Cai Xi’s studio from the artist’s days in New York City.
Courtesy photo
Cai Xi’s studio from the artist’s days in New York City.

Cai Xi collapses time, in a flow of creativity that never stops

In an exhibition at CX Silver Gallery, the artist blends many eras of her life and work

BRATTLEBORO-Edge No. CLX is a great painting. It hangs on a wall next to a staircase in a house in West Brattleboro, although it is finer than a Rothko.

The glistening whites, shades of blue and black, and the densely textured surface made by using a trowel and mixing acrylic paint with wood chips form a densely textured surface that radiates vitality. Who painted this, was my question.

The answer was Cai Xi Silver; I had to meet her.

* * *

Cai explained to me that the Edge Series comprises hundreds of paintings created between 1991 and 1998, when she lived in New York.

Since "Edge" is a strange word for a series of paintings, I asked why she used it. She said that the blank canvas is laid on the floor, and she stands above it and waits in silence, so something can enter.

When she paints, she merges with the process. She paints as long as it flows; the creative flow stops suddenly, like an edge.

She is not the message.

She is the wire that transmits the message.

She cannot determine when and what she will paint.

* * *

Cai grew up in Sichuan, China. When she was a teen, her father, who was a stage designer, instructed her to make sketches and draw one egg a hundred separate ways.

Lesson 1 was to incorporate emotion into painting using light. Lesson 2 was that even when there is no light, the object is still there with its shape, weight, and material, and can be sensed by the viewer. He said objects possess a life of their own, and each has unique characteristics.

Cai Xi Silver studied art at Shanghai Theatre Academy, majoring in stage design. During the 1970's and 1980s she painted only realistic works - still lifes, landscapes, and portraits - and had little or no sense of abstraction. Western art was introduced to her only by poorly printed magazines.

When she came to the United States in 1987, she saw abstract paintings that astounded her. She went to galleries and museums and walked the city. She noticed men fixing the sidewalks, the thick cement, their use of trowels. In the subway she stared at the layers of paint on the walls and aged by time and weather. Her response was the Edge Series of large abstract paintings.

She had always lived in cities, but when she moved to Vermont in 2000, she was wowed by the open sky and rolling hills. Her response was to paint the Earth and Sky Series.

The details of the paintings in this series are breathtaking.

"There is nothing more powerful than great Nature," Cai says. "I am here to learn, to document nature's teaching. Al that counts is the vastness of the sky and the beauty of the land."

* * *

Thich Nhat Hahn and Eckhart Tolle say that the present moment holds past, present, and future. At the speed of light there are no divisions of time. The way in which the exhibit is arranged mixes past and present, so they flow smoothly together.

A new, small plein air painting done in gouache is placed over an abstract done years ago. On another wall, a plein air done in the past is placed over a recent abstract. Artificial divisions of time disintegrate.

One installation, Edge XCIV 1992 (acrylic mixed media on canvas), caught my eye. The ultramarine, cobalt, evergreen, and dark yellow splashes blend effortlessly into one another; the new plein air pops right out of the old abstract.

The plein air done in 2018 in oil has cobalt blue and splashes of crimson that echo the abstract.

In Earth and Sky No. 25 (oil on canvas, painted in 2004), light illuminates the fall trees, white clouds against bare tree branches, and dark mountain peaks.

* * *

As I walked through the exhibit, I recalled photos of the Three Gorges in the Yangtze River. I glimpsed this image in every painting.

Cai said that much of the area is now underwater.A huge hydroelectric dam destroyed villages that were hundreds of years old and displaced thousands of people in the name of progress.

In another plein air painting, the play of light drifting through the clouds on a street in China illuminates the wood and tile of the buildings.

Here in Vermont, Cai takes another leap in abstraction, a series called "Infinity WithIn."

Using a house mop, she moves the paint with the flow of Chinese calligraphic Qi energy. Cai's work is so varied it cannot be reduced to one label. She is willing to experiment any way she can to get the effect she desires.

She has painted with a brush, a trowel, and a knife and used oil, acrylic with wood chips, even enamel house paint and a mop.

Her flow of creativity never stops.

* * *

"Then and Now" will continue through August 26 at CX Silver Gallery, 814 Western Ave. in Brattleboro. Open Thursdays to Mondays from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (802-257-7898).

Toni Ortner is a poet, writer, and teacher.

This Arts column was submitted to The Commons.

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