Au Ho-Nien's "Tiger Head" appears to materialize out of the paper. The head with open mouth and glowing eyes stands out from neck, chest and front legs that ever so gradually become more vague. Behind, there is the merest suggestion of a body, the wisp of a stroke and a slight shadow which we half expect to clarify itself into a form as we watch.
In the same artist's "By the Stream," we see trees, mists and clouds first, then the small figure, right at the end of a grouping of rocks, with his feet disappearing into the water. But once seen, the figure becomes the focus around which the whole composition gathers itself, as if it were only there for him and would disappear if he went away.
Au Ho-Nien was born in mainland China in 1935 but now lives in Taiwan. He studied with the Lingnan school of painters, which, according to texts accompanying his current, brief show at Towson State University's fine arts building (through Saturday), attempts to "revitalize Chinese painting" by synthesizing ancient and modern Chinese art with aspects of European and Japanese art. Elements of Chinese art such as poetry and calligraphy are combined with Western techniques including perspective and shading.
Only those schooled in the history of Chinese art will know to what extent Au calls on Chinese sources and to what extent modifies them with other influences. But it's easy to see that he is an extraordinary painter. His images combine dynamism and repose, monumentality and fluid grace. His brush stroke, whether in calligraphy or drawing, has a life and an interest of its own, quite apart from what it describes.
In his best work his palette is limited almost entirely to whites, grays, browns and blacks, but they appear capable of infinite modulations and nuance. When more colors intrude, as in "Peony" or "Swiss Mountain Village," they can weaken the overall effect.
There is a vastness and a glow of light in Au's mountain scenes, such as "Mountains," that can bring to mind Bierstadt or Church, but without pompous idealism. It is an intimate vastness that invites the viewer to enter and let his eyes wander slowly and lingeringly among the trees, the rocks, the water and the mists. The mountains are solid, yet flow as freely as the waterfalls that cascade down their sides.
In "Bodhidharma Crossing the Yantze River on a Reed" the figure is as corporeal as a sculpture -- in fact, it recalls Rodin's "Balzac" -- yet Au draws the drapery with a hand that delights in line for its own sake.
The calligraphy of the inscriptions on these paintings forms an entirely natural complement to them; at times, such as in "Return the Wind and Rain" it seems only a slightly more ordered version of the nearby tree branches, demonstrating the interdependence of calligraphy and painting.
Sometimes, there is even quiet humor, a twinkle in the eye and upturned corners of the mouth. Why is "Mr. Fei Bowing to the Rock"? Because the rock, obviously, is bowing to Mr. Fei.
Don't miss this remarkable show, split between two locations in Towson State's fine arts building, the Holtzman Gallery and the Roberts gallery on the floor below.