AVANT-GARDE INK IN CHINA
by Robert C. Morgan
Beyond Pop and Expressionism
TENRI CULTURAL INSTITUTE | MAY 4 – 25, 2012
The following comments on Vaulting Limits—a group show seen last month at the Tenri Cultural Institute in the West Village—may offer a slightly different perspective than what some of my colleagues have chosen to see as important in contemporary Chinese art today. Over the past few years, relative to a series of studio visits with artists working in various parts of China, I have felt increasingly compelled to reflect on the development of ink painting. I am taken by the fact that many artists are seemingly less concerned with Western formulas, Pop and Expressionism among them, and are focusing instead on developing ways of working with more traditional materials including ink, brushes, and xuan paper. Some Western observers have misconstrued this revival as regressive, which I believe is incorrect. Rather, many contemporary Chinese ink and brush painters are striving to rediscover their own language and, in doing so, reinvent the vanishing medium by bringing it back into the foreground of a renewed, present-day cultural awareness.
One of the criteria for inclusion in Vaulting Limits, curated by Michelle Y. Loh and Thalia Vrachopoulos, was that each artist should be a graduate of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (not all from the same year), considered by many to be the most important art school in China, next to the Hangzhou Academy of Fine Art. The ratings don’t really matter, other than to suggest that these artists are some of the best ink painters currently working either in China or, in some cases, New York.
Lin Yan casts and constructs assemblages with ink and xuan paper. This thin, nearly translucent paper is made from crushed elm and mulberry tree bark and is said to last a millennium. (By comparison, canvas left untreated tends to erode over a much shorter period of time.) Lin’s subject matter revolves around the principles of space, time, and spirit. The latter term is a conundrum for Westerners, who tend to confuse this idea with religion or, in the modernist sense, Kandinsky’s appropriation theosophy. Lin Yan works with the empty surface of xuan paper as well as with the saturation of ink. Somehow both aspects of her artistic approach reach the same conclusion, which is related to the emptiness of nature, a kind of hovering in time, an absence replete with meaning that dissolves before one’s eyes.
The ink on Xiao Bing’s surfaces in large-scale paintings such as “Disappearing of Han Prose Rhyme” (2010) is sprinkled lightly rather than saturated or poured onto the surface. The sense of lightness on the surface embodies the “spirit” of the work. He claims there is history within the painting. According to Bing, history should not be mistaken for time. By employing the conventional Chinese use of obverse space, in which the top of the painting appears closer to the viewer than the bottom—first used in the landscapes of the Northern Song Dynasty in the tenth century (and later, the Yuan Dynasty)—Bing creates three-point perspective by showing the edges of a steel frame bending diagonally inward on either side of the ink sprinkled surface. Even as I could see the field of ink, it appeared to conflate, to turn in upon itself, only to ricochet back into my visual field.
In “Silence and Meditation” (2011), Cao Jigang is more involved with deeply saturated areas of vertical space, his paintings rich and beautiful. Jigang employs the saturation of ink with full confidence, and in the process, belies the more studied precision generally associated with elder artists steeped in calligraphy. Another artist, Wei Jia is a brilliant theorist and painter, whose works also involve the saturation of color inks on xuan paper, one upon another. The results often appear more solid and lyrically intriguing than paintings associated with American Color Field painting in the 1960s, largely due to the superior absorbent quality of the paper made from crushed mulberry leaves.
Yuan Zuo also works with color –using the brush as if it was ink on paper, but, in fact, it is oil on canvas. This means he has appropriated a Western idea of materiality and surface in a manner that appears like Abstract Expressionism. But it is not. In works, such as “Image #5” (2008), the gestural integration of blue, sienna, green, and ochre suggest a landscape, but the emphasis is entirely on the virtuosity of the brush, the way in which the strokes are made and collide with one another. What I understand when I stare at a painting by Yuan Zuo is that the brush is always in the foreground of thought, which in his case is a kind of deferral, whereby the surface becomes something without the slightest degree of self-consciousness. With Yuan Zuo, the brush determines the surface, which is quite the opposite of Western-style Abstract Expressionism where the surface becomes a form of pictorial space.
In contrast, Wei Jia works with the more traditional style of saturated colored inks on xuan paper – as does his wife Lin Yan. In contrast to Lin Yan – who focuses primarily on minimal-style usage of black ink and white paper surfaces, Wei Jia covers every square inch of surface with color, as in “Huang Xingjian No. 0775” in which the green calligraphic marks are placed on top of the red and ochre surface. The surface fills the spectrum of the retinal gaze. There are few interstices of space other than those given to the heat of his color.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.