Shenyang is not an artistic city: there are not many art museums to visit, nor many artists who chose to live here. When Su Dong Ping accepted my request on Wechat (the Chinese whatsapp) to go and visit him, I was excited but did not quite know what I was in for.
He came to pick me up with his Audi SUV from the underground station and drove me and my Chinese friend to his studio about 200 meters further. We got out and took the lift to the 28th floor. Big piles of paint containers were stacked outside his studio’s door: we would soon understand why.
The first thing you notice when you enter Su’s studio is the amazing view. A chaise longue is placed next to one of the floor-to-ceiling windows. I am sure this is one of the artist’s favourite places to sit and reflect on life and himself: an essential part of his work. He explains that he can see his primary and secondary school from this window, exactly the reason why he bought the studio in the first place. Su was born in Shenyang, his parents live in Shenyang and he is not planning on going anywhere soon. He likes to be here and does not believe in seeking other places, travelling to other countries or living outside of China in order to get fresh ideas. Su avoids meeting with other painters or looking at their work, as it seems he does not want to be influenced by them in his quest to finding himself. His former classmates do not know he still lives and works here and he likes to keep it that way. That gives him his own breathing space: Shenyang is his territory.
He speaks Chinese and only Chinese, even though during our meeting he jokes around that in a former life he might have been German. That is why his two cars are both Audi. He is fond of the Germans and their direct way of addressing everybody. What they think is what they say. Quite unlike the Chinese, as he mentions, “here nobody tells you the truth, nobody is real.”
As we go into his studio he first invites us to have some tea, as we are not yet allowed to look at his work. Su wants to explain his life, his way of thinking and being, and only then he wants us to see his work. For ten years he has been painting in his studio, and for twenty he did not exhibit any of his oeuvre. It was a long journey of soul searching, a long time in order to find himself. Su taught at university but soon decided to stop. “You cannot teach art”, he says. “You can teach somebody the techniques, you can teach them how to draw and paint,” but he does not agree with the fact that the teacher also tells you what to paint. That is something that has to come from within, from the heart. So for ten years Su has painted in his studio, searching his heart, trying to find himself. He does not want to paint what others want to see. He does not want to paint what he thinks that others might like. He wants to paint what is really inside him. Find his true essence, his centre, and express himself from there.
When you look at Su Dong Ping’s paintings, they are wildly aggressive, very expressive and beautiful, even if he himself says he hates the word. He works with a spatula, not with brushes, slapping paint on canvas with thick layers while in the process splashing paint on the walls, ceiling and some of the enormous windows, turning them into Jackson Pollock-like works. Obviously, he does not paint carefully but sees it as exercise, as pure energy. “Physically I need to be strong”, he says. “I need strong hands and a strong body to paint like I do.”
There is actually no way of describing Su’s works as no words would really fit. His work does not need words; it does not need anything at all. Not a catalogue to explain it, an art critic in order to be valued, or an art dealer to be promoted. Most of his canvases are big, with thick layers of paint swiped on them. They weigh a ton and screws are pinned to the sides to hold everything up. Su is defined as an “abstract” artist, but the images he creates are actually far from abstract. They are complex yet detailed reflections of himself, of what is going on in the inside. Kind of an x-ray of his heart, body and soul. What you see (and almost want to touch) are thick textures of shiny paint, twisting and turning among themselves. His paintings are complex but strangely balanced at the same time. “Looking at your paintings”, I say, “you seem a very complicated person”. He agrees.
As we drink our last cup of tea I ask Su if he feels satisfied when he looks at his own work. “No”, he says almost immediately, “but I am happy with the fact that after ten years of searching I am finally seeing the beginning of something.” Now in his fifties, after ten years, he might have accomplished just the commencement of it all. But he is not at all worried. “Artists cannot become nervous or stressed about their journey and their work”, he says. “If that happens, everything goes down the drain. Besides, a lot of artists became really good as they got older, reaching their peak and their fame in their sixties, seventies and eighties.” Su seems relaxed as he continues his journey on finding what is truly inside, ready to work from there on. “Don’t look for the small wéimei,” the small aesthetics, “but search for the big one. Many people, many artists are not real, they have not found themselves. They are satisfied when they achieve small wéimei in their works. I am not concerned with that. I want to make works that are zhende”, that are real. “I want to achieve the big wéimei.” “Will we human beings ever be able to achieve and understand the big wéimei?”, I ask him. “Probably not”, he says.
I do not want to use any adjectives to describe Su’s work and will not do so anymore. As we were waiting outside for the elevator, it took so long we decided to go down the 28 floors by taking the stairs. It literally felt like descending from higher spheres back to normality. We left with a head full of ideas and with this drive to search for our own true self, our inner essence, and to work from there in anything that we do. Su Dong Ping says it is not his duty to teach students, that he cannot teach them art. And he is right. Nobody can teach you who you are on the inside, or your own “landscape of the heart”, as he titled his recent exhibition at the Pearl Lam in Shanghai. Yet, wouldn’t it be something to have somebody like Su to help you on your way?