Whether Eastern by stylistic decent or Western by sheer force of nature, the art of Jun Tan is loaded in its dualistic capacity. Almost everything that Jun Tan creates holds and carries with it signs of convergence. These convergent energies inundate his artworks with emergent characteristics that are nourished by dualisms that reveal a testing of ideas against beliefs, and the physical interaction of material with techniques. Perhaps of most importance is the determination of a newness that is born of the uniqueness of the Chinese cultural experience of the past 50 years as it came to terms with Western modernity. What we see within Jun Tan’s work as the most striking terms of duality, is the energy of the convergence between contemporary art forms and living cultures, and how this meeting is also in fact a rendering of the inter-connection between ancient belief systems and their latent iconographies.
Placing Jun Tan’s work within the historic stream of world event makes us see how significant the observation of the world is to the artistic work. This sets up a wider dialogue and reasoning that provides a context that adequately situates the shifts in cultural phenomena that generate convergences. In the year 1989 we witnessed the demise of the Soviet Union and with it the end of the Cold War - substantiated in full view by the literal destruction of the Berlin Wall. The clear division between East and West, and the resulting retrenchment of these oppositional designations had promulgated a cultural system of identification that subjected long held concepts of cultural identity to an ideological uniformity.
As a response to world events of1989 “Le Magiciens de la Terre” (The Magicians of the Earth) exhibition was held at The Pompidou Art Museum in Paris. Curator Jean Hubert Martin invited 50 Western artists and 50 non-Western artists to participate. Ground breaking in its attempts to account for the massive changes occurring in the world, this exhibition caused significant controversy and indeed lasting change. Importantly, the exhibition included three Chinese artists, Huang Yongzhu, Yang Jiecang and Gu Dexin. The exhibition pointed to a new era of progressive, democratic and decentralized art discourse, responsive to change precipitated by events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the erosion of South Africa’s apartheid regime, and of course the opening up of China. This consolidated the exhibition’s geo-political significance and initiated new exchanges and encounters in the art world. Thomas McEvilley, an American art critic, wrote that the "Le Magicians of the Earth" marked "the closed and narrow western art world had opened its door to non-Western artists"; and conversely, as the door opened, the imagery and artistic traditions of previously unexplored cultures began to flood the image banks of the world, and the unknown and unfamiliar became known worldwide. British art critic, Jean Fisher pointed out that the event was of far-reaching significance and had a major impact on global art; In short, this landmark exhibition opened a door to the world cultural stage for artists excluded from Western art discourse, and presented to the west the rich cultural and artistic landscape that existed beyond their knowledge and experience, thus opening up the concept of a Globalized Art World. The processes of post-colonialism and globalization marked a major change in the international exhibition system long dominated by Europe and American. These changes allowed for the reading of the once obscured artistic traditions of one culture by another. "Le Magicians of the Earth" is seen as the birth of the so-called "global turn" and the inducement of many subsequent exhibitions that have focused upon the cultural energies of de-colonization.
In terms of the Chinese visual arts, an ongoing questioning of the primary position of the Ink Art tradition has dominated artistic discourse and the practices of artists such as Jun Tan. Chinese Ink Art is the oldest continuous tradition of picture making existent in the world, beginning around 400AD. The arrival of western modernist influence caused two distinct responses: a cultural form of protectionism on the one hand, and a regulated and at times tacit acceptance of the Western modernist tradition on the other. Guohua (Chinese-style painting), and Xihua (Western- style painting) are to this day, segregated and are distinctively different approaches as reflected in Chinese Art Academies, which have placed Guohua and Xihua into separate and distinctive curricula. Of specific relevance to Jun Tan’s practice, is a third “Globalized” Art, coming to prominence in the 1980s, described as "experimental ink painting” or Shiyan Shuimo.
Jun Tan’s creates a world existent between thought and materiality. His paintings, which oscillate between the constructs of representation and pure abstraction, resonate with a life force, a distinct and purposeful humanness. They are given an affirmation through the residue of anthropomorphism – a figure is elusive to the eye as in “Turn Around” (2019) or “Lying” (2020), or as it is contained within traces of the handwritten calligraphic characters of “Wen Tianxiang Poems” (2016). Jun Tan also moves to a completely abstract flow, where gesture and spontaneity render a poetry of form and articulation as in “Nature Collection War”. Within these works the allegiances to the traditions of Ink Painting and the impulses of Western essentialism and abstraction coalesce into a new language of paint and materiality. In witness to the work’s interplay between a formalized psychology (as expressed in the characters) and a truly morphogenic quality, we may find for ourselves an engagement of a new thinking; anchored in an ages old tradition, yet determined by an authenticity of expression that is in fact an inchoate embodiment of the new. Jun Tan’s intellect and vison is present in each and every brush mark, that binds and swirls as part of a unitary whole - each of these marks becomes inherent to the rising expressiveness of the wholeness of each work.
Present in Jun Tan’s vision is a world of sensuousness that is evocative of a pan – psychism. As stated previously, it is deeply human and beyond the ideological strictures of a specific cultural time and space. They are soulfully illuminated and spiritualized. These are the elusive elements of authentic expression that have been pursued by abstract artists of the West for over a century. Seeking an authentic truth, through a psychological engagement with material and auto-suggestive gesture, Jun Tan’s assimilation into the cultural landscape of European abstraction has resulted in something of unexpected value and importance. Jun Tan has avoided the mimetic or mechanical adoption of stylistic patterning, his cultural reality is presented equally by a gradual stripping away of the semiotic structures in his work, that is then balanced with the emergence of a gestural honesty. Jun Tan has painted an abstraction that holds the intuitive components of his traditional culture, through the submergence of sign and reference, and the finding of a purity and authenticity of mark making. The works present an immanence of humanness in a world where location, time and space, and cultural identifications, are subtly replaced by the truly determining factors of what it is to be human.
Written by Professor Richard Wearn
Published by The Beverly Arts