Horses in character

On a canvas hanging on the side wall, a horse runs across a barren landscape within the Chinese character for “boundary” — its legs are intertwined with two black strokes; its neck is seemingly restrained by another.

In “Horse Expression: Nature vs. Culture,” a series of nine sensational paintings on display at the Yale-China Association building, local artist Qian Lin utilizes Chinese calligraphy and horses to represent the metaphysical intersection of culture and nature. Each piece depicts a series of horses or characters interacting with one another. In some pieces, the horses mimic the meaning of the character, and in others, the depiction of the horse makes commentary on the ideas evoked by the characters themselves.

The exhibition debuted last Saturday with an opening hosted by Yale-China executive director Nancy Yao Maasbach SOM ’99. Over 120 people from different backgrounds and cultures attended the event, Maasbach said.

I was able to sit down with Maasbach for a quick talk last week; she stressed the importance of highlighting Chinese art for an American audience, a surprising contrast with the political aura that seems to surround the Association. This enthusiasm for Chinese visual culture is in tune with the Association’s latest venture: a sector for the arts was recently added to its programming.

“This exhibit epitomizes an area where we would love to facilitate,” Maasbach said. “We’ve always tried to increase understanding between Chinese and American people.”

Walking around the exhibit with only a simple guide sheet in hand, I was able to see precisely that. Lin’s pieces embody common themes of human experience — they show labor and militarism in a beautiful mélange of Chinese characters and the broad brushstrokes reflective of Asian art.

One of the more striking paintings is titled “Civilization.” In a startling mix of biblical reference and violent death, it depicts a torn horse body — torso chopped, arms ripped, head severed — against a bloody, wooden crucifix. A gray sky looms ominously in the background as the lifeless eyes of the horse stare emptily into the distance. Boldly and with mysterious implications, the crucifix and horse take the shape of the Chinese characters that mean “civilization.”

Lin’s works are powerful and mesmerizing. They beg for reflection, for a second look at the world and themes around us. I found myself standing in front of each piece taking a three-step approach: finding the character, observing the movement of the horse, and finally, wondering.

And strangely enough, this beautiful, moving art was created by an aerospace engineer. Lin was trained to be an enginner at Beijing University and the University of Michigan. But after taking an introductory course in art history at Carnegie Mellon University, where she was pursuing her Ph.D., she left science and took up painting. Perhaps her artistic ideas had been repressed until then, only to explode in the cathartic release of lurid strokes of paint now present in her work; perhaps she simply wished to create, to explore themes of human nature through art.

Walking down Temple Street back to Old Campus on that brisk November afternoon, her art left me wondering about intersections between cultures, about coexistence, about human experience. Ultimately, I imagine those who have seen her work behave similarly, for her work is a reflection of life and of soul — indelible, prodigious and brilliant.

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