both parents engineers, his father a company manager, his mother teaching part time as well, and possessed of an education and culture that made them suspect in the government’s eyes. His youth was spent as a Red Guard and then in 1968 as a peasant in the countryside, toiling twelve hours a day on a farm for a bowl of rice. He fled in 1970, miraculously swimming his way to Hong Kong, a British enclave to the southeast of Canton. Amid that mercantile maelstrom, he learned the ropes of capitalism, studying economy but also literature at Takming College. Then he joined his grandmother, an aunt and her family living in Toronto, and enrolled in the Ontario College of Art. He knew nothing of Modernism and had never taken what we think of as an art course.
It began with a three-year course of study under Fred Hagen. Andrew Lui had to assimilate the English language and Western art history, modernity, techniques and practices all at once. He was grateful to this teacher who, to mitigate the language difficulty in a very primary way, helped him grasp the process of woodcut manually, pragmatically. The method worked. It is through woodcuts that he realized he was an artist: “I am a printmaker,” he said at that time.
Two self-portraits from 1974 attest to this. In the first, dated February 20, the face appears frontally, slightly tilted, rendered in rough strokes like a primitive mask. The second, dated December 5, printed on fine rice paper, has a disturbing quality. The artist’s head, face down on a drafting table seen from above, seems to be held by a powerful hand. We cannot tell whether it is administering an encouraging caress or applying constraining force. A second face – portrait or mirror reflection? – is framed at the left. It is a fine and complex work.
His efforts at the Ontario College of Art were successful. He won a Nora E. Vaughan Scholarship, which enabled him to study in Italy for a year, at the British Institute of Florence and the Accademia di Belle Arti. Here he was again, setting off for the unknown: Florence, Europe, at the source of Western civilization, and yet another language. He fell under Italy’s spell, devouring Italian culture beginning from the Renaissance and discovering the contemporaries Caravaggio, Donatello, Giacomo Manzù and Leonardo Cremonini. He called his solo exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in 1977 Homage to Fellini. He still felt lost, and it is for that very reason he created, staking out his territory on the white of a blank sheet of paper or canvas.
One influence from his childhood contributed in particular to his love of the woodcut: the old tradition of carving seals in jade and wood, an art in its own right in China and the subject of entire books. At the age of seven or eight, he carved school erasers, potato slices and “dry bean cakes,” the way Riopelle as a child chipped away at frozen snow to make sculptures. The relationship with seals is visible in his first small-format undertakings, where the working of the wood, with or against the grain, is very fine and precise, requiring perfect control of the line. He transferred what he learned from this art into his prints by using the space without feeling a need to fill the sheet all the way out to the corners (white is not emptiness) and by favouring the strength of the black line. Traditional seals’ influence is also noticeable in his drawings, where the important thing is to construct the drawing with lines of undiluted ink, using no wash, by playing with their direction and thickness, their two-dimensionality, nothing exterior being added in this encounter of gesture, ink and paper.
The powerful lines of On the Way Home (1977) evoke a walking figure from the back. The influence of 1920s and 1930s German Expressionism is recognizable. The Red Guards used Jin Lui’s artistic talent to create posters in the high-contrast graphic style of the 1930s, meant to arrest the eye with a strong message. Andrew does not hide his admiration for the Secession, in particular the works of Kätje Kollwitz, Kirchner and Otto Dix, with strong, disturbing images that enable prints to achieve “a very ancient, solid, powerful feeling.”3 Kollwitz’s decision to use only black and white and to depict human suffering especially impressed him. Between the wars, in 1922-1923, she created revealing posters that made her famous not only in Germany but also in the U.S.S.R. Her work was appreciated by the communists for its revolutionary force but rejected as “degenerate,” barred from being exhibited and removed from museums by Hitler’s regime, which would not recognize that “the work of Käthe Kollwitz is the greatest German poem of this time ... She is the voice of the silence of the sacrificed.”4 This voice, like the silent Scream of Edvard Munch, passed beyond borders, On the Way Home.
“Give me five years”
But where was home now? Where can a human being drop anchor and set down his light luggage? “Phone home,” murmured the little alien in E.T., pointing his finger at the cosmos. Once Andrew Lui’s study abroad was over and the cultural overdose of Florence assimilated, instead of returning to Toronto, where he would have had contacts and landmarks, in June 1977 he chose to settle in Montreal, when many were migrating in the opposite direction since the Parti Québécois had come to power with its platform of separating the Province of Quebec from Canada. In the wake of Bill 101, which made French the official language of Quebec, Artlenders Gallery gallicized his first name: for his first solo exhibition in Montreal, in 1978, he became André Lui. The exhibition was in continuity with the one held four years earlier in Toronto, A Bird with a Unique Breast (Gallery 76), consisting almost entirely of woodcuts. The bird settled in. A symbol of the human condition at its most fragile, in its most threatened aspect, it is the tragic image of the aspiration to flight, to infinite dreams that inevitably end in failure by a lapse into the inverted flight of death. Handicapped like a one-winged bird, cruelly doomed to crash to the ground. The shift of the image, of meaning, is as revealing as a Freudian slip: from “single wing” to “unique breast.” The bird wholly conveys the fragility of Woman, of the nourishing Mother. One thinks of the Amazons, who cut off one breast to be more effective warriors or, closer to us, the mutilation of mastectomy.
During our first interview, Andrew Lui made some surprising, deeply felt feminist comments: “Women cannot fulfill what they want to do. I feel really sad about the fact they fail, they drop dead ... idealistically. I just express the sad part of women’s destiny, a kind of symbol of the frail part, the very tragic part of being human.” These troubling remarks became clearer later, when he confided to me, as we looked at one of his paintings on rice paper with downward-pointed interlocking bird’s heads, that his mother committed suicide at a Reeducation Camp. She jumped out a window and fell dead on the ground, like a bird struck by lightning mid-flight. That is when he decided, at age nineteen, to put his carefully planned escape from China into action. What he was fleeing more than anything else was this unbearable tragedy. But since he carried it within him, under the crushing weight of an irrepressible memory, how could his flight reach an end? His unbridled cavalcade, this creative flight that finds its completion in the recent paintings, has its origin in this psycho-thematic knot.
One sees that Lui’s work from the early 1980s goes against the current of Western art as formatted by the formalism that claimed to make the artist disappear from his creation, to achieve a purely visual language, all trace of “self” expunged, taken to task for being “insistent” in the sense Malevich understood it. An art that wishes to say nothing and apparently means nothing, to which one cannot respond. Which is not to reject out of hand the gains made by the experimental phases established by Mondrian, Malevich and Kandinsky. One must, according to Lui, use them, exploit them as a language in an expressive, humanistic sense. “My personal interest in the application of pure visual language will be operated on both personal and social experience.” Such a conception leads to favouring the human figure in a subjective, sensitive way, altogether unrelated to its representation in revolutionary socialist art, where the human being only supports an ideology, as with all “socially engaged” art in service to a cause. In this sense, in the early 1980s, Lui seemed to me ready to navigate in the powerful current of neoexpressionism that – against the current of formalism – linked Europe and America, all the more so in that he was then striving to master Western painting.
Woodcuts require a long process. And rice paper, although the favoured support, suffers under its own fragility. The artist had to adapt his work methods to his impatience, because time is pressing: Andrew’s motto became “Give me five years.” He constrained himself to using only supplies available in the West – essentially canvas and paint. He succeeded in structuring the plane with colour, but the solvents, oil and acid caused him problems, dosing them on the canvas, whose grain slows the gesture. The 1980s was an experimental period during which he tried a number of techniques, all of them means of finding his own language, “to achieve an Oriental expression through the Occidental medium.” Two paintings initiated a recurrent structure that divides the plane in three. In La Porte de Chine, the truncated walking figure seen from the back in On the Way Home is represented with areas of pure black. The upper third is marked with forms, colours that extend into the middle zone against a citrine background. The subject matter is still birds and woman, generating ovoid, fetal and larval forms. Separation Again presents a similar structure, but two profiles are sketched in the black lower zone, one with eyes closed, the other with eyes open, a reference to Romeo and Juliet: personal drama still playing out, discreetly veiled in a collective myth. Les Niveaux increases the number of parallel bands that divide the canvas’s plane into sections and stacks up disturbing figures: an animal skeleton against the background, a disjointed Francis Bacon-style human corpse. At times a cross structure takes hold, with the semblance of a head and upper body leaning, falling forward. Heavily connoted in the West, the cross is a symbol that transcends cultures.
The larval envelope develops into a chrysalis, then a butterfly, but rarely a diurnal butterfly with iridescent wings and joyous flight. A night butterfly with feathery antennae in dull tints, a noxious moth, a nocturnal lepidopteran that flings itself against the light and burns, painful as an obsession or remorse. Two exhibitions of note were devoted to him: Moth, in Ottawa (1981), and Moth and Water monument (1982), in Montreal. The combination of the insect and water in the latter title seems strange, determined no doubt by the environment in which the painter was immersed.
Andrew Lui lives on Nuns’ Island, overlooking the St. Lawrence River. His studio is like an aquarium in reverse: the water is not within glass walls, but outside, pressing in on them, threatening to burst them. The realms of water, air and earth are reflected in the light or at night, eradicating the contours of reality and its double. The world floats uncertainly, like an ice floe, seeking an anchoring point between two realms. Apt exhibition titles suggest this: Les deux univers d’Andrew Lui, Le fleuve et Lui, Réflexion du fleuve Saint-Laurent. Huge goldfish come to meet the viewer. Myriad seagulls in a tumult of wings are trapped in black birdlime that forever blots out the sky: Requiem pour les mouettes. As always, the animals are personalized, bearers of human dramas, conflicts that are perpetuated on the shores of the river. The St. Lawrence is perceived as the site of and link in the history of the people who live along its shores, a history the artist receives objectively, without being emotionally, painfully involved, accustomed to a longer, more agitated history on the shores of the China Sea. Black masses are engulfed there and disappear, cast into the abyss. The water cleanses the spirit, the flowing water assuages anxiety, diverts it elsewhere, into the distance.
I look upon the five years from 1978 to 1983 in Montreal as a phase of accelerated adaptation, accomplishing the passage from one shore to the other, from memory to resilience, and getting acclimated to a new historical-social context, as conveyed in his artistic production by the transition from woodcut to painting. Endowed with a phenomenal faculty of assimilation, he had a great deal to say but was still looking for his own voice in the 1980s. For the invitation to the exhibition at the Galerie Bernard Desroches in 1978, I encapsulated the artist’s psychological core themes in a prose poem I will take the liberty of reproducing here:
Mingled with death and love, embrace and torment, ecstasy and carnage combined with I and thou, bodies drawn and quartered;
Wan flayed flesh, scarlet-splashed, crucified on the black cross of eternity, a mutilated colossus walking the blue depths of a longed-for peace;
Trunkless legs bound for an infinite flight, far from childhood paradises, outside that good “inferno lost,” without looking back at the future golden ages at one’s back, facing destiny, Westward;
Sketchy faces, incomplete, like unanswered questions, faces in reverse, smudged with black or white, veiling the eye sockets open to the void;
Birds plummeting, dead birds hung by their claws, wingless, the sky below like a cobblestone wall, bird embryos broken in the oval of fetal larvae, forms to be born of the flight of lines;
Ink strokes, claws, beaks, structure, skeleton, carcass, animal skulls, jaws clenching the black nothingness;
Inner cries, male love of bodies suffering from the human condition, powerful painting: the painting of André Lui.
If he was still looking for his voice, he was also seeking his path, this globetrotting artist confronted with the need “to make a living,” self-employed, aided by some good Samaritans he met along his way. In 1983, he co-founded AVIUS Associates with two architects, Brenda Scott and Marc Daemen. The company’s field was described as “architecture, planning, environmental art and design.” It existed for nearly ten years of intense activity during which the artist struggled to pursue his painting in several mediums, the theme of the bird finding a place under the powerful aegis of the black bird. One senses it in the woodcut Out of Concentration, from 1975. Its tutelary presence haunted Andrew’s imagination and inhabited his memory by way of the American poet Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a string of thirteen haiku-like stanzas referring to the bird, its song, its flight, its behaviour, the vibrations it leaves in the empty air after it passes, faithful to the spirit of traditional Chinese painting. Several exhibitions in Canada derived their title from the poem, until the Black Knight replaced the blackbird (1990). Andrew Lui has always shown the greatest respect for writing, poetry, culture and those who dedicate themselves to their practice.
In 1995, he successfully founded the gallery Han Art, first in the Belgo Building, which housed many art galleries in the heart of downtown. Connoisseur of contemporary art trends and practices that he is, and versed in the requirements of business and accounting, his new position fit him like a glove, obliging him to be constantly travelling in order to visit artists’ studios across Canada, in France, Italy and China, and organize exhibitions. Tourism is not his particular interest; he has no time to loiter. He has always experienced an obsessive fear of time’s flight, calculated in five-year intervals like a five-year plan. Singular and global in its international ramifications, his gallery stands out in the Montreal scene and lavishes luxurious books and catalogues upon its artists. Its uniqueness was confirmed when he moved to his present address at 4209 Sainte-Catherine Street in Westmount. Once stability was attained, he could delegate management of the gallery, reserving for himself the pleasure of overseeing the sales of the great names he admires – Picasso, Riopelle, de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Jack Bush. And since he could set up a studio on the upper floor of the house, he at last had the opportunity to devote himself mainly to the full accomplishment of his painting, which he does not distinguish from his own thriving as a man, a human being.
There is a profoundly humanistic dimension in the philosophy of life the artist has arrived at, a wisdom that is the privilege of age, heightened by Asian culture. The flow of time and the flow of water eventually assuaged the tragic humanism that was his. His health forced him to learn to rest, and the birth of his son Milton Yvon in 2013 reconnected him with childhood – a happy, fulfilled childhood, in a way washed free of the anguish of his own youth, liberated from the weight of the past. A beneficial consequence of this liberation was that it allowed his work to return to the living sources of creation. Thus, he also reconnected with the fundamental Oriental means that were his, which he had thought he must put aside in order to come to grips with the Occident but which now masterfully claim their place: rice paper, ink and the calligraphic gesture.
Calligraphy, or The Return to the Source
It is common to all immigrants to temporarily keep a distance from their original culture in order to become “integrated” with the culture of their adopted land. However, it is surprising that in Andrew Lui’s art, this distancing should result in the suppression of calligraphy, which has been integrated into the Western aesthetic code since abstract art: obviously his training gave him several lengths’ head start.
Jin Lui learned calligraphy in China along through writing at about age four by handling the brush. In primary school, he was required to take the course in ancient calligraphy, which he did not enjoy since at the time his knowledge was too limited to appreciate the old masters or read the old forms, with their seemingly alien content and grammar. He nearly dropped out. By age eight or so, however, when he had become proficient in writing, he was taken with the writing of his family: the elegant handwriting of his uncle, a man of letters, and especially of his mother, very powerful, simplified, free as a poet’s. He discovered the great artists, whom he has never ceased studying: Xu Wei during the Ming dynasty, an “expressionist” who holds a place in China comparable to that of Van Gogh in Europe; and Bada Shanren, a Ming prince who witnessed that dynasty’s fall and the emergence of the Ching, an “expressionist” as well. At age twelve, Jin was a boarding school student, and the person in charge of his class was an outstanding calligrapher, his mentor in that subject. Because the student was talented, the teacher maintained a privileged relationship with him and invited him to his home, for he lived at the school. Four years later, something of a tragedy struck. This liberal teacher, who spoke out neither for nor against Communism, lost his job, was driven from the city because he had been its mayor before the Revolution and was interned in a labour camp. Like so many others, he was accused of being a “historical anti-communist” because he had accepted responsibilities under the previous government. Andrew, despite his admiration, was designated by his class to write posters accusing this teacher: “I cannot say anything. It was the political situation. I had to do it.” The outcome of the story is heartbreaking. That evening at about nine o’clock, Jin was studying, writing in the classroom. The teacher arrived with his ink stone, a magnificent brush and a sheaf of paper. Laying these implements before Jin Lui, he said, “I read your posters today. I immediately recognized your fine strong hand. Could you write a few more denouncing me?” “It was so sad you know I cried,” Andrew admits, still shaken by the event. That was in 1966, before the Red Guard movement. But the Cultural Revolution was already under way and slowly progressing from Beijing to the provincial cities, making its way to Canton. He never saw his teacher again. He tried to find him several years later, but no one knew where he could be. “He was one of the wisest, and most knowledgeable people I have ever met,” he concludes.
This story explains both the fundamental attachment to calligraphy – the existential foundation of his art and being – and the block that hindered the young man once he saw himself as an artist. A Gordian knot of cruelty and guilt stopped short the free movement necessary for writing, a knot tied by three protagonists: the class that designated him; he himself, who carried out the task; and the teacher, who unmasked him. This obstacle to freedom of expression was circumvented by printmaking, a slow, primitive process where the spontaneity of the gesture is restrained by the medium. The artist’s personality was also held in check by oil painting because of the need to domesticate the recalcitrant materials. Once the Gordian knot was cut, or dissolved, or surmounted, the person thus emancipated could get a hold of himself and take hold of the ink brush, project himself into writing in a refined, assertive, entirely free form that returns to the naive and solid original source of the old masters. The quality of the human being is inscribed in calligraphy, more so than in alphabetical graphics.
Although the last oil painting dates from 1992-1993, the medium’s benefits remain in the fluid colour of acrylic paint and the mounting on panel that transforms fragile rice paper into a painting. Lui uses Xuan paper, handmade in Anhui province specifically for painting and calligraphy. His art asserted itself incontestably around 2006, when the appropriate materials, underpinning the gesture’s calligraphic assurance, allowed the style of his painting to become its own signature.
The Sign of the Horse
Calligraphy not by analogy – as André Malraux understood it in regard to that “Western calligrapher” Georges Mathieu – but in the Eastern sense of a true signifying sign in which painting and poetry are inseparable. The means of his art, which he reappropriated, served the emergence of his personal myth, which blends obsessive themes and metaphors: Time, duration, death; journey, voyage, pilgrimage; the horsewoman, abducted Sabine or Amazon warrior; Destiny, Space, flight or crusade through the world. His awareness of complexity prevailed in the interweaving of the rebellious threads on the loom of life: Woven Love, Woven Journey. An archetype common to all civilizations reigns over these themes and their images: the Horse, powerful, fleet and elegant, loyal but free. About 2009, it charged into the picture space, in every sense of the word occupying the world of the imagination – a beast of burden loaded down with the weight of existence, or a winged horse on the “wings of desire.” We transfer our load to so we may travel light. It bears the weight on our shoulders, literally and figuratively, and we send it far off, elsewhere. It leaps obstacles and barriers; its cavalcade brings freedom. The horse is a metaphor of calligraphy, the incorporation of freedom and the speed of movement, the incarnation of the return to the sources of creativity and of life.
The wide-format Equestriennes II is intriguing for its title and the incursion of Chinese writing collaged onto the plane. The feminine form of the noun “equestrian” (from equus, Latin for horse), “equestrienne” combines “woman” and “horse.” Two horsewomen are suggested in dark tones, into which vertical lines of textile/text have found their way. They are clippings from a farmer’s almanac: a calendar (measure of Time) dedicated to the cultivation of the earth, which is regulated by the heavenly bodies, the moon in particular (lunar calendar), just like a woman's periods and the nine lunar months of pregnancy. Obscure layers of personal meaning show through between the lines. With Farewell My Concubine, the slender strokes and surrounding empty space attenuate the dramatic intensity.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
The equation works just as well when “horse” replaces “blackbird.”
In a lighter vein, the square painting Rainbow Journey, among many others from the three “Pilgrim Progress” series, is representative of Andrew Lui’s art from the past ten years. Colour rules the surface – ultramarine, magenta and imperial yellow on caparisoned chests completed by allusive fragments (dilated nostrils, pointed ears, hooves in the air) multiplied ad libitum by varying orientations in an apparently kinetic unfurling. The black lines of a calligraphic flourish indicate action; grey lines penetrated by the “flying white” void of a dry, wide brush emphasize the speed of motion – that of both the suggested object (horse) and the acting subject (painter).
The images of the “Pilgrim Progress” cycle appear calmed, in a poetic universe where blue blends turquoise with ultramarine, depth with fluidity, the clamour of arms with the silence of the sea. In Spring Rain, vernal nature dilutes the willows’ sap and the vertiginous bamboo shoots’ tender green. Magenta, hot pink, purple, cardinal red; from mauve to blue, all the pink dies away (Twilight); from mauve to red, all the blues die away (Sensation October). And the baroque opera of red fills the scene of the grand diptychs between festival and tragedy, for scarlet is the colour of blood and fire, but also of wedding dresses and joyful celebration in Chinese culture (Opera I, Retreat). The coloured harmonies are in movement, are movement, for line, stroke, form, surface, colour, gesture, writing, sign (and its meaning) are all one in calligraphy, which triumphs in the recent paintings as never before. From this fusion, this apparently abstract painting – automatic writing and at the same time controlled design (in sense of both drawing and intention) – emerge the equestrian “in/inmage,” the image in the image, like a watermark, its elegance refined and powerful; three horses with riders in a tight row (Trilogy); bodies of abducted women or warriors (Entanglement). And the beholder’s imagination multiplies them to the point where they are no longer seen, as the sketched motives vanish in the transparency of the colour. (I detect this same fascination with the in/image in the work of Jean Paul Riopelle,5 likewise located at the dizzying border between abstraction and figuration – which is saying a lot.)
The subject and the object of the painting unite in perfect symbiosis. Emotion, sensations, feeling, energy, tension, an instant intake of life’s experience, are concentrated in a chemical and alchemical pictorial precipitate that distills the essence of art on the support. Abstract and figurative art, Eastern and Western art, ancient and current art are mixed beyond ideologies and studio manifestos. The transmutation of the visual into the aesthetic takes place through a unique supplement of soul that confers upon the artwork its eternal nature.
1. Claudie Broyelle, Jacques Broyelle and Évelyne Tschirhart, China: A Second Look (Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press/Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1980).
2. Julia Kristeva, “Des campus pleins d’étoiles,” Le Nouvel Observateur, January 1, 1978.
3. These quotations are from my first interview with Andrew Lui, November 1, 1978.
4. Romain Rolland, quoted by Jean-Michel Palmier, L’Expressionnisme et les arts, vol. 2 (Paris: Payot, 1980), p. 207.
5. See Jean Paul Riopelle, Catalogue raisonné des estampes (Montreal: Hiboux Éditeurs, 2005).