Chen Ruo Bing: World of Reflection

【Comment】“ART IS ART. ”– Thoughts on the Works of Chen Ruo Bing

Hans Günter Golinski

Reading the paintings of an artist who is at home in two cultures and whose art blends the aesthetic qualities of both of these cultures can prove to be a task at once both exciting and challenging. Looking at the paintings of Chen Ruo Bing, however, they open up a freedom which is both unknown and familiar. In the following, we shall attempt to read his painting, in order to understand it, to look at it order to experience it – although there are no clear lines between these approaches. The author feels free to observe, to associate, and to imagine.


Born in China to an artist family in 1970, Chen Ruo Bing, in his early years, sets upon the increasingly demanding path of learning both the written and pictorial traditions of Chinese culture. Growing up, he adopts literary and philosophical ideas and their images, from which his will to find his own way as an artist arises. At the age of 10, he experiments with the Lüshi (meaning “regular eight-line stanza”) tradition of poetry of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 A.D.), lyric poetry with a strict meter characterized by realism and romanticism - training his perception, his emotions and his discipline in a manner which his art still evokes today. His never completely forgotten love for literature culminates in one memorable summer, five years later, when he buries himself in a bookshop, spending days reading the Chinese classics of philosophy, literature and aesthetics. It is here that he also discovers Western writings. With youthful enthusiasm and great resolve he studies the observations and interpretations of the visible and invisible world, using calligraphy and above all ink painting to turn this knowledge into art. From 1988-1991, he studies Chinese Painting at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art in Hangzhou.


With the aim of learning, practicing and absorbing Chinese traditions the students there also seek out contemporary forms of expression. Specializing in landscape painting, Chen Ruo Bing is especially interested in space and time, in particular the static time of Chinese art, and - already - the dynamic time of Western art. In this context he experiments with oil abstracts, choosing, however, to remain true to ink painting. Aged 22, he comes to the conclusion that he is sufficiently proficient in Chinese teachings and Asian aesthetics to permit this chapter of his life to come to a close and sets off westward - many would later follow his example.


As we know, the so-called “West” has frequently looked to Asia. Western culture and art history can cite numerous examples of the resulting influence of Asian and, specifically, Chinese culture. We only need to think of the Chinoiseries of the Baroque era or the Japonism of the 19th century and their influence on Impressionism. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Modernism has shown a renewed interest in Asian culture. Asian ink painting and its heightened degree of abstraction serve Vassily Kandinsky as a decisive inspiration in removing the need for the depiction of reality from his art. In a few instances prior to World War II and even more so after 1945, Western artists seek purpose and inspiration for their own art in the aesthetics and traditions of Asia. These exchanges between East and West prove fruitful for the development of Western art, often, however, they are limited to formal adoptions and imitation devoid of knowledge of the underlying world-view and philosophy. The exotic has proven fascinating time and time again When one’s own situation is felt to be restrictive, what is exotic becomes the projection of the desire for a supposedly better world.


“Occidental” history of art and ideas has been subject to periods of religious and ideological iconolatry and iconoclasm, oscillating again and again between ever new and ever different manifestations of the baroque desire for color and form on the one hand and sensual asceticism on the other.


Observers brought up in Western culture who are familiar with abstract art often believe that they understand the reduction inherent in Asian ink painting, sometimes appearing arrogant, sometimes refreshingly naive. There is the ever-present danger of perceiving the works as lacking color and thus monotonous. The sensual perception of color or progressive color theory seems to be missing. This style of painting is inseparable from the traditions it serves, both variety and unambiguousness are thought to be lacking, as are realism or emotion. The formal language, passed down from generation to generation and incontrovertible, seems devoid of any development or topicality.  


In the face of these preconceptions and misunderstandings, young Chen Ruo Bing’s thirst for knowledge, still evident today, appears in a different light. His painting upholds the principles of Chinese tradition while allowing a dialogue with Western philosophy and contemporary art. His philosophical beliefs and the way in which he sees himself as an artist mean he is interested in a cross-cultural intellectual experience, perhaps one even unfettered by cultural boundaries. He is ever aware of his obligations to society as an artist, at the same time his images are not concerned with current events or recent political developments, concentrating instead on the causalities and potential inherent in human existence. He strives for a universal spirituality independent of religion as he says in his writing: “Abstract artists shoulder social responsibility in their creative process because their works directly or indirectly affect the emotions of the viewer. Careful thinking is required.”


Perhaps it is a utopian belief that observing art can lead to a unifying or communal spiritual experience that leaves its traces in the further actions of the observers. This thematic approach in consequence necessitates an abstract language of form that Chen Ruo Bing has developed from Eastern and Western aesthetic theory. In the following we 

shall consider some fragments of Eastern thinking which might come about when looking at his works.


Embracing the history of Chinese thinking, Chen Ruo Bing concerns himself with the “three teachings” that define China: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. In the writings of the Taoist priest and scholar, Lu Hsiu-Ching (406-477) for instance, with which the artist will have been familiar, there are cosmological scenarios showing a conscious use of color. From his mouth, Yuan-Shi-Tian-Zong, the “Worthy Celestial Being of the Very Beginning” exhales the colors green, yellow and red. These energies, once freed, begin glowing and in them the “purple letters” of the “golden book”, the “vermillion extracts of the jade symbols” become luminous and clear. Within these three colored energies, the “twenty-four flawless of the glowing spheres” hang suspended in space with an army, surrounding the divine symbols in order to protect them. Spiritual teachings and philosophical knowledge are communicated in metaphorical language which argues in images and provokes suggestions of color. Color is experienced in nature in all its nuances and effects and finds its abstraction in any intellectual philosophy and its corresponding cultural rituals. The Taoist, whose task is to harness the celestial potential of the spirit for both the individual and society, can depict celestial structures and visualize mental powers. Could Chen Ruo Bing be considered a Taoist painter? Although colors may symbolize the divine, they are also associated with the desires that distract from the aspiration for insight and the focus on the “Highest One”: when the eyes see colors, the ears hear sounds, the mouth perceives tastes and the inner self desires emotions, the “breath of life” (Ch’i) is dissipated.


Laozi (600 B.C.) challenges the spirit and attunes the senses with his teachings: “We look at it and do not see it - its name is The Invisible. We listen to it and do not hear it - its name is The Inaudible. We reach out for it and cannot grasp it - its name is The Ungraspable.”


Within Taoist teachings and metaphor there are also spiritual craftsmen that create images of celestial beings and holy men - icons - according to the 7th century descriptions written by the scholar Chin-ming Ch’i-chen. The “grand images” have no outer shape and, however perfect they may be, are devoid of color. They are “very clear, empty and calm”. Neither human sight nor human hearing can perceive them. As a result of cosmic changes, they may manifest themselves for a short time, only to revert to their hidden existence. Perceiving these  “perfect images” means concentrating and evokes the vision of the divine. Having achieved this state, one is at the threshold of creating “icons” using colors, metals and jade. Artistic endeavor serves as a spiritual, philosophical metaphor that can be applied to Chen Ruo Bing's factual work: Is he an icon painter?


A spiritually defined aesthetics is both taught and practiced within Buddhism, in particular within the philosophy of Chan or Zen Buddhism. A significant difference between Western, Christian-influenced spirituality and Asian or Buddhist lies in the fact that Zen Buddhism has to be seen as religion without God.


Christian mysticism, too, knows the principle of negating God and it seems as if the words of Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) and the Zen Master Linji (died 866 or 867) are in the same vein, whether Eckhart preaches: “It is a certain and necessary truth that he who resigns his will wholly to God will catch God and bind God, so that God can do nothing but what man wills.” or Linji appeals “If you meet Buddha, kill Buddha”. Linji’s “killing” of a divine image, however, cannot be compared to Eckhart’s striving towards transcendence. Instead, it allows immanence to shine. In Chen Ruo Bing’s color paintings, immanence shines.


Zen Buddhism turns the Buddhist religion into something radically substantial. Within Zen writings, the almost imperative declaration “nothing holy”, appears again and again. Spiritualism is anchored in the here and now, spiritual practices serve spiritual development in daily life, in reality.


Painting is perceived in Zen Buddhism as a spiritual art, as complete concentration of the mind. To move on from “primitive” sight, which rewards only the desires of the senses or pragmatic reasoning, and, as such, remains a shallow pursuit, to perceiving true spirituality, one must shut out, “kill” color - a painful experience. In Zen-Buddhist aesthetics, the “passionate love of the beauty of color” leads to its exclusion. By “killing color”, one monochromatism, which in turn becomes the visible manifestation of the complete lack of color. Colorlessness thus signifies the culmination of the aesthetic value of all color. To put this philosophical art into practice, Zen painters have developed techniques such as “the avaricious brush”, “sparse color”, or, in extreme cases, “empty painting”, in which written words allude to that which is imagined on the blank surface. In a manner of speaking, Chen Ruo Bing has killed his “passion” for color in order to approach it with calm and composure. He now paints empty paintings with sparse color using an avaricious brush, allowing us to experience the essence of color.


The understanding and aesthetic treatment of light is also subject to differences in philosophy and is diametrically opposed to Western concepts: The dull glow of jade is considered an ideal. Where in Christian paintings God’s presence is shown as blinding light and salvation is represented by “illumination” or “en-light-enment”, in Asian aesthetic teachings, light according to the definition of “Nirvana” is in the process of “fading”, the “absence” of light is desired. Directionless light embraces the darkness. Light is not to be used to illuminate individual things and make their presence shine. Figures merge into one another, reflect in twilight or half shadow, everything hangs in the balance. Each individual being mirrors all other beings, which in turn mirror the individual being.


In Chen Ruo Bing’s art color and shape, figure and surface shine and fade, nestle against each other and separate again, appear and disappear. In his work, they take turns to mirror one another.


To mirror means to transform. The oriental culture is more open to concepts of transformation and transience than to identity and continuity. Often, wind is used as a descriptor, a landscape for example may be referred to as a “View of the Wind”. When perceived thus, the landscape loses all the solidity associated with land. Instead, it comes to symbolize fluidity or flow. The painted and thus also the natural landscape should not be perceived as subjects or objects and, as such, cannot be owned, observer and landscape should strive to become one. Landscape must be seen as it sees itself. The intention is to see in a manner as if subject and object were not yet separate entities. This demands sensitive, intuitive work on the part of the artist.


“He who deliberates and moves the brush intent on painting a picture, misses the art of painting, while he who deliberates and moves the brush without such intentions achieves the art of painting. His hands will not become stiff, his heart will not grow cold, without knowing how complete it is.” (Chang Yan Yuan, 9th century).




Chen Ruo Bing has selected the works for his most recent exhibition, demonstrating a remarkably thoughtful distance to his own artistic development. Both the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue demonstrate a revealing chronology of a series of experiments and a development of insights in the use of color shapes and color surfaces. The wisely chosen sequence with seemingly minimal variations gives a glimpse of the potential workings of color.


The artist allows the visitor to take part in an artistic process from 2001 which continues until the present day. The 23 pictures or series of pictures on display are acrylic paintings on canvas, and have matter-of-fact numbers as titles.  


Painting “0120” introduces recurring elements of Chen Ruo Bing’s research: colored squares as well as vertical and horizontally aligned colored forms. In a yellow surface approximating a square, five individual, irregular shapes alluding to this form are placed. This irritates our perception. They give the observer the impression of being able to look “beneath” or “behind” the yellow, both disturbing and accentuating the colored field as well as its square shape.


A 2005 group of four almost indistinguishable colored steles emphasize the vertical both through their shapes and their color schemes; the relationship between shape and surface is reduced in its effect to a subtle oscillation.


In contrast, in picture “0647” the artist takes a more radical turn by applying paint(s) to the square canvas in such a manner that – because the structure of the canvas is made visible - what was initially the surface develops a life of its own as a relief.


In the colored square “0751”, the interplay of colors and the interaction of form and surface give the impression of a picture-in-a-picture, of squaring a circle. Both the rounded corners and the positions of the four triangles serve to accentuate the picture’s format while also alluding to a circular form.


The “almost-square” numbered “0754” seems optically so devoted to its vertical form as if to lend it an existence beyond the borders of the canvas. Form and surface are kept distinctly separate resulting in an almost corporeal luminescence from within.


The energies released in the colors and shapes of “0863” are hesitant and – although they subtly transcend the lower edge of the canvas - manifest their presence in the picture itself.


In works “0903” and “0909”, on the other hand, the vertically oriented, rounded shapes seem to have solidified into bodies of light against the almost completely neutral background.


The horizontal yellow shape which seems to float in front of or within the blue surface of composition “1017” lures the observer into a bright space of light in which a luminescent body shines.


In “1001” and “1033”, Chen Ruo Bing reduces the spherical element in different ways in order to emphasize the increasing manifestation of the color palette. The brownish-red form in painting “1033” gives the impression of being illuminated as a result of its various contour lines.


The work “1034”, is a variant of “1017”, similar in color yet appearing more grounded.


The object-surface relationship of the colors in “1135” seems unrelated to that of any of the other works, yet, when one recalls the first work described here, the common principles become evident: the composition, consisting of a square within a square, evenly executed, creates an oscillation between the form and the surface. Does a yellow surface shine beneath the grey square, or does a body of yellow light rest upon a colorless surface? The square format is once again heightened by the process. The rounding of the shapes, however, reduces the dominance of their form.


In the subsequent variations on this theme, Chen Ruo Bing intensifies the tension between the square and the circle. In “1137” a colored shape is placed clearly on the work’s surface, only to take on a more circular, glowing form in “1226”, or to revert to a more squarish form in “1231”.


The vitality of Chen Ruo Bing’s exhibition concept again becomes apparent in work “1249”, in which variations on the idea of form and surface are achieved by a warm interaction of colors, only to overwhelm us with a colored shape which is neither circular nor square (“1253”), which in turn shifts to the luminescent squaring of the circle in “1303”.


The seemingly massive body of light presented by the artist in his work “1422” remind us of the insides of the works preceding it. The correlation to work “0647”, painted 8 years earlier, is readily evident, the surface, reminiscent of a relief, has become a shifting, breathing body of color.


The most recent compositions of form and surface, “1504” and “1506”, can be seen as individual colored beings inhabiting different realms of color, some more, some less vibrant. The interplay of the colors, the varying degrees of density and brightness of the color areas, the forms in them or in front of them and their positions, the presence or absence of dynamics are characterized by a lively ambiguity.


Chen Ruo Bing’s instructive presentation of color develops into a progression past individual manifestations of color, which commend one to pause in order to understand and meditate. The paintings make reference to one another so that walking through the exhibition becomes a meditative process, Kinhin (the Japanese term) or Pinyin (Chinese), the Buddhist practice of conscious walking.  This spiritual progression leads us to a seemingly abstract, theoretical display of various compositions illuminating the relationship between form and surface, which can be seen as sunrise and sunset in Zen poetry. “When a viewer faces this art, he must look long and deep, and accept the challenge to perceive with his entire being, with his senses and his soul. His challenge requires an open acceptance of primitive instincts. People must forget knowledge, synthetic and rational analysis and allow themselves to enter an intimate relationship with the canvas, forgetting all else. That way they will experience the spiritual world of the art itself and begin to know the power of visions.”


Thanks to his early encouragement, his traditional schooling, his academic diligence, but also his increasing fascination for both Asian and Western art and spirituality, and lastly thanks to his artistic talent, Chen Ruo Bing has perfected his painting. With his vast knowledge of color, he precisely separates form and surface in his compositions. Nonetheless, and often only at a second glance,  “splashes” are to be found in his meticulous paintings. Are these the unintentional indications of the inattention of someone who is seeking or the calculated manipulation of coincidence by a master? Whichever the case, the process of painting is rendered visible for a moment, the colors evident as raw material. The “splashes” rid the works of pathos, thus proving that spirituality can arise only from human endeavor.




Since his earliest childhood, Chen Ruo Bing has stood under the influence of Asian philosophies and their principles of aesthetics, which he, from the age of 8, actively practiced in the form of calligraphy. When, in 1992, he arrived in the radically different cultural circumstances of Germany, he sought stability by focusing on his familiar ink painting. In order to finance his studies, he worked as an exhibition attendant at Documenta 9 in Kassel and was there immediately confronted with international contemporary art - a crash course. In deciding to study with Gotthard Graubner, he encounters an artist who himself is very drawn to Asian culture. Despite being one of the most renowned color painters, Graubner allows his new arrival to continue painting in colorless ink and supports him “silently”, by exhibiting, without any further comment, Chen’s new works in ink. As a result, his student receives a scholarship. Of his own volition, Chen Ruo Bing begins studying color painting, especially the theories of Ad Reinhard and Barnett Newman, artists both known for their contemplative art and for whom the color black plays a key role. He acquires a Western eye for art and comes to the realization that Western contemporary and traditional Chinese art are not completely diametrically opposed. Nonetheless, he suffers from a two-year long period of disorientation which he attempts to escape by referring back to earlier works and experimenting with different materials and media. In 1996/1997, he embarks on the path of color, which he has remained consistently true to ever since. In his own words, he claims color has always interested him, however, he was unsure of how to gain access to it. Once his decision had been made, however, the similarities to his familiar ink painting became apparent to him: “Color is a phenomenon which is without limits. Ink and so-called color should not be confrontational because ink is a kind of color. Color is a deep concept.”  


Thus, he sees color as the concept of his art, and at the same time, by adding the epithet “deep”, he also allows an interpretation of color as a “spiritual” concept.  


Despite the proximity to his teacher, it is the articulation of their painting that makes their differences increasingly apparent.


Karin Stempel interprets one of Graubner’s watercolors,  “Farbraum” (“Colored Space”), 1963, as an example using terms related to Asian aesthetics: “In this watercolor by Gotthard Graubner, it is not a fixed state which is shown, instead, a polarity between solution and dissolution, between corporeality and non-corporeality, between surface and space results in a stalemate in which differences, instead of coming to rest, manifest themselves by continuously collapsing and erupting, like waves receding into the ocean after breaking on the beach.” She speaks of “flowing borders”, the “purlieus of color”, the “relation of the unfocussed” or the “approximate”.


It is this feeling of “approximateon” that divides teacher and student. Chen Ruo Bing’s painting is clear, pronounced and precise without being one-dimensional. In Chen Ruo Bing’s more recent works the “soft pillow paintings” of Graubner have become solid, as unmathematically exact figures of color, or, more fittingly, bodies of color, that unfold their volume in relation to the works’ chromatic surfaces. Whereas Karin Stempel describes the powerful drama of opposites in the works of Graubner, in Chen’s compositions we find a calm breath.


When studying Chen’s works, it seems that as well as his Asian masters, one can see several “related” Westerners. With our knowledge of his beginnings in ink painting, and his fondness for square canvases, we are forced to think of Malevich. Chen seems to be familiar with the “Black Square” and the underlying almost religious teachings of suprematism: “The workings of suprematism are not affected by the restraints”, Kazimir Malevich writes, “of  ‘practical’, ‘expedient’ or ‘appropriate’ tasks, or of the search for truth, or for artistic or aesthetic insight. Suprematism serves nothing and no one since it exists in objectless equality, in non-weight. When people ask the question ‘what’, suprematism replies ‘nothing’. In spite of these considerations of pragmatism and expediency, all human endeavor is, in the end, directed to only one goal, to achieving an immaterial, absolute state of being, in which significance and differences will be lost from sight.”


The circle, with its centric symmetry that has no bias toward a particular vector, is the simplest visual form (the sun, the most important and impressive source of light, presents itself as a natural and thus rudimentary circular shape). Vassily Kandinsky, the psychologist and musician of colors, however, finds that the base shape of a square is for him the “most objective form” to represent a living entity, a “you”. The poetic scientist Paul Klee attempts to objectify this, stating that a square is an active counterpart devoid of any particular psychological attributes. He sees a mirroring between the work of art and the “ego”. For him, in the square form, in the unchangeable dimensions top and bottom the ego and the work of art look at each other face to face.


With respect to the surface area, the space covered by a circle is evenly spread; within a square, the spread is more differentiated. Although furthest away from the center, the corners receive the greatest attention. When contrasted with the closed form of the circle, the square seems to contain in itself the strength to visually transcend its own borders. Chen Ruo Bing explores these features of shape, finding ever-new ways to implement them in various interpretations of perception psychology. He causes the circle and the square to enter into a dialog, each with its own effect, thus pointing the way to the squaring of the circle.


Rupprecht Geiger, who in the 1960s sought a simple form for the evolvement of color, was certainly a companion on Chen Ruo Bing's path: “The multiplicity of abstract forms with their often scurrilous outlines can distract from color, with archetypal forms, such as the rectangle or circle, the color can emerge unaffected. In order to be better able to analyze a color, I apply the compositional principle of counterpointing to the color, adding a contrast color to the base color as an exponent.”


The complex phenomenon color is, given its physical, physiological, psychological and anthropological dimensions, open to unlimited interpretation in our search for new opportunities for experience, both intellectual and sensual.  Despite having gained autonomy, color possesses great symbolic strength in the Western world and thus affects us both psychologically and symbolically. Its intrinsic capacity to be a process can bestow almost endless freedom upon an artist in which one can become lost. With his aesthetic discipline, Chen Ruo Bing makes these freedoms accessible to the observer.


He is as familiar with Mark Rothko’s process of color change as he is with Josef Albers’ interaction between appearance and disappearance. Nor is he a stranger to Rothko’s spirituality and mission: “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world. ” (Mark Rothko).


Albers, in contrast, can be deemed a rationalist, despite his desire to address the observer intuitively: “... this is what I want: to create meditation images for the 20th century!” Albers seems to have played an important role in Chen Ruo Bing’s development which goes beyond Chen’s nomination as Artist in Residence of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in the USA. His love for the square and his ability to bring together colors in sublime interaction was certainly decisively influenced by Albers’ art. Chen has a similar view to Albers’ belief in the artist as a creator. “The goal of life: living creatures. The goal of art: living creation.” There is, however, one significant difference: where Albers can be described as a creating theorist, Chen is best construed a spiritual transformer.  As a color painter, he is aware that the nature of color is averse to any binding theory: “The absolute - of color, its energy, its luminescence – is different in every picture - and also in every observer.” (Erich Franz) It is in the nature of color that every painter makes individual use of it, so too does Chen, in order to make spirituality visible: “Different artists find different ways to achieve the transformation from substance to spirit. The working of the material, the paint itself, transcends materiality to become spiritual. I do this by establishing and elongating something real to become something abstract. From this perspective, abstract art is actually realistic art.” Chen Ruo Bing, in keeping with the teachings of Chan philosophy, seeks immanence rather than transcendence and is rooted firmly in the here and now of painting - color is color.


Excerpt from a dialogue:

Liu Libin: Toast the moon. The moon is very bright in Beijing today!

Chen Ruo Bing: Art is art.