Surge of the Spiritual Order

The world with crises must stick to something, a fixed visual forest. In such a weak and unstable situation, the image is the final hope.

- An Interview of Enzo Cucchi


Today when the artistic hierarchical framework is shattered by cultural influence, power system and market value, different understandings of works will naturally permeate and conflict against each other in a dialectical way. Usually we tend to clarify and measure these conflicts by generalizing the phenomena. The analysis and studies of the works itself are more and more rough and the exploration into the micro aspects of the artistic works is more and more simplified. Of course this has something to do with the pace of life and the living. However, we should not deny that the stimulating factors and power of spiritual expression comes from the refined visual confirmation, rather than the conceptualized appearance. Thus as to the doubt and censure of many artists and their works, they are a certain kind of requirement, with the perception of the artistic situation and a discernible visual understanding. Then, with such requirement, He Canbo and his ink and wash art wins wide acclaim with his substantial ink and wash touch and unique orientation.

Facing the complex reality of the contemporary art, He Canbo intends to form his own judgment and cognition with a traditional method. Actually in such a world with false impression, what he tries to construct is a sense of realness, which comes from the internal relationship formed between his thinking and the world. He tries to show the relationship with images and extend the power of existence on this basis, which is the boundary of the self-esteem he safeguards all his life. On the contrary, life and emotion also test his gift, which is a vivid and substantial view of life. It also points to the reality and keeps the freedom effective in the truth. In other words, that is the speech given with reason by a sensible person. That is the truth of He Canbo’s paintings.

The fragment of experiences comes from the identity with history and memory and He Canbo has a macro understanding of this. As an artist from Yunnan, his paintings are full of spirit and imagination while he himself does not show the geographical exotic flavor. On the contrary, He holds the basic standing of expressing people in the whole concept. This sanding is not only a subconscious requirement in the dilemma but also a reasonable requirement for his spiritual output. Thus the space for experience is large metaphysical space while the power of emotion is a humane power jointly created through personal memory and historical memory. He Canbo establishes a whole set of internal elimination mechanism in his thought. Through an overcritical self-talking ability, he clarifies the details, concentrates the spirit and makes it more focused on a point, thus creating uproar.

Reason, thinking and unknown force

The model of thinking of He Canbo’s paintings is based on the requirement for intellect. Intellect represents certain cultural connotation, which is usually linked with virtual. It is oriented towards the clear, direct and in-depth perception of nature. According to Mr. Chen Zhongyi’s comment on intellect poetry, “intellect is the combination of the emotion, reason and wisdom of artists, as well as the visualized integration of intellect and reason. It is the incomplete abstraction of perception and the product of incomplete reason. It bears the potential logic trace and on the other hand, it does not mean dynamic reason with inference. It has the fundamentals of wisdom as well as the tendency of philosophical thinking It has the order of reason and intellect and the penetration of intuition, wisdom and perception.” (1) He Canbo clearly realizes that a person is not limited by the reality but the cultural morality. Only through repeated test of the intellect can people break through this limit and gain freedom. He Canbo’s paintings are intended to reflect people’s freedom through art’s freedom. This not only needs courage but also reason and wisdom, thus concentrating on things that need to be displayed.

In the eyes of He Canbo, the mind corresponds to content, thought corresponds to method and thinking corresponds to feelings. There are closely integrated. He makes in-depth analysis and observation of the traditional ink painting, forms and styles. For instance, his description of the principal figures is very conceptual. He tries to upgrade the figures in his paintings in a higher level, making the viewers realize that the image exists as human beings in the philosophical sense. Its universal feature makes people imagine in a deep way, which means more dimensions for thought and consciousness. Actually from the angle of painting language, this is the result of sustaining requirement of experience of artists.

He Canbo tries to maintain a possibility of visual analysis, which means contradiction will exist as conditions for his spiritual life in the artistic display. As to the expression of contradiction, it exists in both details and wide subject. The contradictory relation he sets in the image is a sharp one, which aims to give the viewer sustaining visual and emotional stimulus and have enough veneration for the stimulus. However, actually what he finds out is the analysis of oneself and the framework of the spirit. In his paintings, there is a spiritual calmness and control with potential bursting force. This has something to do with his temperament, which seems radiant with the sense of sacredness. Thus he is immersed with religious feelings to keep reasonable thinking in the intellectual and emotional ways.

You may find another attribute in He Canbo, besides the passion and wisdom. That is the inextinguishable passion for the unknown, or the passions for all the mysterious things. In his mind there is always a wish, which is higher than his understandings. He knows that is the most fundamental thing for art, to describe things that cannot be described. According to Deleuze, “know yourself and learn how to think. Take being surprised at the world as the standard…” (2) As a matter fact, the surprise is just a manifestation of the things that cannot be described. The unknown force is a fantastic force, which can bring light to the darkness as well as vitality to the impasse, especially in the pictures, where it is the source of inspiration and imagination. In the painting The Poet full of Images, a bizarre red line pierced the crowd from the sky, making the whole picture shock. That is the very unknown force. The line is unknown and penetrates into the pattern that has been formed. This is to show the most exciting power of destiny, just like the witchery. Perhaps being close to witchery means approaching the fundamental nature of art.

However, the unknown force has a distance which is related to experience, patient and opportunity. He Canbo always manages to maintain it in a chaotic state so as to gain compensation through unconscious communication. Therefore, we can always find a sense of distance before his paintings, which timely controls the internal flames of the viewer and upgrades it into judgment and understanding. This is just like the diagnostic process of traditional Chinese medicine. He Canbo plays the role of a doctor. By taking the images as the prescription, the rich medicine flavor makes you think about your life.

Imagination and Paintings in Mind

Imagination and wisdom are two wings of art. Wisdom gives us space while imagination provides us with sufficient freedom to shuttle between reality and fantasy. The penetration of art is exactly stimulated by the interaction between reality and fantasy. According to He Canbo, “The series of my paintings is like the fragments scattered around the eyes. They are the pale dreams with the contrast of back and white; it is an air of romance blinking amidst the gray and silver light. The visual depression offsets the happiness of the absolute spirit. It seems that what you experience is the forever feeling of fantasy while time stops here.” (3) This is a description with pure imagination, which is created by He Canbo and immerses people in a mysterious atmosphere. This is the combination of reality and fantasy, and also the ideal and reality.

His understanding of use of imagination puts him in a sate like an engine. Imagination is vitality and the vigor of art is displayed in full. It means there is an exploration into its limit and also transcendence over the normal visual logic both in form and spirit. Some of his early paintings like the City under Siege have already been very dramatic. The corridors, the lonely shadows as well as the purple colors all elicits the imagination of the viewers, making it shining in the details of experience and integrated in the memory and emotions.

Driven by imagination, He Canbo realizes that what he paints is not the fact itself, but a metaphor of new spirit and new ideals, a power emerging from the image and leading the feelings to a clear and free level. Therefore, he does not orient his paintings in the field of a experimental or literati’s paintings. Instead, he gives it a quite personal name, mind paintings. He says, “the new mind paintings seek to touch the soul from the background of reality. They not only provide us with a new possibility for the visual experience, but also promote our examination of ourselves in the traces of dream and reality.” (4) The dream he stresses and the examination in the traces of reality is actually a resort between spirit and life. First, his choice of the theme depends on his keen observation. That is not just an intentional expression of views, but the result of the extension of the conscious. It stresses mind and experience, as well as the combination of “the subjective experience of image and thought” with temperature. Second, the mind is the essence of the oriental life philosophy. It seeks to realize a natural state. He Canbo tries to set up a spiritual framework in his paintings and display the experience of oneself in different levels of thought, thus deepening the understanding of oneself.

In addition, his perception of the painting style is put in the difference and integration of the oriental and western cultural forms. When he puts forward the concept of mind painting, it means that as a visual art, it tends to start from the background experience and establish a thinking pattern with world spirit. Thus he generates rich feelings related to the world from the self-concept deep from our heart, realizing the spiritual concern on the top level.

Title, poem and encounter

He Canbo is inherently a poet. This can be seen from the titles of his paintings, such as Entering the Mysterious World, Form of Existence, Light Open in the Night, Heartfelt Blue etc. The poetic tone is clear. But this does not mean his paintings are an interpretation of the poem. Actually, it plays a certain guiding role, which is not intended for interpretation but an implication and reflection, even with a possibility of intervention in the thinking in the visual feelings. This thinking is mostly metaphysical, which indicates his concern on the spiritual issue of the paintings. The title is sometimes not related with the images. It is not an apparent understanding but a fantastic track of reason. It tries to lead the painting into an expression of the intellect, bringing space for imagination. The title and the image are combined in the expression. It also means the uniform expression of the intellect and emotion. It makes the viewer realize the concept of a certain self existence and thinking about the distance between the painting and life as well as the profound reality of the virtual power. There is no doubt that this is the aim the poet tries to reach in the poetic works.

There is no boundary in the thinking. The spirit is very powerful. A title with the significance of mind also indicates a transfer between the spirit and pattern. In this process the space, mind and aspiration are open, thus enhancing the motive of the painting language. The potential plot and narration of the title actually come from the mutual recognition in the process. It is a consumption as well as inter-dependence. For instance, in the painting An Evening in the Cold Mountain, the mountain presents a subject image in the title while the mountain in the painting indicates a conceptual reference. But the world “cold” enhances the spiritual meaning of the mountain. There is no coldness in the painting, but with the indication of the title, there immediately comes the feeling of being cold and indifferent. The cold feeling in the painting comes from the indication of the title. Thus the spiritual meaning of the painting comes out at once.

The title has a guiding role. It leads the viewer forward. Instead of giving a result, it brings an opportunity to encounter with the mind. You can feel it but it is hard to grasp it. It makes you view and think repeatedly, adjusting the artistic and life experience and starting a new journey. The viewing means a forever endeavor to reach perfection, which is a genuine understanding of the art. “Being in the process” means an endeavor to understanding life and destiny. That is the art about human beings.

Ink and wash, form and language

Ink and wash is a desire, making the viewer feel hungry for the style and flavor, as well as the sound and rhythm. He Canbo seeks for a rhythm in the ink and wash and the resonance of water and ink. It pursues the quality of musical notes, which indicates the presence of Chinese cultural foundation and the oriental value. Therefore, in his paintings, “whatever we think about, it seems to only encounter the virtual, but actually it is full.” (5) The rhythm is smooth and stylish. His paintings thus become an immersion in music. We can perceive the wildness of the Black Fantasy, the Softness of the Flowing Dream, the heavy burden in the Soundless Ancient Words and Enlightenment of Melancholy, the vivid portrayal of the Expression of Waiting for the Rain, the leap in the Fantasy Series of a Person, the elegance in the Mobile Memory…

The sense of rhythm of the ink and wash paintings is one of the important factors of the representative significance of He Canbo’s paintings. As a matter of fact, rhythm refers to the internal logical and emotional expression of the painting. It reasonably constructs the vocabulary unique to him and effectively let them move and push the surge of spirit into a euphonious state. The red lines in the Mirage of Inspiration are just like a soft piece of violin concerto. The crowd in the painting is like drum while the light ink and lines are like pathetic and touching piano music…

The transfer of the ink and wash into an expression of the pattern itself has a certain contemporary characteristic. The traditional ink painting stresses interest, charm and the plane attained while the contemporary one focuses more on the texture, concept and possibility. The charm of the ink turns into that of the texture, which is further sublimated to the characteristic of the ink and wash paintings. Besides the aesthetic requirement, the factor of texture also provides new spatial, visual and linguistic orientation, making the concept of ink and wash more profound and powerful. The expression of texture is a forceful intervention into the ink and wash language from the angle of western paintings. It combines the concept of visual depth and sense of gradation with the expression of Chinese taste. With the introduction of the contemporary concept into the ink and wash paintings, the struggle between the eastern and western artistic language becomes a mechanism of mutual stimulation.

As a person who puts it into practice, He Canbo strengthens the part of ink and wash as the texture, while he also keeps the constant flavor and develops it into effective expression. However, from the perspective of ink and wash language, the traditional characteristic has become outdated to a certain extent. In other words, the single ink and wash flavor has become a disadvantage for the development of Chinese paintings, rather than a strong point. But Chinese paintings without ink and wash are quite hard to understand and the contemporary problem of ink and wash paintings is to build up its strong point based on the weak. That is also the awareness of the unique feature. As Shestov remarks, “the uniqueness comes from a person who doesn’t expect to get rid of a certain shortcoming or doesn’t try to cover it from himself and others. He will try to find out the unique strong point from the shortcoming.” (6) He Canbo seems to have a thorough understanding. Most of his works have rich ink and wash flavor and sense of form. For instance, in the Impression under the Structure 2, he is very skilled at the water characteristics of the ink. He renders it vitality and adds to the mysterious flavor, thus capturing the visual focus of people.

From another perspective, in today’s Chinese paintings the ink and wash feature cannot constitute the undoubted advantage. For instance, from the angle of color, the saying “the color of ink is divided into 5 types” cannot be the characteristic of the color language of today’s Chinese paintings. Just like dancing with shackles mentioned by Wen Yiduo on the poetry composition, that view has become obsolete in today’s era when the language of poem is highly free and natural. Therefore, when He Canbo has got rid of the bond of the ink and wash language, the Chinese feature of the ink and wash paintings is more spiritual, which is also an extension of the new connotation of the language. It actually comes from the art of painting itself, a world characteristic.

In the language expression in the form of painting of He Canbo, we can find out strong reasonable factors, such as the image structure, the abstract expression of point, line and plane, the subjective language, the choice of symbol of the figures’ head, the vigorous and well-rounded background. All of them are the result of his repeated reasonable analysis and accumulation of the experience. Of course the sensitivity and consciousness of the language of artists is also important, but for He Canbo, they are a reasonable process for the accumulation of experience. Therefore, the symbol itself displays such reasonable feature. His recognition of the figures is abstract. In his mind, the expression of human beings is abstract while the force comes out from the macro and historical understanding of the spirit.

Language skill is important for any kind of art form. Besides the capacity of full expression, it also has the function of extension of artistic feature. He Canbo pays special attention to the free and reasonable control of technical expression, where mainly the experimenting and possible ways are adopted to show one’s own artistic personality and emotions. Then, technology as the means is a magic power to turn the images into miracle. For instance, he uses a lot of straight lines and regular curves. The straight lines are dangerous and resolute while the regular curves are mild and roundabout, which produces reasonable visual effect as well as intervenes in the expression and releases more language and emotional power.

In terms of language composition, the triangle and box play an important role in He Canbo’s paintings. The triangle refers to the mountain, the pyramid, houses and women with a certain feminine tension wile the box actually means a pressure, the construction of the inner heart as well as an assault on humanity. Both are a strong support to the paintings, giving stretching force to the ink and wash and impact to the image expression. In the paintings like the Black Fantasy Series, the Scattered Illusion Series, Confusion on the Modern Tower and Walking under the Moon, the triangle and box are often used. He Canbo arranges the logic of the language and brings changes to the lines and texture in the space. The conflict between the triangle and the ink flavor as well as the contrast between nature and manufacturing also provide space for the painting and thought. Besides capacity of pattern, it also tests the power deep in the heart of people.

In addition, there are a lot of factors of pattern in his paintings. For instance, in the Moving Square Tablet, there are more possibilities. For example there is a kind of relationship that can reconcile and should be inter-dependent between the invasive characteristic of the straight line and the stable characteristic of the triangle. The sharpness of the straight line and the tension of the triangle are actually a fight. In this fight, things seem to be strange. He knows well the reason among them and tries to interpret his dilemma and the panic between people.

City, individuals and group

He Canbo’s paintings are related to the city life. City is the place where people gather. The relationship between the individuals and the group has become the major spiritual structure of people. In the time background dominated by economy, today’s individuals are gradually lost and replaced by the group. The pace of life has deprived the individuals of the ability to examine them. The city is like a whirlpool; the faster it spins, the more people it attracts and the less the independent spirit people have. And the stronger the desire of becoming oneself, then there will be a stretching force between the reality of people’s existence and the real individuals. This is the basic force promoting the development of the theme of his paintings.

The anxiety of existence and lack of the sense of security and the indifference between people are also placed in a virtual space. In addition, the order implied by the crowd seems to be calm in the picture, but in their mind, people cannot eliminate the perplexed feelings, which includes sustaining contradiction. On the one hand, there is the public life with danger and pressure; on the other hand, there is the deprived and twisted personal life. Both are inter-dependent. He can feel the waste of individual spirit among them and also recognizes the contemporary content of paintings is actually “a special conflict belonging to the modern and a boundary set for the order of life. The order of people becomes a universal life machines, which is a kind of devastating threat to the real life of people.” (8)  

His spirit is also torn by these contradictions. His painting is such order and the soul of city is just this sense of tearing for him. Thus he becomes such a kind of person: “be content with the culture and progress while people with independent mind have a sense of anxiety.” (9) He is a person with independent mind and devoted to struggle.


The symbol and concept of the image is another feature of his paintings. This cannot be separated with his metaphysical thinking. He is concerned with the power of the humanity in the reality and the concern of the nature of life from the perspective of thinking. He is concerned with the concept of existence and the pays attention to the understanding of permanent things, which is different from people’s present concern about temporary happiness. Therefore, he resolutely gets rid of the concrete images like the face of people, which will obstruct the philosophical thinking about things and the perception of the permanent feature of life.

On the other hand, in our painting experience, the boundary of similarity has an altitude that cannot be reached in the mass aesthetic mind. This is related with our history of the mind, culture and painting. Without explaining more about its source, we only investigate this from the perspective of sociology. We find that there is always a kind of reality in the sense of perception in our spirit and experience. This reality does not require the striking resemblance, but integration of experience and mind. He realizes that this is the exact source why Chinese paintings do not take the striking resemblance as the purpose. The pure abstraction puts more focus on the form while ignoring the expression of meaning, thus being unable to have effective reasoning and perception. 

Then what is the symbolization process of the western modern art? After being emancipated from the paintings serving the religion, the western paintings start to stress the expression of language (impressionism), and develop to the external expression of emotion and mental activities (modernism) and turns to the expression of realistic painting (minimalism art) and the free and direct art. In the 1970s and 1980s, all were deconstructed and there is the characteristic of symbolization in language, such as the image of Marilyn Monroe reproduced by Andy Warhol. In China there is a different form of expression. China’s depiction of the real life, realist painting is actually the difference of traditional Chinese art in the aesthetic pattern. The abstract language pattern of traditional mainstream Chinese paintings is not directly faced with face. It often comes from the abstract deprivation evolved from the inheritance of the realistic experience. Thus there is no abstract language pattern formed from the pure reality in traditional Chinese paintings.

Therefore, the language road he chooses is a road of symbolization. On this road he does not use certain things given by the symbolized language; instead, it makes us more acute, clever and profound.

For instance, his disposal of the image of figures and the symbolization gets rid of the limit of the personal recognition for the details. His image of figures is more of a conceptual impression, without stressing the limbs and countenance. First, the movement of limbs has a tendency for narration and the figures will have a certain connotation of plot. Second, the countenance has very rich and refined feature of expression, which can produce acute transfer of meaning. The direct happiness and sadness is not his aesthetic view. In the eyes of He Canbo, the symbol also has its countenance, which is a language form constructed with the symbols and pattern. It is closely related to memory, history, cultural background and space. In addition, the detailed expression promotes the formation of individuality. In terms of the expression of the image of figures, he is obviously eliminating the dramatic feature and put the styled image into an expression in the painting. This is actually placing the common feature in the individuality, which brings new vitality to the ink and wash language and concept.

In other words, if today’s traditional ink and wash paintings are classical style of writing, then the innovation of symbols is an important mode of contemporary ink and wash vernacular. He senses this point and further realizes that he should view the traditional things with the contemporary outlook. It is the most basic language mode in the contemporary ink and wash paintings.

Migration and value

Being always on the road has two meanings for He Canbo. The first is on his existence. He always migrates from different places, occasions and communications. The other aspect is about art. He is never tired. In his mind, art is a faraway place without limit. The yearning for the distance is the yearning for life. Thus he is an idealist either in the reality or the spirit, and his paintings point to a farther and higher place. This leads to the finding that most of his paintings are the result the accumulation of his artistic knowledge while the life experience is put in opposite side. “Painting places a certain distance between us and the reality.” (10) On the one hand, he realizes that the disorderly reality poses certain interference to the art. On the other hand, he knows how to protect the light in the faraway place, which is source of spirit he seeks to pursue.

People’s value exists in such wanderings. The value of existence is to gain life experience and after his upgrading, turns into artistic experience. This is a requirement for life and the quality. He asks for a way of life with quality, which is related to the thinking and mind, the subject of his painting. Thus from the essence, his paintings transcend the form and texture and cannot be covered by ink and wash or other materials. It points to the core, the genuine art universal in the word, the art attained after thousands of years’ efforts.

Today, with the impact of integration of the global economy, the contemporary Chinese art becomes more materialized and commercialized. Its strong power extends to various fields including life, spirit and culture. For the development of art and painting, it promotes the development as well as devastates it. Since 2004, there has been a stormy atmosphere in the contemporary Chinese art, with all sorts of consumerism and entertainment. From another perspective, the art, either in language or concept, is developing with the discovery of new problems brought by the modernization process of China, including the environmental problem, urbanization, existence, and language environment problems, the system and marketing problems, especially the problem about human and language in a deeper level. All of them constitute the rich soil for artistic expression, which is also the source for the Chinese characteristic of the art and its prosperity. As a matter of fact, the contemporary Chinese art is very complex in the manifestation with many and independent branches, each having its own standard and content. But from the overall perspective, it cannot get rid of the language environment and process in the reality. In other words, it can still be disputed and analyzed. In this situation, He Canbo feels sorry about the loss of internal quality of the artistic spirit in this era, as well as the distance of the faraway places. In this disorderly era, he tries to establish an artistic concept and pattern with his unique spirit. There is no doubt that this is quite hard and a clear judgment. Of course, it needs more courage and patience. It needs more faraway places, more light and more surges.


Written in China Central Academy of Fine Arts in the winter of 2007



(1) Chen Zhongyi. 2000. Structure of Intellectuality and Poetic Thought of Wisdom, Spreading of the Sector. Zhejiang Literature and Art Publishing House

(2) Gilles Deleuze. 2004. The Time Image. Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House

(3) He Canbo. Random Thoughts on Artistic Creation.

(4) (10) He Canbo. 1997. Allegorical Century and Mind Paintings.

(5) Antonin Artaud. 1993. Theatre of Cruelty: Le Theatre et son double. China Theatre Press

(6) Shestov. 2004. Kierkegaard et la philosophie existentielle. Huaxia Publishing House

(7) Wen Yiduo. 1980. Poetical Meter, Selected Works of Wen Yiduo. Sanlian Publishing House

(8) (9) Karl Jaspers. 2005. Die geistige Situation der Zeit. Shanghai Century Publishing Group

Sun Lei

Sun Lei was born in 1971. He works as a teacher in the Department of Experimenting Art of China Central Academy of Fine Arts. He is a representative poet in the 1970s generation. He has won the Rougang Prize, the First 2003 China’s Annual Best Poet Award, nomination for the First International Poem Award and one of the Ten Best Poets of China. He has published the Selected Poems by the Seven Poets (published by China Theatre Press), Instrumental Performance: Poems by Sun Lei (published by Sanlian Bookstore), and has edited the magazine Who. In 2010 he published the selection of poem Not the One.