Lu Chuntao: Mind Traveling


Lu Chuntao: Mind Traveling

By Jing Cao April 9, 2015

Guest curated by Shen Kuiyi, Professor of Asian Art History, Theory and Criticism at UC San Diego, Mind Traveling at the Chinese Culture Center is the first solo show of Shanghai-based artist Lu Chuntao in the U.S. While the works represent recurring meditations on a single theme—that of a lotus pond—Lu employs differences in perspective, materiality, format, and scale to lend diversity to the collection. Some works emphasize the materiality of his implements—the texture of the paper or the viscosity of the ink. Others play with shifting scale and perspective, bringing the viewer underwater or overhead—into the pond from a frog’s-eye view, or gazing across it from a distance. Throughout the exhibition, Lu’s works bring attention to the elements of his craft, prompting the viewer to consider not just the subject of the paintings, but also the nature of painting itself.

Like many of Lu’s works, Lotus Pond 2014 No. 105 (2014) is a densely packed composition. Splashes of white ink on the surface obscure layers of black marks and gray washes underneath. The viewer struggles to see past each successive layer as if wading through a thick mass of vegetation in a murky pond. A white light source and even wash of ink at the top of the painting orient the viewer toward the sky while placing her down in the mud, amid the jumble of roots and splattered ink. Within that chaos, however, Lu achieves a sense of balance. The splashes of white and black ink suggest action painting and organic forms, while the more dilute washes beneath them instill an underlying sense of calm, creating spaces to breathe within the crowded work. In Chinese painting, lotuses are symbols of beauty emerging from mud; appropriately, Lu’s abstract painting of a lotus pond represents harmony emerging from disorder.   

Lu Chuntao. Lotus Pond 2014 No. 105, 2014; ink on paper; 79 x 79 cm. Courtesy of the Chinese Culture Center, San Francisco.

Lu’s triptych of hanging scrolls, the largest works in the Lotus Pond series, expand on his themes of calm and chaos. Their imposing scale—each scroll hangs from ceiling to floor at 64 by 180 centimeters—allows the viewer to shrink as she enters into the landscape, moving through it like a goldfish in a pond. However, with no fixed perspective or visible horizon, these works force the viewer to constantly reorient herself, darting from shape to shape and void to void.

The most monumental of Lu’s works, these scrolls are also the most indexical. Thick wet splatters and sharp calligraphic lines highlight Lu’s brushwork. Dripping ink and water stains intentionally mark the paper. A metallic sheen radiates from areas containing tiny flecks of ink. Scholars have suggested that Chinese ink painting is best understood as performance art—a choreographed dance between artist, brush, ink, and paper.1 As such, Lu’s scrolls can also be read as records of their own making.

Lu Chuntao. Lotus Pond 2012 No. 049, 2015; ink on paper; 42 x 46 cm. Courtesy of the Chinese Culture Center, San Francisco.

Some of Lu’s most successful works are painted over textured paper. In Lotus Pond 2012 No. 049 (2015), the wrinkled surface and uneven borders suggest ripples on a pond while the soft washes and muted tones create an impressionistic, dreamlike mood. The light source at the center of the composition suggests the perspective of a viewer peering up from the bottom of a well. This point of view may sound ominous, but Lu’s gentle modulations in tone create a landscape that is peaceful and inviting. His balance of form and void creates a sense of spaciousness. The overall effect gives the viewer the sense that she can breathe underwater in a space that is still, calm, and separate from the outside world.

Traditional Chinese landscapes offered an escape to busy urban dwellers, allowing them to travel in their minds to distant scenes of tranquility and nature. While Lu’s works are much more abstract than their predecessors, and incorporate contemporary painting elements and techniques, they offer a similar form of respite. In a time and place in which individuals are increasingly struggling to breathe, Lu’s paintings invite viewers to settle their minds, find calm in the chaos, and learn to inhale while surrounded by mud.

Mind Traveling is on view at Chinese Culture Center, in San Francisco, through April 11, 2015.


  1. Jerome Silbergeld, Chinese Painting Style: Media, Methods, and Principles of Form (University of Washington Press, 1982), 46.

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