“The one thing that really makes art come together on the canvas is the power of time.”
At around 2009, Tu Hongtao's art underwent a great change. He abruptly abandoned the highly involved narratives on the theme of "cities and dolls" that had occupied him since 2003, in which he presented viewers with the sham and the pretense, and the illusion and the reality, of modern social spaces. Replacing it was his Plants Series, abstract visions of natural scenery with suppressed inner energy and power about to burst out of their bounds. The world within the giant canvas of Tu's In Dream and Somnus is exactly this kind of thought provoking scenery, a world in the midst of transformation and change of direction.
Tu Hongtao was born in 1976 in Chengdu, and the solid academic training he received at the Oil Painting Department of the China Academy of Fine Arts enhanced his already outstanding painting capabilities, in particular, his exceptional grasp of line. In his Plants Series, produced between 2009 and 2011, Tu is still finding his voice; in general, a single plant occupies the foreground in these works, still presented representationally in basic blue and green tones of high color purity, for "scenery" still strongly grounded in real nature. Tu's imagery in In Dream and Somnus further evolves with the appearance of large quantities of fragmented lines in the earth tones of dark coffee, olive green and brown, which dominate and control the canvas. The distance between the plants and the background has been shortened, and its overall space is flatter. The plants, in fact, no longer figure as the painting's central interest, since although their intertwined stems and branches weave throughout the canvas and create its spaces, Tu retains his former interest in human characters. But he eliminates those elements that were previously always present behind their physical bodies - their material lives, their power, and their desires - and their contours and forms are now outlined in a more abbreviated and sketchy style.
Art critic Jason Chia Chi Wang, describing the development of Tu's Plants Series, said, "Tu Hongtao has suppressed the three dimensional and spatial depth of the image on the canvas with the use of more and more brushstrokes of lines, evoking the dialogue between Chinese traditional lines and brushwork." Two years later, exhibition curator Nina Nyima Lhamo further concluded, "Tu Hongtao has chosen refined detachment and observation as an answer to the complexity of the world, hoping to preserve a traditional sense of beauty even alongside his primitive carnality and burgeoning energy." The two points of view, one technical, one philosophical, both point toward the spirit of Eastern visual arts, and if the two are conjoined, we discover that the inspiration for the Plants Series derives from the artist's reflections on the nature of time.
Tu Hongtao constructs the chaotic imagery of the upper half of In Dream and Somnus out of a broad sprawl of audacious and unconstrained brushstrokes. Light sand yellow, brown ochre, and earth tones are laid on faintly with a flat brush above a ground of black and deep greenish-black; rubbed strokes are employed for a kind of "aged" logic, while white spaces suggest cracks and weathering, so that everywhere the viewer is confronted with the great changes that occur over time. Below Tu fills the canvas with a profusion of interwoven strokes in white and lake green, adding to the flecked and mottled visual effects, and further suggesting ancient Chinese wall paintings; the entire pictorial space takes on the mottled surface textures of the Chinese dry wall paintings when their layers of chalk were applied. The artist himself noted that "The wall paintings we see today do not represent their original appearance, but have been created by the passage of time. The paint undergoes flaking, and that process is unintentional." It is the flaking that produces roughness and changes in color within those paintings, and all such changes result from the passage of time. The superimposed layers of color on Tu's flat surface take on a character embodying the accumulation of sequential events. Tu's pursuit of these wall painting-like textures and qualities helps trace his themes back to the past and its traditions, and at the same time, the perception of time is made a part of the execution process itself.
Tu's title, In Dream and Somnus, likewise prompts reflection on the implications of time and its meaning within different kinds of spaces. British art historian Claire Bishop employs a methodology with respect to contemporary art that focuses on time itself, coining the name "pastoday" for her theory by joining English words for past and present. She believes that the past is not interesting as a concept in itself, and that the present is not the foundation of all art, but rather that what is most important is the continued dialogue and relationships between the two. Tu's In Dream and Somnus, like a wall painting, is valuable not just because of its artistic expressiveness, but also because of the richness and totality it sustains.