A dedicated group of Chinese artists have revitalized the centuries-old tradition of ink-and-brush painting, giving it a distinctly contemporary aesthetic.
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When Ai Weiwei smashed a 2,000-year-old piece of pottery to bits for a conceptual artwork called Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995/2009), his break with tradition epitomized an attitude toward the past that was, and still is, prevalent among contemporary Chinese artists. In the wake of the 1949 Communist revolution and the recent disaffection with that revolution, it’s very understandable that the past would seem like a dead hand holding back creativity. Nonetheless, a group of Chinese contemporary artists has been quietly pursuing a very different kind of engagement with their cultural inheritance. Painting delicately in ink on silk or specially prepared paper, they create landscapes and still lifes that remind the viewer of the classic works of the dynastic era. But these contemporary ink painters are no imitators, and the best of them combine reverence with relevance, enlarging their tradition with a distinctly contemporary sensibility.
Beijing-based artist Liu Dan, at age 60 one of the “old masters” of this school, paints rocks and trees, two of the key elements of classical Chinese landscape painting. But there’s a difference—Liu’s rocks take up the whole composition, and seen close-up they take on the otherworldly quality of another planet’s surface. His ultra-precise, tiny brushstrokes give his works an almost hyperreal appearance, and in contrast to traditional Chinese ink painting, he rarely adds texts to his paintings, preferring the austerity of the single image. Liu’s trees also tend to occur in isolation, not as part of densely wooded mountain landscapes. For example, his Old Cypress from the Forbidden City (2007), stands against a plain white background, and like many of the rocks it is cropped—the edge of the paper eliminates the bottom of the trunk. This effect increases the viewer’s sense that the natural object is abstracted from nature, another aesthetically contemporary element of today’s Chinese ink painting. In general, the works tend to be large-scale—some as much as 10 feet high—and black and white, although some of the artists use color rather sparingly.
Zeng Xiaojun (b. 1954) is known in particular for his trees. He suggests the landscape in which a tree is embedded with a few light, almost evanescent, strokes, but the tree itself is the focus, and the brush really goes to work there, weaving skeins of ink that depict the twisting of roots, the bunching together of leaves, the entanglements of branches. Zeng’s trees seem animated, like animals or perhaps spirits that have been metamorphosed into trees. Luo Jianwu (b. 1944) also paints trees; in Old Cypress at a Confucian Temple (2012), he turns a gaze of Albrecht Dürer-like intensity on the gnarled trunk, microscopically drilling into the intricacies of the bark, the patterns formed by the intertwining branches.
A younger artist, Lee Chun-yi (b. 1965), has developed a really radical technique of ink painting. After having mastered the brush, he gave it up entirely and now makes his paintings using a small, square piece of cork to ink in a grid of squares in order to form an image. He controls the lightness or darkness of each square by the number of times he stamps it, as well as by the amount of ink he puts on the cork. In his paintings, the grid is always visible as thin white lines underlying the image. Lee does landscapes, but his inspiration for the grid technique was the Han Dynasty stone stelae that first captured his imagination when he was a boy. The stelae—which aficionados copy using the technique of ink rubbing—are composed entirely of text, one Chinese character per hypothetical square in a grid. So in a way, Lee has transformed text into image.
Over the past five years or so, the combination of traditional elegance, refined technique and a certain contemporary aesthetic has propelled these painters from inky obscurity to Western art-world success. During New York’s Asia Week (March 14–28), Sotheby’s hosted a successful selling exhibition called “Shuimo/Water Ink: Contemporary Chinese Ink Paintings.” Last year, Michael Goedhuis, a London and New York–based dealer who has a particular interest in this field, curated a loan show, “Ink: The Art of China” at the Saatchi Gallery in London. The Museum of Fine Art Boston, which has long been the vanguard of Asian art collecting, mounted the first museum show of ink painting in the U.S., and the Metropolitan Museum is planning one for the near future.
Conor Mahony, president of the Chinese Porcelain Company in New York, which represents a number of contemporary ink painters, says, “The essence of Chinese contemporary art was thought to be oil painting in the style of the West. But ink painting was not meant for Westerners. Interestingly, though museums here have picked up on ink painting.” Carol Conover, owner of Kaikodo, a New York gallery that specializes in old and new Chinese ink paintings, reports that she has been successful in selling contemporary ink to American museums, but in her experience, Chinese buyers are less interested in contemporary ink painting than in the older works. “For me it’s mainly American collectors, not Chinese collectors,” she says. “For a while, ink painting was associated with being too old-fashioned, too associated with the Qing Dynasty, and it’s still struggling to become accepted in the Mainland.” However, she adds, the somewhat abstract quality of today’s ink painting may make it easier for younger Chinese to appreciate it. “The current generation understands abstraction,” says Conover. “When they see Chinese paintings, it’s not as alien to them as to their parents,” who were brought up on Maoist-era socialist realism.
One of the most profound of this group of artists is Tai Xiangzhou (b. 1968), who shows with the Chinese Porcelain Company and was in New York for Asia Week, where he sat down to speak (mainly through an interpreter) with Art & Antiques about his work and about the phenomenon of contemporary Chinese ink painting. “There are two types of contemporary art in China,” he says. “One type is the media-hype, market-yourself kind of art. The other type is pure art, from the artist’s soul. Over the last 100 years, art has been very much dictated by the government, but now that China is more open, artists are able to leave and become more globalized, to be in the second category and be true to themselves. When these latter artists can truly emerge, people will be able to tell what is true art and what is not, because you can feel it when you look at it.”
Tai is a student of Liu Dan, with whom he shares a fondness for painting scholar’s rocks—a type of naturally formed rock traditionally prized by Chinese literati for their contemplation-inducing properties and mounted and displayed as works of art. (Last year at Asia Week New York, Tai bought a scholar’s rock, which he has since made a painting of.) Since childhood, Tai had been an enthusiastic practitioner of calligraphy and had learned landscape painting, but before beginning to study with Liu in 2005, he had a successful career as a multimedia designer. He gave that up to dedicate himself to ink painting and the study of Chinese art history. While he calls Liu his “living teacher,” he also learns from long-dead masters by studying and internalizing their works. “The best Chinese landscape painting is from the Song Dynasty,” he says. “So for my landscape, I’ll study with a Song Dynasty master.” As for Liu Dan, he knew he wanted to study with him when he saw an astonishing painting Liu did, in colored and black ink, of a candle flame turning into smoke, rendered as a long scroll turned on its side, so that the smoke seems like a landscape.
Talking to Tai about his work, a cosmic quality enters the conversation. He points to two paintings from 2012, No. 3 Star of the Big Dipper and No. 4 of the Big Dipper in Blue. Each one depicts, with a scientifically precise gaze, not a scholar’s rock but a meteorite. Tai sees these objects, which dropped from outer space to earth, not as literal depictions of the constellation but as symbolic representations of it. Since meteorites are red hot when they arrive here, he painted No. 3 in an orangey-red ink; No. 4 is in blue, which stands, he says, for the cobalt content of the stone. The Big Dipper is symbolically important for Tai, because, he explains, “the Chinese character for ‘king’ comes from the shape of the Big Dipper. It shows the reciprocal relationship between heaven and earth. All art emerges from this relationship, this constant interaction.”
In fact, Tai believes that traditional Chinese landscape painting derives from observation of the sky. He has recently come out with a book (in Chinese only), whose title in English is Concept and Structure: The Study of Schema in Chinese Landscape Painting. In that elegantly designed volume, he relates Chinese star maps to landscape paintings. Diagrams illustrate the parallelisms between celestial projections and the ways in which landscape paintings were built up in panels as composites of many different views of the same scene. Wall carvings in archaic Chinese tombs depicted constellations arranged around the figure of the deceased. “They drew heaven around the dead body,” Tai says, “because when people died, they wanted to go back to the sky. So the Chinese landscape comes from the star map. Each mountain is a star; In China the outside comes inside.”
This mystical connection to the stars, ancient though it is, is very real for Tai. “A lot of Chinese people believe there are two components of your being—your physical body and your soul or spirit. There’s a star equivalent of each of us.” When he paints a landscape, he says, he is not doing an exact physical rendering of that landscape, he is painting its soul or inner being. Tai’s landscapes—of which the best are the 16 that make up his “Genesis” series—are dense and incredibly detailed, but somehow ethereal. Knowing that they are essentially imaginary or conceptual scenes makes them seem even more otherworldly. Really, they are depictions of the artist’s inner world, a world which is individual, yet shared with generations of his fellow Chinese ink painters.
“I don’t care what is contemporary and what is traditional,” he says. “If you make your art, that art will last beyond you and everything. Maybe this rock will disappear, but the painting will remain. You must pay attention to your life, and feel your work is true to yourself. If it is, it will last beyond us. Western culture and Eastern culture are becoming one, and the things that are actually authentic will be considered beautiful by all.”