Wu Yi's highly expressive paintings showcase not only his mastery of the brush, but convey a sense of history, both personal and traditional. He has an intimate knowledge of the landscapes he depicts, having visited them myriad times, in all seasons and weather. In true scholarly fashion, he has researched the history of these locales, and the traditional folklore that is associated with them; he often composes a poem alluding to this rich history, written in his own expressive calligraphic style. In the words of art critic Jonathan Goodman, 'Wu Yi shows us how paintings can be made that express the complicated reality of Chinese artists who are both trained traditionally and well traveled in the West. His art and calligraphy show remarkable energy; nature is seen as a living, breathing personage, whose forms are animated by the artist's attention to detail.' Wu Yi's vigorous compositions present a bird's eye view of vivid, transformative landscapes in which spring flowers and autumnal rains co-exist; where rugged cliffs, flowing rivers and the bridges that cross them can be seen all at once. Drawing upon the tradition and ancient philosophies of China, and all the while incorporating his own life experience, Wu Yi has honed and mastered a truly personal style that is as vibrant as it is beautiful.
“The paintings of Wu Yi show remarkable energy and depth. He assimilates traditions in order to revolutionize Chinese painting. His achievement is considered one of the peaks in the Chinese art field.” - Liu Haisu, 1985
Pushing the Boundaries of Tradition
Along his creative journey, Wu Yi combined both ancient and contemporary, both Chinese and Western styles to capture the essence and immense impact of the natural world. He strived to surpass the artists in Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing Dynasties, pushing his creativity further by experimenting with new materials such as acrylics. He mixed together the textures of western painting materials with the brush techniques and the spirit of traditional ink painting, resulting a seamless hybrid of Eastern and Western sensibility. During this period, Wu's boldly experimented with colour and expression - his brush work became freer, and his forms more exagerrated. Mixing acrylic with ink, his paintings became increasingly layered, an effect that the artist would continue to explore in his later ink works.
Xiang Si Wei: Discovery of Image Consciousness, and the Ink Tradition
Wu Yi has tirelessly researched traditional philosophy and aesthetics. He traced the Chinese artistic tradition back to the beginning of Chinese Civilization, and adapted the concept of Xiang Xiwei, or "Image-Consciousness" into his art, seeking a connection and breakthrough between the ancient and contemporary. The moment when a pictogram became a character and evolved into language, 'form became thought', and the Chinese culture was born. Wu Yi studied every style of calligraphy he could find, becoming adept at reading seal script, and reaching back to oracle bone scripts of the Shang Dynasty. As visual forms were given conceptual meaning, the dots and lines that make up each specific character became the basic building blocks of calligraphy and the ink tradition.
As long as he stayed true to this essence - his own personal dots and lines - he could forge his own personal artistic path, and freely develop his own style, regardless the medium. Wu Yi's Zen-inspired series of calligraphy and symbols delves into his theory, and led him to experiment with highly energetic, personal scripts, and even to create symbols and pictograms of his own.
Alongside his work with acrylic, Wu Yi continued to paint using traditional ink and mineral colours, and in recent years he has returned exclusively to these materials. His return to ink is the culmination of his long artistic journey – his paintings have become extremely layered, his compositions often abstracted, and his line-work has fully matured. It is as if he infuses his scenes with layers of his life experience, achieving an increasing sense of depth and complexity.
Chen Danqing - Oil painter and scholar
…during the early eighties, Wu Yi showed me a big heap of new work. The works were powerful, with bursts of energy and yet rich with details and lightness. The tableaux were vivid, with a prevailing force and immensity that seemed hardly containable on paper. In my humble opinion, the composition of these tableaux were even more developed than the uninhibited, powerful work of Liu Haisu and the affluent, lavish landscapes of Huang Binhong…
…I remember how Li Xianting, editor of "Meishu" had the prescience and unique eye to put Wu Yi's work on the magazine's cover as early as 1982 to showcase this phenomenon that was yet to be defined: at a time when 'Cultural Revolution' style Chinese paintings became completely obsolete, and pre-Revolution masters were in decline, artists like Wu Yi were in between the near and the far, the old and the new, and offered new possibilities of reinventing traditional ink wash landscape paintings…
In 1985, at the turn of his fifties, Wu Yi…came all the way to New York. We have since become friends for over twenty years in the same city… Throughout this time, I have gradually grown to understand the tradition of Chinese classical painting and therefore, much better appreciate and sympathize with Wu Yi's aspiration. Wu Yi is not a classicist at heart, nor does he care for shallow attempts of reform; he has utmost respect for the ink wash landscape painting tradition established from the Song Dynasty onwards, but is not satisfied with merely reproducing ancient heritage. He considers the Song canon as a precious resource to be developed upon and surpassed. At the same time, he is disgruntled with the 'new Chinese paintings' of the late 20th century. In his heart, he does not approve of…putting the ancient on par with the contemporary. This is, to me, an understandable sense of pride. An artist with ambition must have pride in order to do big things, with true spirit…
…looking back at Wu Yi's creative path, the self-protectiveness and self-indulgence of it all, solitary and obstinate, was almost quixotic. Although he has exiled himself early to New York, far from the vanity of the Chinese art market, the inspiration he takes from tradition was not that of the Taoist thoughts of resignation but the ancient greats' breadth of mind and grandeur of spirit; his ink and wash techniques in the eighties were sometimes mistaken as a direct follow-up of Liu Haisu and Huang Binhong's legacy. However, even though Liu and Huang were definitely considered points of reference to ink wash artists of later generations, Wu Yi's paintings had never presented the marked emptiness in Liu's work nor the desolation in Huang's oeuvre. Just like Wu Yi himself, the character of his tableaux has always been bold, unconstrained, majestic with an imposing energy, without being restricted to a particular interpretation of history, school or style. Wu Yi had no intention to take up the task of untangling the history of generations of landscape paintings. He yearns for the immensity and splendour of landscape: early in his career, he had been fascinated by the phenomenal beauty and forms of Huangshan mountain; older, he awes at the unparalleled magnificence of the Kunlun Mountains. When we first met, he used to discuss with me about the essence of ink paintings. In New York, he has moved beyond conversations about ink washes but instead ruminates on resplendent compositions. With age, Wu Yi has less and less scruples…
Excerpt from Wu Yi as I Know Him, Xiang Thought, Wu Yi & Shen Ronger, Gong Wang Fu Museum, 2012
Liu Xilin - Reseacher at the National Museum of China, art historian and painter
Wu Yi's work is a crystallization of his comprehension and mastery of traditional Chinese ink wash expression, embodying his ideas on the universe, nature and the aesthetics of Chinese landscape, further enriched by his devotion to calligraphy and literature. What is unique is this deep-seated concept that penetrates his artistic thinking - the idea of 'xiang' (phenomenon), originating from the I Ching, that inspired him to develop his philosophical concept of "xiang thinking" which he takes as the source of all Chinese culture. This allows him to establish a human-based perspective connecting nature and intent, spirit and form, and the interactions between heavens and mankind. Making use of his studies of energy channels, he masters the flow of qi in ink wash art and concludes that qi is the incarnation of these energy channels. More remarkably, he manages to exemplify this idea naturally in the rhythm of his ink work.
Excerpt from Infatuated with the Dawn in the east - A Brief Discourse on Wu Yi's Ink Paintings
Traditional and Modern: Ink Paintings by Wu Yi, Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution, 2008
Chen Dali - Former Editor-in-chief at China Fine Arts Publishing Group and painter
…Wu Yi's paintings embody every school of traditional Chinese painting, and he has experienced the natural molding of the landscape and the rigors of life. He has directly and continuously inherited the artistic thought of Huang Binhong, and creatively perfected self-dialog, to enter a realm of boundless simplicity, honesty and naturalness…
…My own summary of Wu Yi's practice is that he regards Western art as being human art, and Oriental art as art of the human character. And so the content, form and charm of art are all contained in the strength of the human character. Consequently, they pluck at the human heart strings… as early as during the Southern and Northern Dynasties period, Chinese art had already grasped that this magic was the basis of art, as well as the basis of life itself, and placed directly in the category of life enhancement. …From the point of view of visual arts, Chinese painting takes the mental image as its breakthrough point. The mode of thought that inspires poetry, and the theories of "magic inspiration" and the "wellspring of the heart" all produce a resonance at a deep level of thought. This is not limited to the mode of logical thought produced by visual feedback and breakthrough in the realm of psychology…
Wu Yi keenly realized that the sublimation of Huang Binhong's landscapes in his later years was a development of the panoramic Chinese landscape paintings that had emerged since the Northern Song Dynasty that pushed beyond that boundaries, and was an autonomous transformation of an independent cultural system of art. At the same time, they embodied the eternal value of Chinese painting. This road of spiritual improvement in a self-contained world has been Wu Yi's road of enlightenment over half a century, which he has stuck to with the joy of a pioneer. In his figure painting, landscapes, and flower-and-bird paintings - in all his subject matter - Wu Yi shows cursory study in tandem with deep creativity. In his landscapes, Wu Yi captures the imposing, lofty and vast atmosphere of 800 miles of Shaanxi and Sichuan scenery in a straightforward and sincere manner. He transforms Huang Binhong's short strokes into long strokes, widens his vision, enlarges his partial view into a vast composition, and utilizes his own techniques of "flat and wide, deep and wide and high and wide" to pursue the grandness of the whole canvas. As he himself recognized, "The mountains and gullies in my paintings show a universe of uncountable years". In his "On Landscape Painting"…Wu Yi's technique is to blend the south-north differences and the east-west divergences - "foggy hills and evening mist on the far, windy shore" and "the brush and the sword; combining the soft and the hard". He depicts the scenery of Northwestern China using the technique of a literati painter. With his meticulous presentation in dots and lines, he captures the magic charm of the Northwest. When he uses Huang's method of painting what he presents is no longer the scenery of south China - Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, but the great deserts of the Northwest. In addition, he combines the artistic techniques of both Chinese and Western paintings at a very high level. One could say that he is an artist imbued with the spirit of Huang Binhong in this contemporary time, and that he is the one who displays this spirit the most widely. I believe that to study Huang Binhong, one has to study how to become Huang Binhong, and ponder Huang's artistic path. This is what Wu Yi has accomplished. As Wu Yi's art becomes more widely and more deeply disseminated we become more and more aware of the continued glow of Chinese painting.
Excerpt from The Eminence of Wu Yi
Traditional and Modern: Ink Paintings by Wu Yi, People's Fine Art Publishing House, 2008
Joan Lebold Cohen - Renowned art historian and curator
…Wu Yi is a man devoted to China and its tradition. His work celebrates the great heritage of Chinese landscape painting…Wu expresses his passionate feelings in inky lines that cascade down the rough rock and stone mountainside, free flowing and moody. His powerful line forms an iron wire in some strokes, while other slide down like quicksilver, and he brings the mountain surface to life with spatters of ink and colour. The composition has the energy of an abstract expressionist work…
Wu Yi has brought with him the great tradition of Chinese painting and poetry, and he continues to create marvelous scenes such as when the plum blossoms bloom, when the summer sun shines, and when autumn wanes into winter's sleep… Wu Yi brings to this new land the great vision and spirit of Chinese painting.
Excerpt from Wu Yi and the Chinese Tradition, 2007
Jonathan Goodman - Art critic specialising in Asian art. Currently teaches at Pratt Institute and the Parsons School of design in New York City
…What comes through consistently in Wu Yi's work is his unusual skill in representation, as well as an independence of character, likely the result of his years in the States. Wu Yi straddles both Asian and American cultures in ways that enliven and contemporize his traditional approach to art…
Given his talents, the artist has been able to go very far with his work, which demonstrates a familiarity with Western art concepts without succumbing into them…
Although the viewer does not know much more than the most general facts of Wu Yi's life, we can recognize the spirit of harmony that is alive in his paintings, which is the result of a seamless appraisal not only of differing art traditions, but also the life Wu Yi has chosen for himself…
There is a density of ink in Wu Yi's paintings, which give his treatment of the landscape their weight and dignity. But, at the same time, his line can be light, even delicate. The combination of the two elements creates contrast, yet also works out a balance of energies. Wu Yi shows us that he is a master of ink painting in works that use tradition as support and open exploration as change. The chi, or energy, present in his finely painted works on paper is as palpable as that in the works he draws inspiration from.
Excerpt from Wu Yi: The Complex Observance of Nature, 2009