A Collaboration between Xie Tien Cheng and James Higginson

During the summer of 1989, American artist James Higginson, traveled to Guilin, China to work collaboratively with Chinese Master painter, Xie Tien Cheng. Their artistic collaboration coincided with the demonstrations for democracy at Tiananmen Square. The two artists worked together during this unique time and produced a group of 30 paintings that combined the past and present in techniques and visions while exploring the emotions of the tumultuous current events. Mixing Xie’s structure and traditional Chinese painting style with Higginson’s more open and conceptual approach to art creation, they explored, reevaluated and contemporized the subjects and painting style of the T’ang Dynasty (“one of the most fertile periods in Chinese artistic and literary creativity...a time when art could be made without fear”).

Working from images found on the cave walls of Dunhuang, the traditional portrait of a Chinese woman was activated using “splash ink techniques” in oil paint mixed with dry pigments. The wet paintings were sprayed with solvents to cause streams of color to run down the poised illustrated faces (“Dunhuang I-V”). These paintings began on rice paper then the two artists placed the refined images onto constructed grounds of wax paper and tape. In the U.S., Mr. Higginson had created a meditative series of wax paper and tape constructed artworks entitled “Fragile States”, so they felt it appropriate that the traditional portrait of the Chinese woman be placed on these constructions signifying the imminent change women were to go through in China as the country modernizes and becomes more open to western ideals (“Covering Moon, Shaming Faces”). The face of “China Doll”, a concubine during the T’ang Dynasty, with men’s footprints marking the (fragile state) ground on which she is painted reflects the changing Chinese society. Whether to hold to the old traditions or retire them and usher in the “new” is represented in the work “Goldfish or Ox.”

Turning next to the importance of boundaries in China, they looked at the rivers and the great wall. Transportation on the rivers increased trade and the boundary of the Great Wall secured the country from the threat of foreign invasion. This combination allowed China to grow and prosper in the arts during the T’ang Dynasty. Using the backdrop of the mysterious, beautiful mountains surrounding Guilin and the Li River, the two artists metaphorically spoke of their East-West collaboration (“The Voyager,” “Hearts in Juxtaposition”). Again, they utilized the process of painting on rice paper to painting on the wax paper and tape constructions (“Between the Earth and Sky”).

From the banks of the Li River in the shadows of the limestone mountains the artists focused on the surrounding peace in nature. Celebrating this tradition are the works “Autumn Symphony,” and “The Misty Hills.” “Light as the Clouds” reveals the honor one has for his ancestors placing them in a “ghost house” in the mountains close to the sky. All these paintings used the traditional Chinese flattened picture plane placing foreground elements at the bottom of the painting with background elements toward the top. They acknowledged a poet of this time period in “Tai Bai before a Waterfall” and cause pause with a painting of Eastern Thought entitled “Nothing.”

The dilemma presented in “The Monk and the Man-O-War” was all too real for the artists; whether to remain within personal boundaries of spirit and paint from history and nature or wander into unknown waters with defenses at the ready. They made the decision to take a calculated risk, cross this boundary and paint about the current political events with “camouflage” in titles. Due to the current events of China during this five week collaboration the peaceful cultural exchange was changed into an event held as a counterpoint to China’s struggle to contain the surge toward democracy.

The recurring theme of “boundaries” surfaced again as the charged political atmosphere inside China ignited viewpoints and drew criticisms around the world. The Chinese people expressed an animated hope for the future under the budding wings of democracy with the potential of opening cultural, trade and political barriers to Western influence. With the military crackdown and Tiananmen Square Massacre this hope moved from shock and horror to a paralyzing fear leaving silent resignation in it’s wake. Witnessing these emotions and events James Higginson and Xie Tien Cheng blended their combined styles in another group of powerful works. The paintings discussing the current political atmosphere had to be disguised as landscapes and given traditional Chinese proverb titles such as, “You’re Welcome in the House But Don’t Criticize the Master”; “Stone Broken, Sky in Terror”; “To Look at Red and Find it Blue”. Others were more blatant, “Red Dawn”; “Fireworks Over China”; and “What Does it Matter to You?” which shows small red soldiers marching across the outer borders into the painting itself. The large triptych of which “What Does it Matter to You?” is the first panel; plays out the emotions of both the artists and the people of China during this tumultuous time. The triptych continues with the second panel entitled “So I understand”. In the paintings’ center a lone Chinese person stands rigid while the landscape burns with deep rich orange hues; a golden sun is overcome by darkened clouds. In the third panel entitled, ”To Look at Red and Find it Blue,” the Chinese people march in a circle underground signifying their dashed hopes for freedom of expression and the return to a clandestine way of life.

In these 30 museum quality artworks, known as The China Paintings, artists James Higginson and Xie Tien Cheng captured visions from the distant Chinese past and poignant statements of that fateful summer in 1989. They set out to revisit a dynastic time period and modernize its premier painting themes and style, yet they achieved much more. The artworks display both the calm and beauty of the landscape as well as present powerful cathartic emotions of this time using landscape painting as political metaphor for Chinese oppression of personal freedoms. And in this attempt to cross aesthetic, cultural, language and political barriers a union was created that symbolizes the possibility of peaceful coexistence, cooperation and friendship for all peoples, regardless of their differences.