Indelible Traces--Eastern Presence in Ian Boyden’s Art

Date:7,1, 2012—7,31, 2012

Location : Suzhou Museum



Naturalist—or Alchemist?

An Appreciation of the Art of Ian Boyden


As an art historian I study art from the standpoint of historicaleras and styles, biography, influence, techniques, and traditions.None of this is very helpful in approaching the art of Ian Boyden.


Of course, his life is interesting and unusual, and is hisalone—and I expect that he will one day write about it all in thedeeply reflective, poetic, and adventurous way he goes aboutliving. And he does live in an interesting time, a time in whichmany artists seek to create art of out natural materials and livingforces, to gently, temporarily modify natural elements and placesinto artworks that illuminate the beauty of nature and thecreativity of humankind, that encourage us to work to sustain ourenvironment and protect the earth. Influences on Boyden range fromPaleolithic cave painting to his father Frank Boyden’s sculptureand printmaking and the transfer paintings of Mu Xin; from theinteractions of meteorites with the earth to Dong Qichang’s use ofbrush and ink; from the movement of wind and air to the forces ofwater, fire, and ice. From these, and perhaps a thousand moresources throughout the world and across time, he has invented hisown techniques and created a new tradition.


Boyden makes his own materials from dirt and rocks, from burntforests and meteorites, from animal bones and bamboo. He isinspired by rain-stained walls and footprints in the sand. He lovestrees, rocks, mountains, rivers, oceans, and tornadoes. The sun,the moon, the earth, the planets, dead stars, and the inconceivableinfinity of cosmic existence find their way into his art—naturally,like the lightness of being. The beauty of his art lies in the wayshe gently coaxes out the experiences of a roaming mind into graphicform, as images, so we can all see what he has found in the dirt.


Boyden’s art offers many shapes, textures, materials, and mediums,from a piece of cloth drifting in its own world of wind and lightto a black sea of ink and glue in which the very origins of thecosmos seem to brew. Writing a concrete physical description of anyof his paintings would be a thankless task, for each one is richer,more nuanced, more expressive, more complex in organic,unpredictable ways than words can convey. His own precise, detaileddescriptions of the many processes by which he makes his art arefascinating in themselves, and are also helpful in understandinghow his images come into existence. But the best approach to hisart is to stand in front of it and let its own organic qualities oftexture, form, movement, color, depth, space, and atmosphere emergein themselves, as experience: the elements will begin to seemalive, to create their own unique world. Boyden’s paintings do notneed or even benefit from description, and in the company of hissculpture they take on an even broader dimension, as light as air,as hard as stone, as organic as dirt and human flesh.


The old Chinese term fengliu, whatever it may mean exactly besides“wind and flow,” has served to characterize many diverse art formsover the centuries, including the flowing lines of Gu Kaizhi’sdrapery and Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy, the spirited horses of ZhaoMengfu, and the elegant court ladies of Tang Yin. Boyden’s artseems to be the very essence of fengliu: the physical work of artbefore us, the materials of which it is made, the processes throughwhich it took shape, the hands of the artist, the visceral impacton our physical senses, and the common human memory and sharedexperience of life—all become a single thing, indivisible. His artliterally evokes the flow of wind and water, of ink and water, ofliquid into solid, of color into form, of raw matter into image. Itengages us with the same soft touch as the air, the earth, or ahuman hand—and with a style, elegance, freedom, exuberance,originality, and insatiable creativity that belong only to IanBoyden and the artistic world he is living in and forging everyday.

         Richard Barnhart

         Yale University

         March 6, 2012


Indelible Traces:

Eastern Presence in Ian Boyden’s Art


Reading, writing poetry, practicing calligraphy, painting, carvingseals, building a house in the forest, fishing by a river . . . IanBoyden’s life contains all the details of the ideal life of theChinese literati during the Ming dynasty. And, as art often followslife, it should come as no surprise that his paintings have much incommon with the art of the Chinese literati, even though Boyden isa contemporary Western artist. While he is quite capable ofpainting animals, flowers, birds, fruits, and vegetables, the mostimportant theme of his painting is the landscape. Also in thetradition of Chinese painters, he prefers to work on paper insteadof canvas, for once ink falls on paper, it leaves an indelibletrace. Furthermore, his ample use of blank space in much of hiswork provides the imagination with room to gallop. Even if theapproach is not the same, Boyden’s landscape paintings share thesame characteristics as those made by the Chinese literati.


Boyden’s landscape paintings are imbued with poetic andphilosophical meaning. Distant and ethereal, they reveal realitiesthat feel both inchoate and profound. His painting technique oftendefines his subject by making the absences around it clear,resulting in landscapes articulated by indirect definition. Theresult is dreamlike and elemental. From an early age, Boydenstudied Western philosophy and poetry, according to his nativetradition. Later, as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, hemajored in East Asian studies and art history, then traveled toChina to research epigraphy after graduation. He then entered YaleUniversity to study Chinese art history. This background served tobuild an East Asian structure upon his existent philosophical andpoetic foundation. A reader of Laozi and Zhuangzi, Boyden deeplyadmires Liu Xie’s Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons andSikong Tu’s Twenty-four Categories of Poetry. If we consider Boydenand his art in these terms, we can rightfully call him a “LiteratiArtist from America.”


This title provides a useful way for viewers to understand Boydenand his art in a Chinese context, as it highlights two points.First, in the West, it is more common for an artist’s training tofocus more on the skills related to the physical aspects of makingwork and less on the broader humanities as an intellectualprerequisite for making art; Boyden’s educational path is more akinto the literati tradition. Second, Boyden’s work clearly shows adeep connection to Chinese art, especially the art of the literati.


Of course, there are obvious differences between Boyden and Chineseliterati artists. The intellectual background of the Chineseliterati is exclusively in the humanities. Chinese literati artistsmake paintings, calligraphy, and seals but do not participate inthe process of making practical things; in fact, such utilitarianhandiwork is shunned as “mere craft.” Boyden’s knowledge, bycontrast, is not limited to the humanities, but covers a wide rangeof disciplines, including science, engineering technology, and thenatural world (such as plants, minerals, and ecosystems). Adeptwith machines and tools, he is also a skilled craftsman: he canthrow clay and fire kilns, as well as cut wood and build a house.His experience in making all kinds of things and his keenobservations of the natural world are not merely passing interests,but are fully incorporated into his art. As a maker of his ownpigments, he collects carbon from the aftermath of giant forestfires and gathers materials such as meteorites and fossils,grinding them into fine powder to create his paints. When heselects wood for the covers of an artist’s book, he pays attentionto the material’s textures, patterns, and natural history so hischoice will complement the content of the book. This integration ofcraftsmanship is rare enough among contemporary Chinese artists,and even more so among the ancient literati.


In addition to paintings, Boyden’s art frequently takes the form ofa book. More than a decade ago, he founded Crab Quill Press,dedicated to publishing his highly valued and elaborate artist’sbooks. Books occupy an important position in all civilizations thatuse writing. In traditional Chinese society, what we call scholarsor literati were precisely those people who read—readers. Those whomake books possess a deep reverence for the reading experience; nosurprise then that in addition to making books, Boyden is an avidreader. Extending from his practices as a bookmaker and reader, heis also a writer, and his current project is a book about Chineseink. His artwork reflects his dedication to the literary arts andideas, and because of his close relationships to these ideals, hiswork represents a “refined taste.”


In recent years Boyden has also begun making installation art thatdeals with the relationship between man and nature. Boyden is atheart an environmentalist, and has actively advocated for a numberof environmental causes in North America. His installations do notemphasize the tension between man and nature so much as they evoke,with an almost surrealist sense of wonder, the ideal of the twoliving in harmony.


For hundreds of years, Suzhou has been a center of Chinese literaticulture, and countless times has led the trend of literati art.Today, the Suzhou Museum is exhibiting the art of an “Americanliteratus.” In this show, the ancient encounters the modern, andthe Chinese meets the foreign in what I hope will be an experienceof remarkable significance.

         Bai Qianshen

         Boston University

         April 16, 2012