Published: 12:20, June 24, 2024
Painting across borders
By Chang Jun
Ren Ming (second from left) with three artist friends, Fred Martin (left) and Jeremy Morgan (second from right) from the San Francisco Art Institute, and David Frazer (right) of the Rhode Island School of Design, at their joint exhibition at the Beijing 798 Art Zone in 2014. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Pioneer of China-US art exchange has spent four decades to bridge worlds together, Chang Jun reports in San Francisco.

In the 1980s, Ren Ming, who was then in his 20s, realized the need for dialogue between the East and the West. On his first visit to the United States, he packed more than 3,500 slides of Chinese art, which he later used to introduce his motherland — the mysterious, less discovered, yet multifaceted China.

Four decades later, Ren is an international award-winning artist, with professorships at several esteemed American colleges of fine arts, including the Rhode Island School of Design. He has also organized international programs at top-notch art schools such as the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, and the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts.

Thanks to his illuminating methods, artifacts and slides, Ren's lectures earned him instant recognition in the American art world. Mainstream art schools and universities invited him to lecture and the San Francisco Art Institute offered him a position

He still believes that China-US communications through art should be robust, frequent and more revolutionary, a reference to the use of technology such as artificial intelligence.

READ MORE: China's ancient artworks in the international frame

"It (art exchange) has played a unique and irreplaceable role in enhancing mutual understanding and trust," Ren tells China Daily. "Painting and art have no national boundaries, neither should exchanges and collaborations between artists."

Ren enrolled at the China Academy of Art in 1980 to major in oil painting. Although he excelled in pursuits such as traditional Chinese ink painting, his claim to fame on campus was that he could speak fluent English, a foreign language rarely spoken or studied at the time, as China had only just opened its doors to the world.

"I was often asked to interpret for visiting artists and professors from American art schools," Ren says. "Through these conversations, I realized that there was a gap in their knowledge. Their understanding of Chinese art history stalled during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) with no further updates. The modern development of Chinese art was a blank.

"I hoped to fill that gap by showing them an authentic, comprehensive and complete history of Chinese art," Ren remembers thinking at the time. "China had so much … to offer when it came to art; Westerners should have no doubt about that."

It took him three years to fulfill his vision. He spent every penny collecting lecture materials, artifacts and more importantly, preparing 3,500 slides on Chinese art that he divided into 20 themes.

In January 1988, Ren was invited to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, becoming the first scholar from the Chinese mainland to attend the American art institute, taking with him his passion to understand and embrace differences.

Thanks to his illuminating methods, artifacts and slides, Ren's lectures earned him instant recognition in the American art world. Mainstream art schools and universities invited him to lecture and the San Francisco Art Institute offered him a position.

"The work of art calls; the viewer, the listener and the reader responds. We see, hear and read now, but all of that is in the context of lifetime memories," Fred Martin, then vice-president of the institute, told Ren.

To generate such a "lifetime of memory", not only in American but also Chinese hearts, Ren expanded his overview of art in the 1990s.

He extended his studies and research to Western abstract expressionist paintings and won international recognition for his work, earning the gold medal at the 2003 Florence Biennial International Exhibition of Contemporary Art in Italy.

Ren and Morgan giving a lecture at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 1997. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

"Ren is a master of his chosen craft, working with pigment and ink on paper. However, the means by which he has chosen to work also gives these materials a great voice in its ultimate form," says Jay Coogan, then-president of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in Minnesota.

One of the materials Ren adopted was acrylic paint. The mostly water-based, fast-drying paint has been widely used by Western artists since the 1960s, but Chinese artists had no access to it until the late 1990s.

Ren says he felt that needed to change.

"Art exchanges took place in many forms. How could Chinese artists keep abreast of their Western peers without access to the same materials?" he says.

He spent six months in 1997 touring six American acrylics factories, lobbying for free samples. They eventually agreed to make products for Chinese artists.

"The first package of $50,000 worth of acrylic paints was delivered to China, enabling my counterparts there to catch up," Ren says.

Ren continues to explore new ways of amplifying China-US art communications. For more than 30 years, he has arranged bilateral academic exchanges, facilitated visits by scholars and artists, and in recent years, has launched accredited programs taught by internationally renowned scholars and artists.

Ren says that he sees the need to establish a globalized, high-level art education mechanism through which Chinese and Western professors and artists would be able to work together to teach, mentor and supervise students.

"As the world's second-largest economy, China needs to match its economic strength with a culturally abundant art education that communicates smoothly to the West," he adds.

In 2017, he pushed for the creation of an international program at the China Academy of Art. A year later, he started a doctoral program at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts and became the head of its faculty.

"I am now like a talent hunter — all American professors, colleagues and stellar artists are on my radar," says Ren, adding that he has visited art schools, museums and galleries around the US to keep abreast of the latest trends.

French artist Charlotte Jeanningros is part of the doctorate program. She chose to attend the Chinese university because she believes that art offers the possibility of transmitting a vision of the world and of countries and cultures, from different angles, and above all, of sharing these visions.

Unlike traditional art programs, the workload at the Shanghai academy for international students is "tedious and daunting", as Ren puts it, because the international program has set a lofty benchmark for the training of professionals.

Jeanningros sees its value differently. "The great asset of this program is the professors. They also come from different backgrounds and all have great experience and a high level of expertise. They are truly fascinating and yet they remain very close to and invested in us. I feel a great familiarity and solidarity from everyone in this program," she tells China Daily.

"When it (exchange) starts, we remain determined and uninterrupted. Inspiringly, there are so many like-minded people in China and America along the road," Ren says.

At a lecture organized by Ren in May, Matt Saunders, a professor at the Art, Film and Visual Studies Department at Harvard University, spoke about the Ivy League school's experiments in art and film pedagogy to hundreds of Chinese art scholars and students.

READ MORE: Exhibition expounds on 'vision and verse' in Chinese art

"I am very happy to share our experiment at Harvard and ready to learn about what's happening in China," he told attendees from Peking University, the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, among others, expounding on American visual and environmental studies.

Jin Jiangbo, deputy dean of the Academy of Fine Art at Shanghai University and host of the seminar, extended an invitation to Saunders to visit the school.

"Anytime you are ready, we are here to welcome you," Jin said.