Qu Fengguo was born in Liaoning in 1966, and has lived and worked in Shanghai since graduating from the Shanghai Academy of Art’s Stage Arts Department. His Handwritten and Cycle Series from the 1990s are distinguished by their traditional media and by brushwork that accentuates transitions between light and dark. They depict time and exhibit an evolving style, showing the gradual progression of both his ink-painting technique and conceptual abilities. As an exhibiting artist in the 2000 Shanghai Biennale, Qu Fengguo witnessed first-hand the vibrancy of abstract art in the Shanghai art community. He was convinced that art is not limited to the aesthetic appreciation of formal elements, and hoped he could more accurately articulate the form and visual appearance of time. He began to use radiant colors to explore the coexistence of time and space, spreading diluted acrylic paint across the canvas. Like adding lubricant to a gear, he made time begin to circulate. To further emphasize the element of time, Qu Fengguo selected lines as the core of the work. The “straight lines” expand limitlessly like time itself, and their parallel arrangement increases the subtle sense of balance in the works. These concepts culminate in the recent exemplary works, two Four Seasons.
Four Season Series - Night (Lot 319) and Four Season Series - Full Grain(Lot 320) use completely different color palettes, but in both works the lines are composed by merging countless hues. One centimeter wide lines extend from the canvas with no direction, origin, or destination. Their colors are at times brilliantly lit and at others dim. When observing them from a close distance, the viewer will notice that the lines are relatively independent. Qu Fengguo squeezes tin tubes of paint directly onto the canvas in a level line before using precisely-controlled instruments to spread it across the canvas. One after another, these repeated applications of paint create lines that smear, erase, interact, and meld with each other. The layered colors not only build a solid field of tone, they also give the surface quality a varied texture, filling the eye with streams and creases that are easily overlooked. How is the basic form of time contained within this work?
In art history, time often manifests itself in an "implied" manner. There are three main types of implied time. The first is time’s symbolic recreation (Carlos Schwabe’s Death of a Grave-Digger), the second is the capture of a momentary scene (Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates) and the third is the illusion of the passage of time. Among them, the third is most common historically, such as in the 300 mutually linked scenes from the bible that Michelangelo painted on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. In Japanese art, all four seasons are often depicted in a single image in order to document changing traditions.
The Four Seasons Series condenses time into the technique of the line. Japanese art critic Toshio Shimizu described it as such, “It is an attempt to fix the passage of time onto the canvas. The universe changes moment by moment, and the seasons pass on earth. Changes to all living things are represented in the colors as differences in both light and substance.” Time brings change, and change is dependent on the passage of time. This may be the concept underlying Qu Fengguo’s work. Every change will give people a new experience and feeling, while also making subtle changes to the definitions of things. When the changes of the four seasons ceased to satisfy him, he brought China’s traditional 24 solar terms into the work. While the works named Four Seasons tend to be founded on expansive tones, the works that followed them, taking names from the solar terms, select a vaster palette in order to produce a certain mood. Blue green for spring, vermillion for summer, white and yellow for autumn, and deep black for winter. The solar term named “Full Grain”, which occurs in April or May, is tender with the budding life of spring. The solar term for the winter solstice, dongzhi, which occurs in December, carries a bitter cold. Once the primary colors and tonal mood have been set, portions of the painting are covered with fragments of pigment that, while small in volume, move freely across the work. When viewed at a close distance, they create the illusion of movement. The various colors appear to merge together, creating the silhouette of a line.
Qu Fengguo uses line to express time, time to outline change, change to return us to color, and color to compose line. All elements are of a single progression, circling an endless loop. Four Season Series - Night and Four Season Series - Full Grain select a specific visual appearance and infuse the creative process with a quality of time, capturing the real but constantly fluctuating nature of life. At times it is a faint grief, at times it is the power of hope, and at times it is the mediocrity of a thousand trifles… The artist hopes to capture the passage of time, but when condensed to a single moment, the form it takes is eternal.
Qu Fengguo is inclined towards the style of Western abstraction, making him unique among Chinese contemporary artists. Abstract art emerged in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Lin Fengmian and Wu Dayu left to study in Europe during the 1920s, becoming the first generation of Chinese artists to study in France. When they returned, they became President of the Hangzhou Academy of Art and a professor of Western Oil Painting, respectively. Due to this group of returning artists, universities around the southern reaches of the Yangtze River flourished during the 10 odd years leading up to World War II. Nanjing’s Central Art Academy, Zhejiang University, and Shanghai’s Aurora University all expanded significantly, and China’s southern art universities played a decisive role in the development of abstract art in China.
The essence of abstract art is introspection. It emphasizes freedom, requiring that students possess individuality, subjective reasoning, and independent thinking. This ran counter to the leftist artistic standpoint of art in China after 1950, and as a result, the development of abstract art in China did not begin again until the end of the 1970s. In the 1980s it became a method of connection with Western culture, but a mentality of collective unconsciousness remained dominant. During the 1990s, the development of abstract art was concentrated in Shanghai, and every artist forged a unique understanding of philosophical and aesthetic texts. It was during this period that Qu Fengguo graduated from the Shanghai Academy of Art. The artist Cai Guoqiang, who also graduated from the Shanghai Academy of Art, lived in Japan and brought a strong conceptuality to abstract art. Lyrical expression was developed by painters Zhou Changjiang, Hu Weida, Yu Youhan, and Xue Song, while Ding Yi, Shen Fan, and Qu Fengguo were representative of geometric abstraction.
Four Season Series - Night is deeply muddled, with occasional blue green horizontals that streak across the layers like a cold wind. The mottled colors and traces of stone rubbings in Four Season Series - Full Grain are clearer, like the final rain, the final breath of refreshment, before summer begins. Qu Fengguo is attracted by the unique purity and simplicity of abstract art. Many say his abstract painting style is typical of "cold abstraction" (or geometric abstraction). “Cold” was first used to describe the straight right angles, supplemented by primary colors, of Mondrian’s paintings because they possessed a cool-headed order. Although these two works are both composed primarily of straight lines, they are full of vigor and an emotion that is difficult to describe. This emotion derives from the essential lack of narrative in abstract art. They may be difficult to interpret, but the works express an emotion that viewer shares. For each viewer that looks upon it, the work becomes richer with another layer of significance. We must only be brave enough to let it leave an impression on us.
Qu Fengguo’s abstraction is not confined to a style or form, and it is not limited to a continuation of Modernist art history. Rather, it is a petri dish reflecting an individual spirit, an artistic language, and a personal philosophy. This abstraction is his lifelong obsession. After mixing elements drawn from life such as light, soil, plants, air, rain, sea, and snow, he composes images of the four seasons that are much grander than the framed works. In the distance between the figure of time and the viewer’s intellect, they open a limitless dimension.