From ‘human beings’ to ‘Shan Shui with Panda’, the theme of Adam Chang’s paintings has shifted from the ‘national treasure’ level cultural celebrity portraits to the grand environmentalist natural kingdom series. Many claimed to have been stunned by the ‘sudden change’ of identity that is happening to a ‘portrait artist’. In fact, this feeling of shock could only have resulted from a misreading of him - although Chang has been internationally acclaimed for his impressive achievements in the art of portraiture, this represented only the tip of the iceberg in the bulk of his artistic attainment. The recent launch of his ‘Shan Shui with Panda’ series should be useful in drawing the attention of the international art world to the breadth of Chang’s artistic thinking and his aesthetic magnitude.
Adam Chang is often referred to as ‘a quiet artist’. This is because he, like a ‘hermit’, rarely has any contact with the world outside his studio. This seems to bear a connection with the spiritual ‘inertia’ of the asceticist practice of a senior generation of artists such as Zhao Wuji and Zhu Dequn. The difference is that Chang does not directly draw from the theory of ‘yijing’ (artistic conception) in traditional Chinese painting; instead, he follows the Taoist view of ‘Nature and Man in One’. Following the core concept of ‘harmony’, he is now moving his reflections from about ‘human beings’ to the ultimate realm of harmony between ‘Man and Nature’.
From the 2007 Australian national Archibald Prize finalist ‘Brian, the Dog and the Doorway’ to the 2011 People’s Choice Winner ‘John Coetzee’, from the shocking surrealist portrait ‘Salvador Dali’ (2017) to today’s high-profile ‘symbol of China’ combination ‘Shan Shui with Panda’, the new exhibition ‘Adam Chang’s Pandas and Treasures’ very well ‘captures’ some of most representative works of his ‘transitional period’.
The national Archibald Prize requires that ‘portrait subjects’ need to be cultural celebrities, but Chang has deliberately chosen to work on two ‘immigrants’- Brian Sherman and John Coetzee are both migrants from South Africa. This choice probably reflects the artist’s own immigrant background, but it simultaneously conveys his appreciation of the beauty of the Australian concept of multiculturalist society. From the cultural perspective of ‘national treasure’ as a symbol, if Brian Sherman’s identity as a philanthropist, John Coetzee’s identity as a poet and novelist and Salvador Dali’s identity as a master of artistic creativity display three dimensions of human civilization- ‘compassion’, ‘poetry’ and ‘mimesis’, the ‘Shan Shui with Panda’ series offers an ‘ultimate’ illustration of the philosophical altitude and the universal value of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi’s ideal – let all ‘ Human Mankind Sharing a Common Destiny’ understand ‘Nature and Man in One’.
In Chang’s inner world, the ‘panda’ probably stands as an embodiment of the contribution made by the Chinese civilization to the world. However, the ‘Shan Shui’ here is not only ‘Chinese landscape’, but rather a general ‘image’ that communicates a globalized ‘Shan Shui’, or ‘the grand Shan Shui’ of the entire universe. If such an artistic vision psychologically and naturally ‘fits’ the upcoming international art trend in the third decade of the 21st century, one might say that, in a way, Chang has helped to ‘pioneer’ for world art through the use of ‘oriental aesthetics’ a ‘harmonious’ way out of a long-term western predominance in international artistic thinking.
Dr Sheng Tong
Editor-in-Chief, Contemporary International Chinese Poetry
Research fellow, International Diaspora Literature and Art Research Association