The Curious Case of Contemporary Ink Painting

Article excerpt

Among contemporary art's blind spots, few are as apparent as contemporary ink painting. Despite accounting for a considerable proportion of art making in East and Southeast Asia as duly reflected by a large and enthusiastic collector base, ink painting rarely figures in chronicles of contemporary art. Critics periodically expound on what they see as the medium's state of crisis or rebirth, while historians increasingly recognize the medium's contributions to canonical modernist movements such as Abstract Expressionism.'

Several initiatives have tried to address this state of visible invisibility. Within the past ten years, several initiatives have tried to frame ink painting within forms of display associated with contemporary art, including the international biennial (die 1998 Shanghai Biennale and the 2007 Chengdu Biennial) and the contemporary art museum. In 2003 and 2004, a group of collectors in Hong Kong vigorously lobbied for a museum of contemporary art "based on or inspired by the ink painting medium." J More recently, several exhibitions and symposia in North America and East Asia have argued on behalf of ink painting's inclusion within narratives of contemporary art, primarily on the grounds of subject matter, date of production, and die notion of a larger, "contemporary" sensibility.5 This essay follows suit, but does so by pointing out the extent to which contemporary art remains loyal to the idea of a master narrative, whose authoritarian inflections are well concealed beneath Ute rubric of consensus.

The Standing of Ink Painting

Not all ink paintings are as visibly invisible as the medium is generally. Some, like the works of Zao Wou-ki, are recognized as examples of contemporary art in addition to or, in some cases, in lieu of being recognized as ink paintings. This selective recognition presents contemporary ink painting as a subject defined by the enactment of distinctions. Central is die question of how some ink paintings enter into this field while other's find its boundaries impermeable. We cannot identify the exact criteria by which some works gain entry, lest we indenture ourselves to a fixed, and thus inherendy flawed, definition of contemporary art.

But we might discuss this situation through the idea of standing. A doctrine of common law, the idea of standing turns on the question of whether a party is sufficiently close to a matter so as to entitle the party to bring the matter to juridical attention. Entry into the realm of juridical review depends on a discernment of proximity. Standing helps illustrate die relationship between contemporary ink painting and contemporary art as a process through which distinctions are made via apprehensions of proximity.

Ink paintings often attain standing by proxy. They are seen as contemporary on the basis of their potential affiliations with conditions, subjects, and questions already reified as contemporary or as fundamental to contemporary art. Of special importance is whether the works in question negotiate what the art historian David Clarke has called the "discrepancies between cultural frames."4 Zao's peripatetic background makes him exemplary in tins regard; a Beijing native, in 193c he enrolled at the Hangzhou National College of Art, which was then almost myopically preoccupied with turning out artists fluent in the media associated with East and West: ink and oil.5 After World War II, Zao went to Paris and has since been affiliated with the art world of France, where he was. able to encounter ink painting anew, without the ideological associations imposed on the medium in the 1950s.6

The complexity of Zao's negotiations, however, were commonly resolved through a modernist view of abstraction, whose terms were codified by the discussion of specific bodies of Euro- American painting, in particular, Abstract Expressionism. Particular conceptions of image, gesture, and performativity have, for example, been cited as proof of the modernity of works such as Zao's recent paintings. …