by Holland Cotter
”Enigma Variations” might be an apt title for the landscape paintings of the contemporary Chinese-born artist Mu Xin, seen in a lean, penumbral exhibition at Asia Society. Even the artist himself is something of a mystery.
Mu Xin is not his real name. He is best known as a writer, not as a painter. His landscapes are complex and arcane in technique. And although they were all produced when he was imprisoned as a political dissident in the 1970’s, he denies that they are political art and asks that they be considered without reference to biographical facts.
The request is hard to comply with, given his intriguing history. Born in 1927 as Sun Pu, following a Chinese tradition for artists, he adopted a pseudonym, he was the child of a wealthy aristocratic family living near Shanghai. He was given a classical scholar’s education, then enrolled at the Shanghai Fine Arts Institute, where the curriculum focused on the study of European art, from ancient Greece to the Renaissance to Cézanne. His principal teacher there, Liu Haisu (1896-1994), had traveled in Europe and tried to forge an East-West synthesis in his painting. Mu Xin set a similarly internationalist goal for himself.
But the times were not on his side. The first half of the 20th century was a tempestuous period in China, culminating in the founding of the Communist-led People’s Republic in 1949, followed by the Cultural Revolution. As often happens with radical reformist politics, an initial idealism quickly evaporated and catastrophe set in. And as in every liberation movement, someone had to take a hit. In this case the targets were the rich, the well-born and the well-educated. Mu Xin was all three.
Despite efforts to stay inconspicuous, he was arrested as a dissident, and all of his work, which included 500 paintings and 21 book-length manuscripts, was destroyed. In 1971 he was placed for 18 months in solitary confinement with the task of writing a confession of misdeeds.
In secret, however, he wrote very different things — philosophical fables, existential ruminations, fictional vignettes — in minuscule script on purloined paper, which he folded into packets and sewed into the lining of his clothes. When he left jail, these ”Prison Notes,” as they are now called, left with him, undetected.
He was not in the clear, though. From 1977 to 1979, he was kept under house arrest. Again he responded with a burst of clandestine activity, this time in the form of 33 small landscape paintings that combined themes from Chinese and European art. These paintings, along with pages of ”Prison Notes,” are in the Asia Society show, organized by Alexandra Munroe, director of Japan Society Gallery, and Wu Hung, a professor of Chinese art history at the University of Chicago.
The collective title Mr. Mu has given his work, ”A Tower Within a Tower,” suggests the real and metaphoric environment in which it was produced: one was prison, the other the ivory tower of creativity. This idea is cleverly reflected in the nested exhibition design, which sets a boxlike, compartmented exhibition space within a black-walled Asia Society gallery. ”Prison Notes”is displayed, edge to edge, in the center of the box, with the paintings hung in sections on either side.
The calligraphy in ”Prison Notes” is so minute that portions of text are indecipherable, though a few entries have been translated for the show. With titles like ”Death of a Diva,” ”Tiny Tassels” and ”Who Is Truly Fearless?,” they take the form of urbane, fanciful first-person meditations that in tone — at once wry and grave — bring Kafka or Borges to mind. Names like Cézanne, Flaubert, Mayakovsky and Montesquieu are sprinkled throughout, in a kind of cultural shorthand, as if their very names opened intellectual vistas. Conspicuously absent is any diaristic outpouring of emotion.
The paintings operate on a similar distancing principle of compression and expansion. Mr. Mu’s childhood education immersed him in traditional Chinese landscape painting, a genre humanistic in spirit, shot through with moral content and steeped in nostalgia for a classical golden age. His later study of European art, done almost entirely through reproductions, focused on Italian Renaissance painting, which was also soaked in history and infused with classical ideals. Leonardo da Vinci, who seemed to embody the era’s spirit, was the artist he particularly admired.
These aesthetic strands merge in Mr. Mu’s landscapes. Many of their titles refer to people and places with resonant associations in Chinese art: the great calligrapher, Wang Xizhi (A.D. 303-79), who composed ”Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection,” or the scenic West Lake near the city of Hangzhou, a subject obsessively depicted by earlier painters.
At the same time, Mr. Mu disrupts, or at least seriously complicates, the tradition he evokes. To the orthodox brush-and-ink medium he adds gouache and various hard-to-define automatic techniques of image production. In some cases rather than aim for stripped-down clarity he places images on top of other images and introduces non-Chinese elements, among them the bizarre lunar terrain that fills the background of Leonardo’s paintings.
In all of this, Mr. Mu sustains the Chinese mode of returning to the art of the past and refreshing it for the present. Yet in his hands this dynamic feels unstable and mystifying. Layering makes many of his references to the past art hard to pin down, and certain paintings, done in close-valued tones of black, blue and brown, are so dark as to be almost unseeable. You feel you have to keep adjusting your vision. as if to changing levels of light, when looking at them.
Maybe it means something that Mr. Mu painted his landscapes late at night, and even then with the fear that his privacy would be interrupted, his subversive pursuit discovered. Certainly like ”Prison Notes,” the paintings are simultaneously about creating and concealing; perhaps they are even examples of creation as concealment.
In this, they turned imprisonment on its head. Paradoxically, captivity freed Mr. Mu to create a highly original art of cultural and psychological breadth. It is also, however, an art of tight formal control, expressive circumspection, and elusive, even mysterious ideas. Does it mourn a lost past or, fatalistically, cancel out the past? Or does it forge from various pasts, Asian and Western, a new, genetically altered work that anticipates the hybridity that defines art internationally today?
And finally, is it an art that, in the end, depends for its very being on the necessity for secretiveness that prompted it? I don’t know how much painting, if any, Mr. Mu has done since 1979. He came to the United States in 1982, has written a dozen books here and is a literary cult figure in Taiwan and among intellectuals in the Chinese diaspora. But even if he never painted again, his prison landscapes remain a complete and remarkable thing: 33 ways of looking through a glass, darkly, so that the view is both illuminated and obscured.
”Landscape of Memory: The Art of Mu Xin” is at the Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, at 70th Street, (212) 288-6400, through Sept. 7.
Photos: A Mu Xin work, ”Autumn Colors at Jinling,” at Asia Society. (Rosenkranz Foundation); A large detail of Mu Xin’s ”Spring Brilliance at Kuaiji,” gouache and ink. (Rosenkranz Foundation)