American artist Thomas George has been to China twice, in 1974 and again last fall. He did not go to study politics or peasants, Mao or the New Man. He went to draw the mountains.
More than 60 of his landscapes, a record of his second trip, will be on view through April 10 at the National Collection of Fine Arts.
They are wholly apolitical. They are powerful and peaceful, foreign yet familiar. George has somehow balanced black and white and East and West, nature and abstraction, the era and the instant. Reconciled opposites give these works their strength.
To peer into these landscapes is to take a journey. The first stop is the paper on whose blank white flatness inky markings dance. Thomas George's paintings are flat before they are deep.
The transition is quite sudden. One is looking at the paper and at the black ink on it - one feels a silent click - and suddenly those markings arrange themselves in space. They are no longer inky drips, calligraphic brush strokes; they are canyons, streams in valleys, foliage, high peaks. George show us what he sees.
In doing so he hints at much that we remember, at the action painting of the '50s, at Chinese characters and scrolls, and at those 19th-century Americans - Albert Bierstadt, C.E. Watkins, E.J. Muybridge, T.H. O'Sullivan, thomas Moran - who sought out mountains, too.
Those explorer artists, those painters and photographers, made pictures of this country that stressed the scale of the West. Perhaps because we're used to the Alps, the Rockies, the mountains that we see in Chinese landscape paintings have always seemed exaggerated, odd. But George does not exaggerate. Nor did the Chinese masters. Curator Peter Bermingham of the National Collection, who organized this show, has included a few photographs of Chinese mountains. They are not like our own. They are as eerie in actuality as they are in Chinese art.
The road that took Tom George to China led him first to Norway and Japan. He's 58. In the 1950s he studied brush painting in Japan; in the 1960s he fell in love with Norway, with its bleak and arctic mountains. Both his trips to China were taken at the invitation of Norway's ambassador to Peking.
His catalog does not mention it, but he is Rube Goldberg's son, Goldberg, you'll remember, did wonderful cartoons of wonderful contraptions, whose purpose was the doing of easy things the hard way. "His best work was sociological, humorous, direct," says George. "Mine is sort of the opposite. I'm less involved with people than I am with Mother Nature." His show closes April 10.