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Artist and Critic Rolled into One
In addition to ink-wash paintings, Xie Chunyan also works on calligraphy.

Artists have vivid imaginations, and this also applies to their fantasies regarding the fates of their critics. In some of these unspoken scenarios, the critic meets a tragic end, impaled on his own pen perhaps, or struck down by a bolt of lightening on his way to an opening.

There is no love lost between the artist and the art critic.

But what of the artist who is also a critic? Xie Chunyan, one of China's foremost art critics and a painter in his own right, has his own ideas about that -- some of which he's agreed to share.

Xie, who bears a striking physical resemblance to Lu Xun (1881-1936), the father of contemporary Chinese literature, is also said to write in a manner similar to the late author -- his scorching wit and nimble intellect leading some to conclude that he is, in fact, Lu's successor.

"Some people advance the silly notion that I descended from Lu Xun, but unfortunately this is not the case," Xie says, cigarette smoke escaping from his mouth with each word he utters. "I am in awe of Lu Xun as a writer, and I admire the sharpness and profundity of his novels," adds Xie.

Dispersing the smoke and the Lu Xun comparisons with a wave of his hand, Xie indicates he's ready to discuss his own work as a critic and a painter.

The 61-year-old Tianjin native is a prolific writer who has written critiques of nearly 100 artists. As a painter, he created what he refers to as a "prose painting style" that incorporates elements of traditional ink-wash painting, while building a visual narrative infused with humor and wit.

As an art critic, Xie has won over many readers with his insightful reviews, alienating a few artists along the way.

"Writing demands honesty. To have credibility as a writer, to have integrity as a writer, you must tell the truth," he says. "I can't praise an artist if I think his or her work lacks merit."

Xie didn't even hold back when he wrote about the work of Cheng Shifa, an almost legendary figure in the world of traditional ink-wash painting and a man with a great deal of influence in China's art community. Yet Xie leveled a bit of criticism at Cheng, who, in a sign of the great goodwill and bonhomie, shrugged it off, and never held it against the critic.

While xie's candor has strained some of his relation-ships, it has also earned him a respected place in the art community. Because he too is a painter, a number of artists feel that he is qualified to pass judgment on their work. "The divide between art critic and artist is wide. By being both, I think that perhaps I'm more sensitive to the artists' position, and I can communicate with them and understand them because we're coming from a similar place creatively," he says.

Xie studied art and music at Shanghai Normal University. After graduation, he took a teaching position at the university, but continued painting in his free time. While still a student, Xie would often submit his work to local newspapers and magazines for publication.

After several early rejections, one of Xie's painting was published in a local newspaper, along with a short descriptive essay about the work -- his first byline. Many more would follow. Due to his artistic and writing skills, he was subsequently hired by the Wenhui Daily newspaper in the late 1970s. He soon became a featured arts reporter at the newspaper, a job that afforded him the opportunity to meet many artists, and expand his know-ledge of different genres.

For xie, it seemed natural to combine his literary ideas with his visual concepts, and create a new sub-genre -- a combination of traditional ink-wash techniques with modern subjects and written words. Xie was not the first artist to see the potential marriage of words and painting, but his use of the traditional ink-wash medium made his "prose painting style" unique. His style was a dramatic departure from traditional ink-wash painting, and Xie's innovations were well-received by the arts community.

Approaching his paintings as a writer might look upon the blank page of a manuscript, Xie brings to his work the observational skills of a novelist, the humor of a veteran raconteur, and the steady, skillful hand of a master painter.

In 1996, Xie was instrumental in organizing an annual exhibition, held in New York, featuring traditional ink-wash paintings by artists from China, U.S. and South Asia. "It was our desire to promote traditional Chinese paintings in the West," he says, adding that this year's exhibit will be held in Shanghai this month instead of New York for the first time.

(Shanghai Daily January 15, 2003)

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