Luo Min: Flowers, Birds, Plants (and a City)

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Chinese painting began more than two millennia ago. The depiction of plants, flowers, and birds… has been a major component of its art since the start. Chinese artists have been particularly good at rendering nature in a lyrical fashion, close to poetry. Part of their success stems from a considered understanding of natural form, and part results from a poetic understanding of the innate beauty of such form, whose colors and structures manifest a decorative awareness of the spectacular attributes of nature. Mid-career Beijing artist Luo Min has made a wonderful calling of painting nature, in particular capturing the color inherent in plants and flowers. While her work owes more than a little to the great painting tradition she belongs to, her art at the same time is completely contemporary, possessing a clarity slightly distant in an emotional sense. This distance may be inevitable, given the long, long history of Chinese art–but, even if it is impossible to paint with the pure poetic sense of the past, paintings can be made that reflect the Chinese love of nature in a style indicative of our contemporary lives. Historical awareness is inevitable, and likely required, for good current painting of nature, currently damaged by overpopulation and pollution. It is Luo Min’s job to re-awaken our senses in light of an art that illustrates the complexity of natural life in an increasingly diminishing landscape.

There is not much we can do about the ongoing devastation of nature, which surely affects how we now understand it and represent it in our time. But, at the same time, beauty is a constant across time and geography, and it is even more so in a great painting culture like China’s. While traditional painting is of course still taught in the studios of Chinese art schools, at the same time Chinese artists have been cognizant of and active within the new, mostly abstract and conceptual internationalism in force now for at least two generations–artists like Xu Bing, Xiao Lu, and the late Huang Yong Ping have had major careers working within an idiom that began in Chinese tradition but quickly moved toward an intellectual and visual abstraction at home in any part of the world. Even if the particulars are originally from Chinese culture, the aura of these artists’ work is resolutely modernist–in the Western sense of the world. Yet, unlike Luo Min, these artists have not worked in a field so weighted with achievement as traditionally historical Chinese painting. So an artist such as Luo Min, even while painting with Western oils on canvas, must acknowledge the great heritage standing just behind her.

The last sentence encompasses Luo Min’s responsibility in regard to merging the old and the new, but it also, at the same time, underscores just how difficult this is to achieve. While doing so is possible, it is likely accomplished by technical skill; the artist has this skill in great capacity. In New York, figurative art seems to be making a bit of a comeback, but in China the predilection for painting in a realist manner was never truly abandoned. As I have said, it is of course possible now to see Chinese art that reflects theory, social  politics such as feminism, and also technical innovation (computer art). But an artist working as Luo Min does usually find an appreciative audience in China, where taste and ambition–and recognition–do not always turn toward the avant-garde. Indeed, in a strange way, Luo Min’s flower paintings start to look highly contemporary because they do not reject the past (this may be true of figurative art all over the world). It looks like eclecticism and pluralism have taken over image-making, which means that we must judge works on their individual, ahistorical merits rather than a cutting edge that has been dulled by repetition and shallow academic support.

As a result, Luo Min must take note of the isolation of her position, even as she establishes a bridge between China’s artistic past and its freewheeling present. But how does Luo Min bring this about? On a thematic level, the paintings are strong in part because they incorporate visual touches that reflect the time we are living in: steel fences, a contemporary bathing cap and swimming goggles, youths in modern clothing. In fact, most recently, Luo Min has even been making paintings of New York City, not known for its ancient history! The modernity of this imagery is also a contrast to the painterly legacy shaping Luo Min’s notable newness. But the feeling of the Chinese past in her art, hard to pinpoint or explain, exists because of her conscious choice of traditional themes. The quality of her art is not only thematic, though; it is technical: its achievement has to do with precision of line and understanding of color, particulars that have more to do with how something is seen than what it is about.

Because Luo Min is gifted in her skills as a painter, her treatment of flowers takes on a vibrancy greater than any academic study. In July (2015), she paints, in the middle of the composition, a plethora of rose blossoms, while two boy swimmers–one at the top of the painting, on his back, his arms and limbs outstretched, wearing a black swimsuit, and the other standing in the bottom left of the corner, also of pre-adolescent age. The lower figure is grinning eccentrically, even malevolently, while on his right we see an array of thin cattails, extending out into different directions. The strange grin of the child contemporizes the painting, turning it into something unusual and new, and the presence of the two boys themselves is an inclusion unusual for an imagery indebted to flower painting. Whatever the disparate influences and affiliations with tradition may be, they help Luo Min work well in this painting, whose lyricism is undercut by some degree of the menacing smile of the boy. The grin introduces an aggression into July, which loses its pastoral innocence as a result. This would likely be inevitable in a painting made after 2000, given the relentless damage we have imposed on the natural world. So if Luo Min’s paintings are a kind of utopia, the boy’s strange expression is an admission of something else–something out of kilter in the world we see.

Among the Flowers (2017-18) is divided into two halves: an array of colorful flowers and stems on the left; and on the right, a mostly gray treatment of a photo of four youths, dressed in the white shirt, red shoulder scarf, and simple pants of a Communist youth organization in the 1950s. The image of the young people, nostalgic at this point in time, contrasts with the timeless aspect of the flowers, which build a cultivated wilderness in the density of their arrangement. Some birds are found in this miniature paradise; they are painted with charm–Luo Min is particularly good at rendering them. It is harder to remark on the meaning of the young revolutionaries, who belong to a time when Maoism was in its grandest phase–not now, when much of China seems to have forgotten that moment. Even so, the young people radiate innocence and resolve; the different time they belong to seems inspired. This part of the painting looks like it comes from a photo, but it is done in the manner of socialist realism. We can see it either as a historically accurate report–a photograph–or an image artifact, based on that report, from a later time. Whatever moment in Chinese history the painting is referring to, it works wonderfully well as a description of natural beauty and a report on political idealism.

It is clear from the marvelous work Plum, Orchid, Bamboo, and Chrysanthemum (2017-18) that Luo Min’s skill is capable of transcendence. Here the four mainstay imageries of traditional Chinese flower painting are treated in a way that emphasizes the wildness of their imagery, their randomness of placement. Nature here is being treated intuitively, not according to previous strictures. The result is entirely contemporary. Long stems of bamboo make their way from the upper left into the center of the composition, which presents a standing body of water, a pond. The other flowers rise up out of the lower third of the painting, while some green marsh grass is found on the upper right. Everywhere the painting is busy with extended stems and rising flowers; the activity, though, submits to Luo Min’s larger creative intelligence–what presents as an anarchic bit of wildness is also, after considered looking, a meditative study of form. Clearly, Luo Min seems to be saying, we can create new art effectively only if we introduce the past into our understanding of current art practice. At the same time, the past is needed to help shape contemporary image-making; it helps to counter the damage nature is enduring at present, largely the result of pollution.

Elements of urban life are considered in Luo Min’s most recent body of work, in which downtown New York is presented in an intelligent  manner, with its colors accentuated–at least from a New Yorker’s point of view! In the 2020 painting named The Window Leads to New Jersey, we find Luo Min rendering New York’s downtown from a window located several storeys above the ground. On the left there is, in the upper corner, one of those anonymous tall buildings New York City specializes in, while beneath it, also on the left, is a small area of greenery with a curving road running through it and a sign announcing the Holland Tunnel, a major tunnel exiting from the city into New Jersey. To the right of the sign is a straight street, with buildings along its right side. On the right half of the painting, we see another straight street, with buildings on the left, and facing the window, a couple of smaller brick residential buildings. The city here is rendered with a mute objectivity not much like the flower paintings from China. But that doesn’t matter–what does count is Luo Min’s measure and restraint in rendering an urban landscape, which conveys, in understated but also vivid terms, the motley architecture of New York’s downtown. The painting offers an accurate view of an area New Yorkers might well indifferently consider, but which a visitor from Beijing has found interesting enough to describe.

The New York painting could not be more different from the artist’s flower paintings, which convey a lyricism more difficult to introduce into an urban landscape. Done during the time of the virus quarantine, the image does not include a single pedestrian on the streets. Yet The Window Leads to New Jersey is not only a city view, it is also a fragmented poem about city life. Objective in its description, the painting’s impartial note leads us to rediscover a New York City neighborhood not known well for its charm. Like the flower paintings, it offers a restraint that actually strengthens, rather than lessens, the feeling we experience in the imagery. We wonder if the New York paintings are a temporary experiment; it seems likely Luo Min will return to her usual Asian subject matter. The identification with Chinese art cannot but remain central to the painter’s work; it is inevitable, given her heritage and training. The particularity of her agreement with her culture’s past is reiterated in the suggested intricacies of her compositional form. Despite her trip to America, it seems evident that Luo Min’s identity will be found in her paintings of plums and bamboo and chrysanthemums. Her work, not so much a borrowing of earlier art as a modern re-creation of Chinese painting, can be understood as a gifted living artist’s treatment of subject matter made venerable by time. We don’t have that here in New York because our culture is not very old. Following the accomplishments of her tradition, even as she renders them contemporary, enables Luo Min to paint with skill and inspiration.

The present carries weight because of the past she refers to, just as the past becomes alive due to its contemporary treatment.

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