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Ofoto Gallery
2F, 13 Building,
50 Moganshan Road,
Shanghai 200060, China   map * 
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Black - White - Grey
by Ofoto Gallery
Location: Ofoto Gallery
Artist(s): LUO Yong Jin
Date: 12 Sep - 13 Nov 2015

Today looking through the window of my house I see a world resembling the one outlined by Luo Yongjin in the photographs chosen for this exhibition. It has been snowing all morning and colour has vanished , swallowed in the soft and muffled white of a snow blanket. Only where the soil is run through by deep folds, or beneath the shelter of tree branches or the roofs of houses, do areas of deep grey and black, stand out.

The world has taken on a less real aspect, it has become mysterious, fairytale-like and the eye strives to acknowledge the shapes of the usual objects made so ‘obtuse’ by the white rounded contours which join them up and standardises them. Something similar occurs in Luo Yongjin’s images: the feeling is that they hold objects of huge familiarity, but only if we make use of an “alert” eye, accustomed to watching by shifting perspective, do we recognize them. But is it necessary to recognize them? Is there really the need to appreciate them, to tell yourself: “ yes, here’s a fallen tree, here cat footprints, here a stretch of irregular bricks”? To my mind there isn’t. Here lies the deepest difference between these images and others more commonly associated with Luo Yongjin or other photographers.

I sense that Luo Yongjin is creating his own world, constructed through two fundamental processes: firstly by training himself to look askew, indirectly, so as not to be the “protagonist”, and then assigning an unrestricted role for the photographic medium that redeems it from its usual function of “reproduction of the real”, now increasingly perceived as too limited.

It is the way painters come to abstraction, always starting from the figurative, which measures itself against the rendering of reality because it is, initially, their almost inescapable referent, both due to habitual requirements and external expectations. In painting though, especially after the invention of photography, the urge to refer to the so called reality has slowly subsided, and the painter has earned more and more the freedom to look into different modes of expression; colour, line, gesture, and texture all offer effective means. A standard of reference such as “verisimilitude”, which compelled painting subjects whose “objective” world is the comparison term par excellence, no longer exists. This new found freedom, though, sets the creator against difficulties perhaps more arduous, as it leads him to face with no mediations our inner world and there, alone or along with references and quotations drawn from art history, he has to dig, yearning for unique and meaningful expressions.

I have been familiar with Luo Yongjin’s artistic course since its origins, and I know also his tastes in the most diverse of fields, from painting to clothing. I know he is a person who spent his childhood and pre-adolescence during the atypical period of the Cultural Revolution, a time of excesses and idiosyncrasies. I know as well that, skilled in the English language which has assured him a more direct access to the knowledge of the Western world unlike other Chinese artists, and as he has visited some European countries extensively (especially, I am happy say, Italy), Luo Yongjin loves profoundly his country and above all the traditional Chinese culture. Even though he has not devoted much time to the study of calligraphy or painting with brush and ink, his sensitivity to these techniques is more profound than to the European school and the realistic painting popular during the first forty years of the Chinese Popular Republic. 

The literati painting, devoid of colour but with infinite shades of the black ink in its stronger or lighter dilution, in contrast to oil painting has never been realistic, has never aimed at verisimilitude but rather at the transference of energy contained in every single particle of the universe. And yet, well into the eighties of the last century it never ventured along the path of sheer abstraction, never severed the thread which linked it, if even in a subtle way to the visible. It was Wu Guanzhong’s task to first break a lance in defense of total abstraction and it was often Chinese painters who had settled down abroad or who were influenced by western art, who set off towards that kind of painting which today seems so acceptable to us.

I look at Luo Yongjin’s images and they appear to assimilate that path as they put aside the descriptive or narrative task (not to say documentary) of the photographic medium to proceed towards an effect which is purely visual; at times decorative, at times minimal, at times even baroque, as far as an image in black, white and different tones of grey can be baroque. Luo Yongjin makes use of selective focus to achieve results very much like those of diluted ink spreading on xuan paper, with soft and blurred lines, different from the jet-black traits drawn with the brush dipped in concentrated ink. He chooses to make only small areas of the images sharp, generally the least predictable and in thus doing he transforms the others into nebulas, full of mystery and charm. Selective focus, despite visualising closely to the way a human eye sees, catches us a little by surprise because it differs from most photographic images we are accustomed to today, where almost everything is readable.

At times the shadows become protagonists stealing the show from the objects to which they owe their existence, sometimes it is the strong unrealistic light, coming from very localized and anomalous sources to overturn the perception of reality and to transform it into something hardly recognizable; or else it is the irregular surfaces of the objects which contribute to increase the visual wealth and to make it more mysterious. Luo Yongjin loves transparent surfaces, loves the effects obtained through the overlapping of different layers, which give the sensation of a time which is past and of the complexity of every single thing, even the humblest. He is drawn to the least obvious shapes, the least defined materials, the most twisted and evasive lines.

Some years ago I remember I commented with Luo Yongjin on the ugliness of Chinese modern cities, the result of a destruction perpetrated relentlessly without principles of characterization or thought. We agreed that we can find beauty in China today only in the small things, in the everyday objects which show the sign of wear and tear, in the dust left poetically on places thought too ordinary for anyone to want to modernize or reclaim. Looking at this series of images I happen to think that beauty seems to hide exactly there where no one looks or notices it. On a mud-stained floor, crossed by shoes with antiskid soles, on a wall irregularly covered with a dust so black to create fantastic motifs, on the back of a painting so ruined that it has become all a patch, in the light that comes irregularly from a window filtering through plain curtains negligently hung. In short it is a beauty not only unconstructed and not sought but also unacknowledged, hidden, that would go unnoticed if Luo Yongjin’s eye and craftsmanship had not caught it and reinforced it through its transformation into motifs of two-dimensional black, white and grey. 

We are trained to look at these photographs as we look at others, wondering as to the actual identity of the fragment, so difficult to decipher, and only once “unveiled” do we allow ourselves to focus on the visual wealth. Such richness is enhanced as it opposes the evident poverty of the objects or the immortalized environments (and only here I like to use this word, so obvious when we talk of a photographic process, as it is so true that those poor footprints of dirt on the floor have become an example of how the result of negligence can become so evocative and go beyond the limits of time) Luo Yongjin’s viewpoint invites us to abandon usual expectations, to open up to the unexpected, to enhance the life which surrounds us with a thousand visions a thousand times more stunning and poetic than those which should define it and which exactly for this reason , sound untrue or wrong. It is not, though “a eulogy to chance”, chance is irrelevant here. The process is one of sensitivity constantly nourished by a lover of beauty who can create it anywhere - create more than find because his is the decisive transposition - a presence evident in each of Luo Yongjin’s works, that taste of surprise filtered through grotesque, lyrical and evocative elements. To define the submerged world loved by Luo Yongjin I could use the word “natural” in a meaning which goes beyond “nature” and refers instead to everything which is not artificial, not willingly obtained but which is the result of a unity of different elements, of unforeseen synergies. I know this sensation is very appreciated by the photographer, who is willing to take into consideration a decorative motif dug by woodworms on a branch found in the wood, one embroidered by light which falls violently on bare city trees, or one made exquisite by the workmanship of an artisan.

The fact that it is his eye which detects them and gives them value entrusts him with the statute of an artist and it makes up that quid of intentionality and awareness which invite us to be grateful to him as he has unveiled and offered us a world of ineffable, arcane calligraphies, apparently useless but so much more precious as they are gratuitous.

Vigolo Vattaro, in the snow, 5 February 2015

Translated by Silvana Dematté (Italian-English)

Thanks to Christopher Taylor

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