Gao Ludi: Sister Wendy and LED
Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said a joke in his lecture: A little boy helped a Sister cross the street; the Sister then thanked the boy. The boy gave the puzzling response, “You are welcome, Sister. All Batman’s relatives are my friends.” The humor of this story stems from a pun of the visual image—the contour and color of Batman’s cape resemble those of a nun’s robe—and that fact builds a rhetorical and perceptional relationship between the two unrelated identities in this situation. Apparently, in this joke, the emphasis on communication from eyes to vision is more crucial than such from ears to vision. McLuhan has always exploited the concept of “sense ratios”— meaning how much one depends on the relative relationship of multiple perceptions—to discover and describe people’s physical, sensory, and psychological changes when media mix. McLuhan’s mentioning of this witticism aims to remind the audience that humanity has entered the electronic age; this is a new era, and an all-synchronized world. However, humankind is always a slow accepter when confronting a brand-new era of media, just like the little boy in this joke, who catches an old image (the nun) from the shadow of a new image (Batman). It is just as McLuhan states: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
Sister Wendy is a nun in real life. Because of a book titled Sister Wendy’s Story Of Painting, Gao Ludi got to know this British nun, Ms. Beckett, when he was 12 years old (2002). Gao had just begun to learn drawing in his hometown of Zhengzhou, Henan. It was his first teacher—a young man who had just graduated from the painting department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in the mid-1990s—who had recommended this illustrated book about the history of Western painting to Gao, then still a child. Opening this story about the Western masters of painting, he learned of this eight hundred-year stretch of history—from the European Renaissance to the 1990s. These luminaries appeared in front of the boy: Giotto, Uchello, Da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Dürer, Bruegel, Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Poussin, Goya, David, Angell, Delacroix, Turner, Courbet, Miller, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Seura, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Daly, Roscoe, De Kooning, Newman, Stella, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Hockney, Bacon, Freud, and Kiefer. As he flipped the pages, images of every artwork refreshed the little boy’s knowledge of painting. “The medium is the message,” according to McLuhan; medium is the extension of humanity, and that medium was now acting on the physical body of Gao Ludi.
Sister Wendy’s writing spreads the general knowledge of painting to the public from her perspective of humanism. The art amateurs read the introductory texts while referring to the illustrations—the avatar of original work—and therefore build up their own sense of the history of painting. However, most of the readers wouldn’t realize they are confronting an environmental effect that derives from a combination and interaction of multiple media: high-definitional image, exquisite printing, and moderate price—a whole set of related media technological forms providing their experience with the artwork. Readers pay attention to the meaning of the content, without noticing the modern methods used to help us see the content. They are able to see details for each piece of artwork, given as examples in the book, without realizing the synchronization between this editing method and the production of a television show—don’t forget that Sister Wendy herself is a host of an art television series on the BBC. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Walter Benjamin had cheered the arrival of an artistic democracy—an era of mechanical reproduction in which the “aura” of the original work had lost its ruling power—while nowadays, paintings replicated as images have to descend into an image-based world, gathering their congregation and inviting them to listen to their sermon.
Gao Ludi has made reference to how Sister Wendy’s Story Of Painting has, frequently, directly influenced him. For example, the works of his teen period have demonstrated the style and language of early Modernism. In accordance with the convention of academic art education in China, Gao should have been training hard in the representational and realist skills of drawing required to pass the college’s entrance’s examination at that time, but should not have considered the idea of the medium being a real painter. Apparently, Gao was artistically premature. In other words, he determined early on the direction of his practice. When Paul Klee said, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible,” he might have explained how fascinating modernist art is. In fact, after “the end of painting,” painting itself seems to be returned to the hands of “painters.” The boundaries of the medium have also become part of the presentation; in some ways, the so-called “end” is not a solution to the formalist dilemma, but rather a catalyst for freedom from this kind of narrative. Therefore, the contemporary act of painting is no longer an existence beholden to “formal issues” but a kind of practical practice of the aesthetic form. Unfortunately, when painting enters the outside world, the traditional technique of making images must still confront the era of technology. As Hegel remarked that all great historical events occur, as it were, twice, to this Marx added: “[t]he first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”
The difference between those two situations stems from the disappearance of the existing “nature.” Many successors worship Paul Klee as a master of the 1930s, because with just a few seemingly simple strokes, he creates a complete parallel universe to ours on his flat canvases. However, his principle of figuration is an ancient mysticism that connects to the natural. He believes that a supernatural reality is hidden by the representation of nature. Sister Wendy also extols Paul Klee, and interestingly, has never mentioned Gerhard Richter or Sigmar Polke in her volume of 1994—among many other stars that belong to our common memory of painting. The gap between narrating one history and another, of course, shows that the contemporary is an unresolved state. When we accept those who were written in the history, it also verifies, in reverse, the cultural convergence when we perceive our modern visual scenes. Whether Richter’s “aesthetic cynicism” or Polke’s radical irony—although they hold different positions—they are looking at, at the same time, the daily imagery of landscapes and the aesthetic metaphor of the overall perception.
The “end,” from the philosophical sense, does not mean that normal life will stop. On the contrary, we more and more capture and understand our epoch from our daily life. Just as most Chinese people recognize the concept of modernization, for the generation of Gao Ludi’s teacher—or two or three generations before them–modernization is the ultimate dream; whereas for Gao and his generation, the image of modernization is the artificial ready-made world—a gift from this age. They live a media-saturated life, surrounded by computers, networks, smart phones and apps, experiencing every day a reachable and iterative future. In fact, the economic expansion in China over the past 30 years has changed a lot of systematic ecologies. The promotion of the market economy in China has allowed Western culture and art to spread from a privileged class to a generalized urban culture. Staying in between the past and future, the common perception of Gao Ludi, thus, as a painter, as his work increasingly displays an affinity between painting and image, is at the same time linked with a sense of shared global culture.
With cold-toned saturated, fluorescent colors, Gao’s paintings constantly prompt the question of how daily digital display equipment disciplines people’s perception of seeing—the color-matching principle of LED display, image presentation of the backlight, as well as the industrialization of the artificial visual mechanism, are subtly transforming the public’s aesthetics through the visual display world. Industrialized sensory production not only has changed the boundaries of technology and art, but has also changed the boundaries of people’s general and artistic feelings. For instance, a skull, according to Benjamin, is an image full of aura: “Incomparable language of the skull: complete expressionlessness—the blackness of the eye cavities—together with the wildest expression—the grinning rows of teeth.” But when we look at Gao’s images of skeletons (Twelve Skeletons, 2015), Benjamin’s religious sentiment and its sense of distance are eliminated in a fashionable Alexander McQueen-style atmosphere. The collision of color, translucent texture, and rich representational language transmit to viewers the aesthetic pleasure of tactile consumer culture, a plethora of sensory information during the process of materialization from the sensory to the canvas shielding the image that has been eager to be redeemed.
Without redemption, Gao Ludi deliberately suppresses the meaning of images as content. As “the weapon of criticism cannot replace criticism of the weapon,” from the practical perspective, Gao Ludi is still a painter in the narrowest sense. His painting spans the zone between image and reality, breaking the mirror that connects them; those plausible images are the remnants that the painter extracts from the world of imagery. Sometimes, he will try to utilize the same subject repeatedly; in the series of Yellow Peaches, for instance, similar shapes generate different forms of structure. Thus, Gao’s painting is a superposition of a variety of shapes with different features. Sometimes, there even is a seemingly central image in his paintings, though it is still difficult for us to stare at it directly. For example, in Princess (2015), the original image is from a doll design on a music box; in his painting, however, the shadow of the figure is superimposed with a medical 4D scan pattern of organs. The whole image turns out to be a combination of other shapes, and through changing colors and textures, the shapes determine the relationship between plane and space. On the middle-left side of her peplum, a purple plane slightly suppresses the upper half of the white arch and the blue column next to it. Another blue line, farther away from the viewer than the previous one, echoes the blue contour of the central figure. A series of formal arrangements as such continues to extend viewers’ visual depth from the canvas’ plane, until their gazes fall onto the rose hexagon in the center of the painting. In Airport (2016), viewers can clearly perceive Gao’s control of the formal language even though they can hardly distinguish the outline of the airport from the six-meter-long painting. The full integration of the picture is divided into three parts: left, middle, and right. The composition radiates from the middle part outwards to both the left and right sides. The triptych format of the composition, coupled with its complex form and texture give it a resemblance to the material flow of the Big Bang—and the order of the space has naturally existed in the moment of its eruption.
Painters have never faced a blank canvas, because the world has already weaved a structure for them via visual inertia. Gao once made a small painting titled Pharaoh’s Mole (2014), which features a gradually changing color bar that stretches across the Pharaoh’s mask in the middle, reminiscent of Matisse’s famous portrait of his wife. The commonality of these two works across centuries is their subjective use of color. When the experience of perception and epoch are infinitely close, the memory of painting keeps Gao Ludi the painter at a distance from the outside world, in the sense of time. As for the mole on Pharaoh’s mask, let us appreciate a life without any time pressure.