In the early 1990s, when He Duoling returned to Chengdu from America, a quiet change began to take place in his painting style. This subtle, gradual, hidden shift was connected to the new understanding of Chinese traditional culture he reached upon seeing ancient Chinese paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many in our generation only began to understand traditional culture overseas. There is no reason to go into detail on the causes for this beyond saying it is due to the times. This subtle influence began to emerge after his return to China, even before the Courtyard Project series.
In the mid-1990s, while building his own studio, He Duoling grew passionate about contemporary architecture, and followed this passion to a level of professionalism equaling that of any architecture student. At this time, architectural signs began entering into his works. Works such as Labyrinth Tower, Courtyard Project and the later Rear Window deftly incorporated architectural elements into his painting. He employed dislocation methods and sought emptiness within substance, creating an interplay between the architectural elements and modern figures in his works. For example, he would use modern walls to echo the paper screens of ancient times, and concrete steps to echo the winding railings and footbridges. In his techniques, he adopted a traditional painting method of lightly applied points, in a departure from his thick applications of paint from the past, and even employed architectural drafting techniques directly on the canvas. He drew from spatial scenery to bring out the treasures of brush and ink. Here he was also raising a challenge to his accustomed medium of oil painting. This change and exploration have been present in his artworks ever since, in ways sometimes obvious, sometimes less so. They have continued to develop and take on substance.
In his new works from 2019, Wild Garden, Woman Wall, House with No Roof and Courtyard Memories, He Duoling has given his use of courtyard signs a more abstract and minimalistic rendering: no roofs, no courtyards, no pavilions, no enclosures. Instead, there is only a single wall, a single chair, or a single corner, and a garden filled with weeds, flowers and branches. There is only a single figure, alone in an overgrown garden, and whether nude or clothed, there is a frigidity to the air, giving a sense of impending winter. This is perhaps a reflection of the artist’s complex and desolate state of mind, or the bleakness he finds in the life cycles of things, in the knowledge that even though the ancients indulged their hearts in the landscape, they were unable to find paradise. The turmoil in his heart in turn influences his use of the brush on the canvas: broad, sweeping strokes, full, uninhibited expression, the painting flowing with a great proficiency allowed to run wild. It is as if we can read into his very heart.
In this series of paintings, the female form he is so adept at depicting now begins to reference the ancient archetype of the palace maiden: these women stand alone in the garden, forming a secret link of symbiosis and coexistence with nature and the manmade environment. Inside the walls and out, they gaze out among the trees and flowers, and seem to cast a sideways glance at the viewer. The women in Wild Garden, Woman Wall, and House with No Roof, are at once ancient palace maidens and modern women, fragile, complex and steadfast, placed in wild gardens and floating pavilions as carriers of their creator’s spirit. Everything around them that represents nature seems to lean towards them, revealing faint traces of hope and goodness that remain in the painter’s heart. For this reason, the brush often leaps out, leaving blank, unpainted space, the heart lingering over the refined enjoyment of things not quite finished.
It’s worth noting here that I very much like the work Dreaming of Henri Rousseau from the House with No Roof series. Those who are familiar with the history of painting can see that this is a tribute to Rousseau’s The Dream. In terms of artistic rhetoric, this is akin to the traditional Chinese poetic device of “citing a classic” (yongdian). Many of He Duoling’s works have used this device, as seen in such works as Ophelia the Rabbit and The Birth of the Rabbit. These works draw from the compositions of classic paintings on the surface, though the painter is perusing the classics to ends that are at odds with their original intent. In this way, different expressions and directions form between the original source and the present context. The artist is using his own insights to engage Rousseau in a dialogue from a distance.
The floating pavilion is suspended in an indeterminate state, inviting the viewer to step up and tread upon the canvas. Within, the viewer will experience a never-ending resonance. The atmosphere of this series penetrates and encompasses both emptiness and fullness, like the calm composure of the architect shaping a garden. It is also He Duoling applying his own understanding and love for gardens, poeticism, scenery and conceptual landscape, presenting them using familiar painting methods and special techniques.