NEW LONDON — Water flows through Wang Mansheng’s traditional Chinese landscapes, and his contemporary depictions of the Hudson River Valley where he has lived for more than 20 years, linking two continents.
“Me and my wife spent time just looking for waterfalls [in the Adirondacks], so I used simple Chinese ink on handmade paper, something where I feel the relationship between the rock and the water. They’re so different. The water is so smooth and flexible. The rock is so rough and strong. So I play with the texture and the light and when the rock is wet, you have the reflection from the sky,” Wang explained as he walked us through the opening of his show, “From Silk Road to Hudson River,” at the Charles Chu Asian Art Reading Room in the Charles E. Shain Library at Connecticut College on Feb. 6.
One of Wang’s large Chinese landscapes hanging on a nearby wall also depicted a waterfall.
“This is a very traditional kind of form, from the Song Dynasty, which was from the 10th century to the early 14th century in China,” said Wang. “That’s the peak of Chinese art, in many forms of art. I love that period of time… the landscape especially.”
To create the image, Wang used classic Chinese landscape techniques, including using ink made from pine soot and a traditional brush.
Wang variously uses traditional and contemporary materials, including homemade walnut ink, and for the waterfall series he created a brush from a phragmites reed growing on a bank of the Hudson River.
“I had a gallery on the Hudson River for ten years and I watched the reeds growing in the river, each year wider and bigger … so I used the top as a brush.” he said. “I looked at them dancing in the wind and I said that’s a good brush.”
Much of his art — done with ink and a variety of brushes on display as part of the show — has roots in calligraphy, which Wang studied as a young boy growing up during the Cultural Revolution in Taiyuan in the Shanxi province in Northern China.
“It was comforting for myself because during the Cultural Revolution, it was very violent at times, it was a very dangerous time, as a little boy, six or seven years old, they kept me at home where I practiced everyday, so you are not in the street, not beaten up,” he said. “I am self-taught. I found a couple of books from the Han Dynasty, at that time it was not allowed but I’m not sure where, I found a book with no cover, but I copied the calligraphy everyday.”
The show includes his calligraphy in a number of styles. He said newspaper also became an unexpectedly favored medium.
“First I would practice on newspaper because you don’t want to waste the good paper, but later I discovered I really liked it because it’s also about the east and western culture, the bottom is the New York Times language,” he said. “If you are from an English country you will naturally go see what’s underneath. I like to use the crosswords page — maybe 50 or 100 years later, people who see this might work on the crossword puzzle.”
He pointed out one page of calligraphy with particularly fluid lines he said reflected a style that combined the physicality of the brush with the meaning of each word.
“This is the grass style, writing really fast. The words — walking, moving, going, coming — describe the piece of calligraphy in the movement,” he explained.
Wang said he realized recently that the history of Silk Road had a strong influence on his childhood and his life as an artist — which he expressed on three rows of shelves of photographs of his hometown region — a Buddhist temple, a fifth-century statue of the Buddha, and the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas — juxtaposed with examples of ancient calligraphy and art that he made later about the Hudson Valley.
“All the craftsmen who made the statue were from the Silk Road. The Northern Wei Dynasty brought those people to the capital and started building those caves,” he said.
On a shelf below the photos was calligraphy he had copied from 2,000-year-old pieces of wood that had been used as communication.
“These are military documents, communications, letters, to send a message, like today’s email, but they’re writing on a piece of wood and sending them back and forth. Because the condition was really dry and [they were] buried in the sand, they could survive for 2000 years,” said Wang.
The bottom shelf displayed prints depicting the recognizable silhouette of Bear Mountain that reflected Wang’s 20 years of living on the Hudson River.
“Everyday I take my wife to the train and I spend some time with my daughter by the river to look at the view, it’s like an echo of nature what you see,” he said.
Associate Professor of Chinese and Curator of the Chu-Griffis Asian Art Collection Yibing Huang, described Wang as an artist finding and connecting his transcontinental roots.
“He shows that he is rooted in two continents and he has an open view of the world. He sees the Silk Road as a crossroads of ideas where merchants and cultures merge the same way he sees the Hudson River,” said Huang.
Wang will give a lecture on his work at the Charles Shu Gallery on February 26 at 4:30 p.m. For more information contact Benjamin Panciera, Director of Special Collections, firstname.lastname@example.org. 860-439-2654