Oil and Water: Reinterpreting Ink exhibition

On 22/05/2014 by CFCCA Administrator

Written by: Adam Monohon

reinterpreting ink

Filling two galleries at the Museum of Chinese in America, Oil and Water: Reinterpreting Ink attempts to problematize the understanding of ink art by highlighting the diversity of approaches taken by contemporary Chinese artists in reinterpreting ink art. Included in the show are works by Wei Jia, executed with traditional materials in an untraditional, abstract manner; equally abstract works by Qiu Deshu; and oil paint copies of well-known ink paintings by Zhang Hongtu. The exhibition incorporates works done in both representational and abstract modes, as well as works done in both oil and ink, demonstrating the breadth of approaches taken by contemporary artists towards the medium of ink art.

The work of Wei Jia incorporates numerous components associated with ink art but employs them in new ways. Wei uses handmade xuan paper, a surface traditionally used for ink painting, as well as colored inks. Despite his use of traditional materials Wei’s work bears much more resemblance to abstract expressionist painting than it does to traditional Chinese ink painting.

One work by Wei, titled No. 13144, is particularly demonstrative of this. The work, comprised of two large vertical canvases hung next to one another, is a frenzy of overlapping forms. The left canvas is entirely covered in myriad intersecting areas of lightly tinted xuan paper. Ragged edged sections of pale yellow, pink and white churn atop a nearly covered off gray ground. The proliferation of colored shapes on this canvas continues on the edge of the right canvas, seemingly having spilled over from one to the other, losing momentum on the way. While the ground of the left canvas is nearly covered, that of the right remains nearly totally exposed.

An earlier work by Wei, also included in the show, demonstrates his interest in calligraphy – another use of ink. Titled No. 0660, this work too is in many ways similar to abstract expressionist painting. This work, in contrast to the earlier pieces, is serene and minimalist, lacking the energy of the other. The square canvas is divided into horizontal thirds, with the bottom third painted a solid pale green, and the top two-thirds a pale white. The pristine white of the top section is interrupted by three lines of cursive characters, as much writing as they are random splashes of green that have spilled over from below.

Unlike Wei Jia’s much of Qiu Deshu’s work is painted in a monochromatic color scheme. In Qiu’s painting Fissures the artist creates an abstract scene in pastel on a long piece of xuan paper. The format and surface of the work recall that of panoramic ink painting. Qiu has treated the white of the paper in a way that recalls a cloudy sky, while at center a dark, jagged edge gash runs the length of the work evoke, a dark black void opening between the top and bottom of the paper. This gash, at once ominous and abstract, also evokes the towering cliffs seen so often in Chinese landscape painting. Qiu’s work functions as abstract and representational simultaneously, it draws on both western abstraction and Chinese tradition.

Zhang Hongtu’s Re-Make of Ma Yuan’s Water Album A (780 Years Later) takes an entirely different approach to updating ink painting. Zhang foregoes the use of traditionally Chinese materials, instead opting to paint in oil. Despite the change in media, Zhang adheres most closely to the format and composition of an earlier ink painting. In recreating Ma Yuan’s Water Album Zhang has taken a somewhat impressionistic approach, the sky is rendered in broad strokes of rich blue oils, while the water below is painted in dark, muddled shades. Zhang adds thing, graphic lines of black atop the water, to suggest the breaking edge of waves. Elsewhere, the red impressions of seals and the black script of colophons have been carefully recreated.

Each of the three artists in the show challenge in different ways what ink art can be. Wei Jia uses materials traditionally used in ink art to make works that are wildly unlike earlier ink painting. Qiu Deshu manages to create wildly abstract works that subtly evoke traditional Chinese ink art. While Zhang Hongtu in remaking Ma Yuan’s Water Album in oil draws attention to changes experienced in the last eight hundred years. In various ways, the work of each of these artists expands the notion of what ink art can be, while together they push against commonly held notions of ink art, demonstrating that it need not be limited by materials or mode.

Image caption:

Wei Jia, No. 13144, Gouache, pastel, charcoal, and xuan paper, collage on canvas, 64×48” (2 panels), Zhang Hongtu, Re-Make of Ma Yuan’s Water Album X (780 Years Later), Oil on Canvas, 50×72”  Photo: Adam Monohon

Text by Adam Monohon

Contact: adammonohon@gmail.com 

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