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Art Review

Cao Jun: the dance and the chance of it

Cao Jun’s “Poetic Water,” part of “Hymns to Nature” at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College.
Cao Jun’s “Poetic Water,” part of “Hymns to Nature” at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College.McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

The Chinese painter Cao Jun is an artist out of time. He doesn’t fit into the concept-driven world of contemporary art. He works and lives on a different philosophical trajectory, firmly rooted in traditional Chinese aesthetics.

In “Cao Jun: Hymns to Nature,” at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College through June 3, the painter adheres to an essentially Taoist template, ultimately using it as a springboard into exuberant action painting.

The tenets of the ancients give his works gas: Nature is generative; painting aims not to depict it, but to embody it. This approach folds easily into a certain kind of abstract expressionism, but it takes no interest in 21st-century painterly concerns about space, three-dimensionality, storytelling, digital visions, or even the environment.


Cao is out of the discourse, but his work is vital and light on its feet. Whether he paints a burbling rush and suck of swoony blues, or a bold lion (in “National Spirit”) with such fleet precision you can count the hairs in its mane, he engages with life’s force. His stance insists he be awake to nature twice: imbibing it, and expressing it.

Cao Jun’s “National Spirit”
Cao Jun’s “National Spirit”McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

Born in 1966, Cao spent many years in China’s Shandong province, near Mount Tai, a historically sacred site. He went to a mining college and worked for the forestry service. He has said that he knows the mountain’s height with his feet, its character with his heart, and its spirit with his soul.

Unlike art historical landscape painters such as Albert Bierstadt, or contemporary environmental painters such as Alexis Rockman, Cao is not trying to glorify nature, fix it, or lament humanity’s stewardship of it. He is simply a part of it, in his visions and in his actions. He mixes many of his own mineral pigments (oh, the incandescent tones!), and he often makes his own paper.


Those Western artists follow in a tradition that stems from a worldview fundamentally different from Cao’s. Painters in the West have grappled with nature as expansive, wild, or majestic — but always as something other. Landscapes have been a perfect tool for grappling with space, and thus with ordering and mastering the world around us.

Space does not appear to be Cao’s concern. The Chinese word for landscape painting, “shan-shui,” translates as “mountains and waters.” The tradition isn’t about “scapes” at all, but about the elements. Chinese painting springs from calligraphy; motion, action, and line are paramount. Not space, and not stolid form, as is often the case in Western art.

The show’s curator, John Sallis, a professor of philosophy at BC, visited Cao in China in 2012. Sallis knew well the landscape paintings of the Song Dynasty. A millennium ago, artists such as Guo Xi anchored their imagery with a master mountain, and adorned it with water — a river, waterfalls — and mist, cloaking the scene in necessary mystery.

Cao, Sallis saw, was riffing on that format. Works from that scintillating series, in ink and watercolor on paper, are on view. Some, such as “Endless Rivers and Mountains,” revolve around a master mountain. In others, Cao depicts several peaks. In all of them, the artist begins with delicate ink drawing, and finishes with a pigment pour of glorious blue.

The craggy landscape overflows the sheet in “Thousands of Rivers Converge,” rendering a perilous scene that verges on abstract. Rocks open to a cracked and spotted nothingness. A blast of icy blue spills in — an anomalous gust across the land, like a visitation.


The artist has raised the stakes on a traditional freehand technique known as ink splashing. He calls it color splashing. Chinese modernist Zhang Daqian, Cao’s aesthetic godfather, took a similar approach in the 1960s, also topping off traditional imagery with splashes.

And like Zhang, Cao makes botanical paintings — eloquent renderings of red lotus blossoms on long, arching stems. “Poetry’s Evocative Power Over Wind and Fog” tops those forms with fluid blots of black, purple, and gold, which float from the flowers like shadows shooed away by their beauty.

“Poetry’s Evocative Power Over Wind and Fog”
“Poetry’s Evocative Power Over Wind and Fog”McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

You see why painters of the New York School attracted Cao — Pollock flicking his wrist, Frankenthaler pouring her acrylics. They entrusted themselves to paint’s fluidity in a way that recalled the flow and blot of ancient calligraphers. Cao, too, has discovered freedom in the dance and the chance of it.

Having lived and worked in China and New Zealand, he moved to Long Island in 2013 and walked in Pollock’s footsteps. But where Pollock would, most famously, fling paint, Cao is more deliberate. He mixes different consistencies of paint. He pours, but he may then brush.

You can read his fresh, roiling paintings as pure abstractions. I prefer to see nature. “River of Stars Crossing Time and Space,” in gold, purple, and burning red, heaves and opens into a nebula chattering with dust and light.


My favorite, “Poetic Water,” was inspired by a visit to the South Pole. Cao leaned over the back of his boat, mesmerized by the sun playing on the churn of arctic water.

If his aim is to embody nature’s capriciousness, here it is: darting, smoky blues, diamond glints of aqua, foamy whites; dissolution and formation; surge and stillness. Constancy only in change: Nature. Chinese art seeks to be its channel. Learning and tradition provide the riverbed; creation and creator are the river.

That’s Cao’s path. It’s not slick work, and it’s not new. But it’s sincere, and he does it masterfully.


At McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2101 Commonwealth Ave., through June 3. 617-552-8587, www.bc.edu/artmuseum

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.