1978 was the year when China Art Academy for the first time restarted the university examination system, years after it had been closed down during the Cultural Revolution, and enrolled the first bench of students. Ma Lu was one of those first students, enlisting in the oil painting department. The academy curriculum offered Ma Lu a solid art education with emphasis on realistic painting techniques and theories. After graduation from the Academy Ma Lu got an opportunity to carry on his art studies in the Art Academy of Hamburg, Germany. The 1980s was the heyday of Neo-Expressionism in Germany and, needless to say, Ma Lu was very much influenced by this art movement. Already during his school years, the start of Chinese Avant-garde art representing by the 85-movement had also affected Ma Lu. There was a strong urge for artists at that time to abandon the tradition of realistic painting and start to paint abstract paintings. For Ma Lu it was a natural choice.
When Ma Lu returned to China after his art studies in Germany, he was regarded as the carrier of Avant-garde Western art. However, for Ma Lu the expressive style of German Neo Expressionism didn’t seem to suit his quiet personality so well. He didn’t feel the freedom of expressing himself in such paintings. He made adorable paintings at that time, yet, they seemed to have lacked energy and to be filled with doubts in some way. Apparently there are two layers of learning in painting: one depends on the technique and the other one depends on the artist’s true nature. For Ma Lu, to grasp a new technique was not a problem. The problem lay rather in how to embody such technique with his own expression and find his own language. Upon returning to the Academy, Ma Lu worked in the Mural Department for a short time before he entered the newly established Studio 4 in the Oil Painting Department. He reflected hard on who he was and worked hard to walk out from the shadow of the German Neo-Expressionism.
The first thing he did was to break up that heavy surface of a painting that many neo-expressionism painters preferred. Adding acrylic in the pigment helped him to release his imagination. Many Western Neo-Expressionist painters such as Anselm Kiefer and Julian Schnabel, often employed strong historical narrative and personal experience in their paintings, but for Ma Lu, it was something he wanted to avoid. Not that China, of course, lacks such historical reference nor because his personal experience was not heavy enough. But Ma Lu simply chose another road. He chose humour.
Ma Lu’s new abstract painting resulted a collection of works that he completed some years ago. He called them “Those”. These works are far away from the metaphysical world of analytical abstract paintings such as Mondrian and Malevich. Nor are they like Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings driven by some hidden libido. Ma Lu’s choice seems to be a way in-between, one which is more related to the physical experience of normal people, as, for example, when he expresses feeling towards ice, water and sand in his paintings. His works go beyond the simple form and shape of things around us, but they express his feeling towards them and his physical experience of them. Should we think about Cy Twombly’s paintings hanging in the Modern Art Museum of New York we can see a parallel. They are called Four Seasons because each painting refers to one season. Their names are not exchangeable because each and every one painting expresses exactly the feeling of the corresponding season. We respond to Twombly’s paintings precisely through our own consciousness just as we judge a figurative painting by how much it resembles to the actual object.
When Ma Lu found the corner stone of his artistic expression, one that lay in the emotional transformation deeply rooted within him, he found peace in his heart. The famous Tang Dynasty poet Liu Yuxi formulated the relationship between emotion and image by saying emotion grows outside image. Only when one transcends the boundary of form and image can we reach a state of mind that is dominated by peace and harmony. Here emotion does not only attach to the image; its metaphysical presentation goes beyond it. Another poet from the late Tang Dynasty, Sikong Tu, also claimed that great poems transcend the images yet they come from within one’s inner world.
The abstract paintings Ma Lu presents here arouse different feelings in our visual experience. They make associations with music and with poetry and most importantly they reach our inner emotion. All too often contemporary society is filled with economic interests, the desire for fame and many other fake prosperity. When our eyes are used to such fake glories, that are like the shadows on the wall in Plato’s cave whose pleasure won’t last long, we become stunned when we are facing the real things. Mu Lu invites us to see these real ones.