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Chinese theme of permanence: an update

"What's so Chinese about it?" we hear a visitor to the Hirschorn Museum ask. The 32-year-old air-brush artist speaks Chinese, writes it with a ball-point instead of a sable brush. He lives in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, a grimy habitation of poets, artists and the unusual tourist, rather than a pavilion in Suchow. From his studio window you see brown buildings crowned with water tanks, instead of the myriad peaks and rugged pines of Li Tang and Kuo Hsi. Ching's perception of space, his arrangement of images within a picture, his sense of symmetry is pure Chinese, as pronounced as "one-corner" Ma Yuan, the Southern Sung master who crammed bucolic paradises into the corner of his paintings, leaving one entire side blank, or with only a tiny room flickering in the off- balance.

Modern restatement of traditional Chinese compositional modes is often insipid, tacky, sickeningly cute, but Ching has avoided them. Instead he employs the traditional concepts of space and placement, as in "On the Freeway" where the moon faintly illumines the air-brushed blue above the streetlamps, symbol of the primordial, its ancient fortress of light and force looming over the ephemeral and diminuative man-made street lights, which are arranged in a row like trees. The smaller and weaker source of light, the moon, will prevail over the more powerful lamps in the long run, stating a theme important to ancient Chines works and to Ching's impermanence. He uses the crisp air-brushed backgrounds to set off his watercolor brushwork of peeling paint, inspired by the walls of his studio.

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In "The Studio Lights" (not shown here) three light bulbs are meant to suggest the mystical trinity. The central bulb is ringed with a rainbow spectrum double nimbus: blue, green, orange, yellow and red. The bulbs on the sides glow faintly like dim flanking stars, the central buld as iridescent as the moon before a snowfall. Peeling paint, abstract patches placed in three corners asymetrically around the field of light, remind us of the bizarrely shaped rocks in old Chinese pictures, disturbingly broken and irregular, yet beautiful to the Chinese eye.

What's so Chinese about Ching's work? the quality of Chineseness is clearly in the eye of the beholder, Ching answers.

"It's instinctive, it's in my blood, not an overt consciousness. One day I will draw with brush and ink, capturing the moment of inspiration, not retouching or reworking, close to the Tao. . . ."


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