Yihang Pan: A Voice from Within

by Dennis wepman

No true artist works in a vacuum; a creative act is always a reflection of the culture and history of a people. Since the cave drawings of prehistoric man, art has always expressed something of the feelings, ideals, and perceptions of the society from which it springs. And yet any art which is more than literal representation or mere decoration must contain more than the visual conventions of the tribe; it must project something of the unique inner reality of its creator. For a work to live and breathe and speak to others, it must come from the spirit, no less than from the hand, of the artist. This fact is what gives art its singular value, but it has certain inherent dangers as well. If it enriches and ennobles the creative act, it imposes a fearful responsibility upon the artist. In these day of creative license in which the painter or sculptor is encouraged to follow a personal path and evolve a unique and original style, the historical and spiritual sources of a work may be so hidden in an idiosyncratic expression that the artist, and the art, is cut off from all cultural reference, and consequently, all too often, from the viewer as well.

This danger is especially apparent in the work of those artists who attempt the perilous transition across the chasm of fundamentally different intellectual and aesthetic traditions. In the work of the contemporary Chinese artist Yihang Pan, we find a technique which successfully bridges this gap, projecting a personal sensibility which transcends the rich creative soil from which it springs without severing its roots. Thoroughly grounded in a classic tradition, Pan brings an exciting cross-cultural vision to work at once elegantly poised and intensely dynamic.

Pan was born in Hangzhou, near the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai, in 1957, late enough to be spared the worst effects of the notorious cultural revolution which stifled the development of much of its generation in Chinese art. Even during those dark days he revealed gifts which made his destiny in art clear; an avid sketcher from his early youth, he was painting while still in high school and studied privately with noted artists. He became expert in the technique of Socialist Realism, the illustrational style of officially authorized by the Chinese government during that time, and published his first work at the age of 16. In 1976, the year after that decade of creative sterility and academic chaos ended, he applied for admission to the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, considered by many to be the best art school in the country. Of the more than 5,000 applicants, he was one of thirteen, from all parts of China, who were accepted. After a rigorous four-year course which provided a thorough grounding in both traditional and contemporary techniques, he graduated with honors.

Recognition of Pan's talents was not slow in coming in his native country. At 16 he presented two pieces in a show in the National Gallery in Beijing, and from 1980 to 1986 his paintings received exhibitions at the Hunan Art Gallery in Changsha and again in the National Gallery and were published widely in such national periodicals as CHINA FINE ART MAGAZINE. Among his awards from this time were two first prizes for work shown at the Art Exhibition of Hunan and honors at the Chinese National Art Exhibition in the nation's capital. In 1983 he was appointed an instructor of oil painting and fine arts in Hunan Normal University, a post he held until he came to the United States in 1986.

The beginnings of a promising career were not enough to hold the youthful artist, however. His restless spirit sought a wider horizon, and he realized that only in the western world could he hope to broaden his perceptions of the universal spirit of art and find a voice with which to express what was unique to his own spirit. Determined to explore both the differences and the similarities of the two cultures, he spent a year at Ohio University and went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts Degree at Maryland Institute in Baltimore. There he studied under the noted abstract expressionist Grace Hartigan, and in his free time haunted the museums of New York. And there he began to discover that personal style which has become his visual signature.

Pan familiarized himself thoroughly with contemporary forms of art, experimenting with abstract expressionism and other modern techniques while searching for his own distinctive style. Intrigued by the dramatic forms, bold colors, and spontaneous gesture of western art, he never lost the profound sense of inner order and the refined chromatic sense of his native tradition. Above all, he never allowed himself to be seduced by the influences to which he was exposed but remained steadfast in his pursuit of his own way. The more he learned of western art, the more he strove to find a personal manner which fused it with the discipline from which he had come and yet stood apart from both.

From this struggle emerged a pictorial language of great power and originality. Successfully synthesizing the east and the west, the traditional and the contemporary, Pan has forged a visual vocabulary entirely his own which nevertheless encapsulates the two cultures he now commands. Abandoning the traditional subdued palette of classical Chinese brush painting, he has turned to the cheerful shades of the folk tradition. But despite the depths of his roots in both the folk and the classical traditions of his own country, he has freed himself from the shackles of historical convention and national stereotype. The gestural spontaneity of his brushwork reflects the freedom and emotional involvement of the modernist, while the rigid organization of his compositions retain the tight inner discipline of the classicist. He favors gouache and Chinese ink on rice paper as his medium, but also works in oil on canvas as most western artists do. His choice depends on the visual demands of the individual piece.

Pan is as concerned with color as he is with form, preferring rich saturated hues whose expressive symbolic powers recall the German expressionists. This use of bright colors conveys the naif enthusiasm of the folk artist, but this seeming abandon is deceptive; like all good art, it contains a rigorous and highly sophisticated discipline. Color, in Pan's vibrant gouaches and oils, is never without an inherent structure of its own, and his work derives as much of its inner harmony from the considered relationship of its constituent tonal elements as from the elegant balance of its composition. Although they reveal to the attentive eye carefully controlled selection, his are not the deliberate color choices of the naturalist. His rich, glowing colors are often applied with a spirited disregard for nature. No longer limited to the muted tones of the brush paintings which dominated his youth, he allows his personal response to reality free play. The dramatic distribution of bright and subdued hues and the bold use of black and white provide powerful compositional elements in such paintings as "Rainy Season," in which the brilliant costumes of his human subjects offer vivid chromatic contrasts with thier umbrellas and the stark trees surrounding them, all vibrating with color harmonies true to themselves if not to literal reality.

The content of Pan's work is often as individual and personal as the colors, but like them never seem arbitrary or contrived. The dogs in "Rainy Season" if indeed they are dogs-- seem to belong to on known breed, but are perfectly suited to the scene, both thematically and visually. Marc Chagall once observed that while people found a narrative element in his work, it was purely incidental. "For me," he wrote, "a picture is a plane surface covered with representation of objects--- beasts, birds, or humans----in a certain order in which anecdotal illustrational logic has no importance. The visual effectiveness of the painted composition comes first." So it is with Pan, the narrative possibilities of whose work is secondary. Nature, as it appears in these paintings, is often distorted by the aesthetic demands of the design and the inner logic of the imagery. A dynamic tension is established in such paintings as "Hide and Seek" between the earthy and substantial qualities of the figures and the note of fantasy in the graceful compositions. Truth and illusion blend in a happy balance in these floating figures, and the viewer is seduced in a willing suspension of disbelief. The effect is often a dream-like sense of reality which has greater impact than a conventional reproduction of nature.

The visions which Pan projects are invariably very positive scenes of peace and harmony; his people are in repose or engaged in tender or joyous pursuits-- mothers cradling their sleeping children, young people at play, humans and animals enraptured by birdsong, musicians caught up in the rhythm of their performance. Music is a recurring subject in these paintings, and it is a fitting motif for work so essentially harmonious. Even the strong color contrasts in his work share this musical spirit. In "Violins," "Eastern Quartet," and "Birds' Song," he pits sensuous purple, vivid crimson and rich blue against areas of black, dazzlingly pure white, and muted earth tones. But as intense as the colors are, they do not clash. Rather they blend into a single, graceful melody, an almost audible hymn to joy and love. Like the theme of the American folk artist Edward Hicks, Pan's is a Peaceable Kingdom.

That Kingdom is not of this world, as Hicks's was not; its inhabitants are neither quite Chinese nor quite occidental, and so evoke a response from all. Since developing his distinctive personal style, the artist has met with a warm response throughout the United States and abroad. It is collected in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Canada as well as in his adopted country, where it has been exhibited widely in venues as diapered as the Broadway Gallery in Alexandria, Virginia; the Gilpin Gallery and Covington & Burlington in Washington, D.C.; the Jean Stephen Gallery in Minneapolis, Minnesota; the Twin Crane Gallery in Seattle, Washington; and the Ambassador Galleries in New York City. In 1992 Pan's paintings were exhibited at the Miami, Florida, International Art Exposition and at the Zee Stone Gallery in Hong Kong.

The artist sings himself Y. X. Pan, incorporating the initial of his wife and fellow-artist Xiaozhu into his signature in tribute to the close creative communion between them. It is by happy chance that his family name echoes that of the Greek nature god and the word-element meaning universal. Fusing elements of the art of east and west, past and present, the work of Pan speaks across space and time with the universal voice of an authentic inner vision.