Landscape-inspired geographies of the soul and mind — that’s one way to think of the ink-brush paintings of contemporary Chinese artist Pan Gongkai.
Those landscapes can range from intimate garden vistas to rugged mountain escarpments. But in every case, they’re steeped, however indirectly, in human sensibility.
Pan Gongkai, speaking through a translator, acknowledged as much when he was at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum earlier this month for the opening of “Pan Gongkai: Withered Lotus Cast in Iron,” his first solo show in the U.S.
“Though we see no person appear directly in his painting,” his translator said, “all the expression is about how a person feels.” The ultimate goal is for the artist to “melt” into what he’s painting: “to have an integration of subject and object.”
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That “integration” can occur on a massive scale. The title piece in the show, created specifically for the Frye, is 50 feet long and 6 feet high. It’s an epic work that engulfs you in its moods. Its closest equivalent in Western art might be the largest of Monet’s “Water Lilies” paintings. It doesn’t just have a presence in its gallery. It shapes the room’s atmosphere.
With its energetic blacks and yawning white voids, “Withered Lotus” combines storm with calm, seismic force with vaporous vista. (“The shape of each piece of white,” the artist explains, “also is a composition in relationship with the blackness.”)
The show includes three other “widescreen” ink-brush paintings suspended between the figurative and the abstract. “High Autumn” and “Cool Dusk,” particularly, use loose, spontaneous brush-strokes to suggest times of day and changes of season.
Smaller works in square format, including a second “High Autumn,” have their own distinctive energy. In “Strong Wind,” the ink has a sideways-pushing horizontal velocity. In “Robust,” the brush-strokes convey a whole bursting state of mind as they swell right up to the margins of the paper. “Secret Fragrance” is a spreading abstraction of darkening ink, a seductive suggestion of a scent approaching.
Also on show at the Frye: “#SocialMedium,” items from the museum’s permanent collection selected by the public via a campaign on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr and old-fashioned paper ballot. In all, 4,468 “curators” took part, casting 17,601 votes from 30 countries, as far afield as Brazil, Bangladesh, Iraq, Romania, Japan, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia.
The winner, by far, was “Peacock” by German painter Julius Scheuerer (1859-1913). Runners-up were Franz von Stuck’s “Sin” (no surprise), Dániel Somogyi’s “View of Königsee,” Alexander Max Koester’s “Moulting Ducks” and William-Adolphe Bourguereau’s “The Shepherdess.”
Voters’ comments are a key part of the show and help highlight lesser-known items in the Frye’s collection. One writer remarked on the “moodiness and abstract quality” of Ludwig Dill’s “Birkenwald (The Birch Grove)” (No. 11 in popularity), while another commented on the “almost proto-Surrealist quality” of Edmund Steppes’ “The Time of the Cuckoo” (No. 14), with its empty outdoor prospect that’s half cultivated garden, half open field.
Participants did succeed in voting for something that had never been displayed before, or even definitively attributed to a particular artist, until it was cleaned up for the show.
As their comments indicate (“Definitely over the top,” “Saucy Venus,” “Bad hair day?”), Gustav Majer’s “Stella” — No. 26 in this hit parade — is a very hairy female nude, a gaudily horrific oil-on-canvas with a strangely repellent allure.
Voting is still open to visitors to the show. Just think, if enough of us are perverse enough in our tastes, we could make a “Stella” a chart-topper.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com