Constancy And Change In Contemporary Chinese Ink Painting

Photo of Luise Guest
13 December 2016

According to art historian Lin Ci, traditional Chinese ink painting sought to vividly evoke the ‘spiritual resemblance’ of aspects of nature. Practiced by scholar-officials, the act of freehand ink painting could bring ‘comfort to their hearts’ as they distanced themselves from the realpolitik of the imperial court. Culture Trip explores the works of contemporary Chinese ink painters who paradoxically link the past and present.

We may be far away from the great masters of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, but an adherence to the beauty and discipline of calligraphy and ink painting often connects past and present in Chinese art. In a catalogue essay for Ink the Art of China at the Saatchi Gallery, Dominique Narhas wrote: ‘Ink painting brings us into contact with an immersive intimacy in which humanistic themes of man’s relation to himself, to nature and to the other are played out against the great backdrop of constancy and change.’ This intertwining of past and present distinguishes contemporary Chinese art in the global marketplace and results in works which are able to reference tradition and convention yet speak to the contemporary world and an international audience.

Shi Zhiying, ‘Between Past and Future’ | Courtesy of White Space Beijing.

So, how are contemporary artists re-imagining and transforming an archaic tradition? From Xu Bing’s iconic Book from the Sky and Gu Wenda’s human hair frozen with adhesive into translucent curtains of unreadable language; from Song Dong’s calligraphy written with water on a stone slab in Writing Diary with Water to the digital multimedia works of Yang Yongliang and the conceptual works by Zhang Huan and Qiu Zhijie, a generation of Chinese artists have been reinventing traditional forms to represent ideas and observations about their contemporary world. Indeed, one of the key elements underpinning the inventiveness and innovation of contemporary art in China is, perhaps paradoxically, a deep knowledge of and respect for traditional forms. Chinese artists revere their cultural heritage and art traditions yet at the same time freely experiment with them. In the hands of some artists this reinvention leads to transgressive works of social critique, even savage satire, whilst others reflect on elements of their world in a quieter, more personal or meditative manner.

Culture Trip recently spoke with various artists in Beijing and Shanghai about the way in which their practice is informed by their study of traditional Chinese painting.

Gao Ping

Gao Ping in her Beijing studio | © Luise Guest.

Gao Ping told us that for Chinese artists the traditions of ink painting are “like the ground under your feet”. When we spoke in her Beijing studio, she discussed her admiration for the painter Ba Da of the early Qing Dynasty, who famously observed that there were “more tears than ink” in his paintings. His landscapes achieve a balance between stillness, space and closely observed detail, which Gao Ping often returns to. She finds his work sad but “calm in heart”, a description which could equally be applied to her own ink on paper works. Tiny lonely figures or objects float in a vast empty space, creating a dynamic relationship between the forms themselves and the space they inhabit. Her deep knowledge and understanding of traditional painting is evident in the ‘rightness’ of her placement and the confidence of her mark-making. She says that tiny things are sometimes more important than the large and obvious, and her work creates an ongoing narrative grounded in her idiosyncratic observations of people, places and events. For Gao Ping, painting is a secret language, creating mysterious layers that reveal themselves slowly to those willing to take the time to look carefully.

Gao Ping, ‘Still Life – Girls’, Chinese ink on rice paper | Courtesy of China Art Projects.

Ink paintings of tiny female figures, some nude, some clothed, may represent a kind of self-portrait, an exploration of loneliness. They are touching and whimsical, as are her representations of lonely toys, battered teddy bears, pot plants, electric fans, figures seated on park benches, slightly shabby gardens and simple courtyard houses. These works express fragility and vulnerability. They evoke memories of childhood, as well as her astute observations of the world around her and her responses to it.

Gao Ping, ‘Untitled’, oil on canvas | Courtesy of China Art Projects.

In contrast, her oil and acrylic paintings, some large and powerful and others on smaller square canvases, are at once strong and lyrical, often employing a subtle grisaille in which translucent washes are layered to create great depth. These painterly works evoke ambiguous landscapes which to the artist represent an ideal world, a place of harmony and retreat from the chaos of urban life. Her work speaks of her distress at the pace of change in Beijing; the unsettling transformations of familiar places in a never-ending process of demolition and urban renewal. She creates a different, calmer world in her paintings. Reticent and not keen to talk much about herself or about the meanings of her work, she says, “What I want to say is in the paintings.”

Li Tingting

Li Tingting with her work ‘Chandelier’ | © Luise Guest

Li Tingting also works with ink on paper, often in the traditional form of a scroll. Her works initially focused on ‘feminine’ subject matter – handbags, shoes and dresses – but developed to include banal objects associated with contemporary life and mass production, such as disposable plastic water bottles and light bulbs. It has been suggested that her Shoes series can be interpreted as a feminist response to the pressures on women to adopt an overtly ‘feminine’ identity. The artist politely but firmly denies this reading of her work, saying rather that she wanted to celebrate her life as a young woman. She has also produced works representing teddy bears, fruits, flowers and even sunflower seeds. Cascading shapes spill down the surface of her paper in a deceptively spontaneous manner. In actuality the process of working with traditional inks, balancing wet and dry brushstrokes, is exacting and painstaking. She surprises through her choice of bright pink ink as well as her contemporary subject matter.

Li Tingting, ‘Chandelier’, Ink on Rice Paper | Courtesy White Paper Gallery

Born in China’s Shanxi Province, she now lives and works in Beijing, and is focused on experimenting to see just how far the ink tradition can be pushed into new and hybrid forms. On a trip to European galleries she discovered the work of Cy Twombly and was inspired to move her work in a new direction. The result, after a period of intense experimentation, was a series of works representing grandiose items of furniture. Floral upholstered armchairs and overstuffed sofas, painted and lacquered Chinese chests and cupboards and opulent chandeliers now float in an amorphous space, with drips and dribbles of ink running down the surface, over a restless layering of washes both opaque and transparent. Her pale and fragile palette has given way to strong magenta and viridian green, but her sureness with the placement of the objects within the space, and the way in which inanimate objects are so filled with life, links her to the masterful painters that she admired as a student.

Rather than painting rocks, bamboo and waterfalls, Li Tingting painted cascades of shoes or mass produced consumer goods, are suggestive of the recent transformation and modernization of Chinese culture or the kind of formal furnishings that indicate the trappings of wealth. The tug-of-war between longing for stability and embracing change in Chinese society is evident in Li’s work, albeit in less overt and more nuanced ways than in the work of some other artists.

Shi Zhiying

Shi Zhiying in her studio | © Luise Guest.

Shi Zhiying’s practice is similarly informed by her awareness of ink painting techniques. Working on a very large scale, using thinned down washes of monochrome oil paint to create images of vastness – the ocean, endless fields of grass, Zen Gardens – she reveals a restrained control of her medium. Her Buddhist beliefs are an essential part of who she is, and a profound influence on her work, although, she says, “Painting is not meditation. Painting is painting. But it can be like meditation because I do it carefully, honestly and truthfully.”

She came to her signature technique, stripped of all inessential elements such as color, almost by accident. For a long time after she graduated from university she felt that she had “lost herself” as an artist. She had been overwhelmed by so many influences that believed she no longer knew how to paint. She tells a story about how she regained her confidence. Her husband was studying in America, and she went to meet him there. On a trip to the coast, visiting a lighthouse, she looked down at the vast ocean below and experienced the overwhelming sensation that she had vanished from the world and had ceased to exist. This uncomfortable but not unpleasant experience prompted her to study Buddhist scriptures, and to look for subjects in her painting that would reveal essential truths about the nature of the world. She started by taking photographs of the ocean and removing the color. When she went back to the landscape itself, she says, the blue of the ocean and the sky seemed fake. By removing the color she believed she could find a greater truthfulness. Later, she saw Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series of black and white seascapes and realized that his notion that looking at the ocean is a “voyage of seeing” akin to visiting one’s ancestral home was not unlike her own feelings about the subject. “Simplicity is reality” she says.

Shi Zhiying, ‘High Seas’, oil on canvas | Courtesy White Rabbit Gallery.

Recently Shi has been experimenting with ink and watercoloron paper, drawing more directly on traditional methods and techniques, exhibiting a body of work based on Italo Calvino’s novel Mr Palomar. The protagonist of the novel is seeking “reason and disorder in a disorderly world” says Ivy Zhou in her catalogue essay ‘The Universe as Mirror’, likening this quest to Shi Zhiying’s painterly exploration of the relationship between the self and the world.

Shi Zhiying, ‘Serpents and Skulls’, ink and watercolor on Chinese paper | Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery

These three artists in many ways exemplify a particular thread in contemporary art in China. Like many things Chinese, it is somewhat of a paradox. Their practice is underpinned by their knowledge of and respect for the traditions of ink painting and calligraphy, yet they themselves cannot accurately be defined as ink painters. They are anxious about being defined or labelled by their ‘Chinese-ness’ (or their gender) yet their work inevitably reflects those crucial elements of their identity. And in each case their work is thoroughly contemporary, yet grounded in the past and is therefore timeless.

Modified article originally published at ArtSpace China.

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