After graduating from Hangzhou’s China Academy of Art, Tu Hongtao (born 1976) moved to the megacities of Guangzhou and Chongqing. At first he tried to focus on his career as an artist but was forced to sell clothes at a local market to make ends meet. His works during this period reflect the tense, violent, crowded cities that so many millions call home. Buildings crammed together form the backdrop, as semi-naked women are piled up against each other like toys. The titles of these works (such as Maybe Tokyo or Chengdu) comment on how all major cities, like the people who live in them, lose their individuality as they blur into one another.
‘As an outsider, someone who had just landed in this community, I was completely overwhelmed,’ he says. ‘These intense works produce a claustrophobic atmosphere where everything is for sale, even people.’
Deep and Serene, 2010. Oil on Canvas
©Tu Hongtao, courtesy of the artist
After the economic slowdown of 2008, Tu made the decision to bypass the commercial art capital of Beijing, and the chaos of the nearby urban hubs, and locate his studio in a tranquil artists’ community near his home town of Chengdu. Today, he lives in an archetypal vision of rural China, with a large, lily-filled lake, bamboo forests and lush greenery visible from his window. And his art reflects the natural landscape in which he lives and works.
‘This new environment helped shift my attitude and my working style to a more optimistic outlook,’ he says. ‘I grew up at a time when there was a spiritual and material conflict of interest. People were desperate in their pursuit of material possessions, which led to an erosion of society.’
Traditional culture is at the root of Tu’s work,but his study of the West has given him a fresh viewpoint. After visits to Europe to meet artists such as Daniel Richter, he learned more about international art, which gave him the scope to gain a better understanding of his own work.
‘Western abstract art is based on representation of the physical and then its deconstruction,’ he says. ‘Chinese painting has always had an innate abstract sense. Traditional Chinese landscape paintings show this through their use of single lines and blank space.’
While Tu’s subject matter is the natural environment, his works are anything but natural. He often leaves swathes of the canvas untouched (the part of the landscape that doesn’t interest him), while covering a focal point – a tree, a stream, a lake – in layers of thick paint, painting it over and over to create an abstract landscape that often bears no resemblance to the original.