The Ancient Is Reinvented to Tell Modern Tale of China ; Contemporary Artists Reclaim Ink-Painting Techniques for New Form

By Siegal, Nina | International Herald Tribune, November 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Ancient Is Reinvented to Tell Modern Tale of China ; Contemporary Artists Reclaim Ink-Painting Techniques for New Form


Siegal, Nina, International Herald Tribune


Chinese contemporary artists are reclaiming ancient ink painting techniques to create what is now known as "ink arts," a category of painting that is receiving increasing attention from collectors and curators.

For the first half of his career, the artist Qiu Deshu largely rode the seismic shifts of Chinese history.

Mr. Qiu, who was born in Shanghai in 1948, studied traditional Chinese arts, including seal carving, scroll mounting and ink painting, along with Western oil painting. As a teenager in the 1960s, he worked as an artist for the Red Guard, creating propaganda for the Cultural Revolution. In the 1970s, while working in a plastics factory, he gained status as an important "worker- painter." After the Cultural Revolution, he became the leader of the artists collective Cao Cao Hua She, the Grass Painting Society, to plant new seeds of expression on what he thought was finally terra firma.

But in 1980, when he faced government criticism for defining the group's goals -- independent spirit, independent technique, and independent style -- Mr. Qiu grasped where he really stood in society.

"I looked down one day and I saw the cracks in the pavement and I felt an immediate connection to them," Mr. Qiu said through an interpreter over the telephone from his home in Shanghai. "That's how my life was -- broken. And that's how I discovered how I should make my work."

He settled on a technique that he now calls "fissuring," which involves drawing with ink on rice paper, then tearing it into pieces, and then adding more paper, drawing or painting with acrylics, and tearing that away. Ultimately, it looks like a bas- relief sculptural work with layers of paper and paint. He feels this aesthetic reflects not only his voice as an artist, but his life experiences as well.

Mr. Qiu represents a generation of Chinese contemporary artists who since the 1980s have reclaimed ancient ink-painting techniques to create what is now known as ink arts. He is the subject of a retrospective at the Michael Goedhuis Gallery beginning on Thursday and running through Nov. 15 to coincide with Asian Art in London, which runs through Nov. 10.

It is a category of painting that is receiving increasing attention from Asian and Western curators and collectors, said Clarissa von Spee, curator for the Chinese and Central Asian Collections at the British Museum.

"It is a hype right now," Ms. von Spee said. "The whole Asian art world is promoting that field at the moment; you see it at the auction houses in China, which get very high prices, galleries and museums have exhibitions. Artists are really producing fast, sometimes under enormous pressure, because there is a lot of interest and more demand from the market."

Western exhibitions in 2012 included "Modern Chinese Ink Paintings," held at the British Museum and curated by Ms. von Spee; "Ink: The Art of China," at the Saatchi Gallery in London and curated by Mr. Goedhuis; and "Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong," which focused on a master of contemporary Chinese art and was staged at the Asia Society in New York.

China Guardian Auctions, a top auction house in China, held its first official sale of Chinese ink paintings and calligraphy in October in Hong Kong; the sale was also its first auction outside mainland China. To celebrate the opening, it hosted the exhibition "Rediscovery: Hong Kong Ink Painting." The results of the auction more than doubled the auctioneer's presale estimate, totaling 454 million Hong Kong dollars, or $58.6 million.

Artists who have been the focus of recent attention seem to be the ones who have expanded the scope of ink painting beyond the traditional subjects of quiet landscapes, birds and stones. Many of them have transformed the medium to more than mere ink and paper.

"Today, there's ink on paper; there's ink by itself; there's the gesture without the ink; there's just the paper, or there's the performance of the gesture, and there's video and installation art too," said Britta Erickson, an independent art curator and scholar who teaches courses on the history of ink painting at Stanford University. …

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