Sunday, December 19, 2010

New Ink - Mixed Interpretations

(Hong Kong Gallery Guide  Dec/Jan 2010)

The New Ink Movement is becoming a popular term among those who are interested in the art form, as ink painting evolves in contemporary art in mainland China. Born out of the country’s post-revolutionary art, the New Ink marks a departure from the traditional aesthetics of landscape painting (‘shan shui’ in Chinese) and the limits of the medium.

New Ink Exhibition Part 1: New Landscape at Galerie Ora-Ora features three graduates from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and the young artists have strikingly different styles that point to new possibilities in ink. The work of Li Pang seems to bear a more traditional imprint, though he instills a sense of conflict and pressure into his paintings by incorporating motifs of contemporary life, as in the series ‘Untitled Chinese Landscape’. Most of the paintings present a distortion or intersection of perspectives—the viewers are lured into the illusion of aerial view of a quiet farm, or the cinematic depiction of cars on a highway, heading towards the far end of the landscape. ‘Utopia’, a surprising rendition of the Great Wall, embodies the subtle irony in Li’s craft. The subject is devoid of its grandeur and revealed through the shadows of ink, a black-and-white ambivalence seeping on paper.

On the other end of the spectrum is Huang Haifei, who paints her interiority in her compositions. The landscapes take on the guise of old, yellow maps, on which Huang re-creates classical icons such as trees, plants and animals with whimsical stamps. 'Ego Dimension' is a clear statement on the breakdown of boundaries: the artist's scattered self splits and spreads, all over the territory, which portrays Huang's inner world and forsakes any external realm. Larger scale works such as ‘World’s Edge’ and ‘Mirror Sight Overlap’ show a progression of metaphors of traditional landscape while suggesting a new definition of the genre. The drifting scenery, homes and creatures seem to be floating away to the world's edge, while ink wash in Huang's work embodies the feeling of painting in mixed media on rice paper.

Japanese artist Kuchima Maki brings varied perspectives on ink painting with her use of diverse techniques, materials and cultural motifs. In the same vein as most of her work, ‘Study’ features densely patterned landscapes created with elements of Chinese paper-cutting and traditional Japanese prints. The composition and its greyish, earthy tone carry a distinctly contemporary expression; the landscape appears fiery in its strange symmetry, as if it was transcending its own boundaries. Her 'Landscape' series, painted on aluminum foil on silk, is another display of muted transgression. The scenery she depicts seems almost conventional at the first glance, but the landscapes waver between contemplative and playful—they are imaginary lands, fantastical realms where the artist communicates her feelings about society and traditions.

Li Pang captures this play between the classical and its contemporary guise perfectly in his 'Before Me' series. The two paintings narrate the artist's journey—drifting on a boat, flowing through time under the pale moon—in traditional landscape ink painting. The imagery alludes to the transition of time and traditions, and the artist's personal response to the changing art form. 

The Lost Homeland

(Hong Kong Gallery Guide  Dec/Jan 2010)

The image of China recedes at an accelerating pace in the works of the new generation of mainland artists. Old landscapes fade and blur into the illusion of prosperity; exiled souls go on a relentless search for their identities around the cities. Young Chinese painter Liu Weijian encapsulates this sense of loss in his compositions, which carry a profound sorrow that is far beyond his years.

Farewell My Country is a somewhat limited though thoughtful retrospective on Liu’s works, as it features some of his lesser-known paintings since 2003. Liu’s paintings are often visual narratives in which the protagonists are unseen or anonymous figures, while their despair is revealed with a quietly cinematic touch. In the stand-out piece of the show, ‘Dusk’, the misty blue world carries an ambivalent longing for respite. Yet the blue sky of varying shades and brightness only highlights the factory as the emotional focus in the picture, a world in which the day’s end promises more dreariness to come. Such contrast between hope and pain adds a subtle irony to Liu’s paintings like ‘Ideal in the garden’. The faceless statues feel like an absurd surprise against the dark backdrop, and the ideal they represent wear off like a disappointment.

Liu’s paintings from his earlier years present a more visceral side to his expression. The paintings play with the conflict between the inside and the outside: images of abandoned homes stand in the snow or at the end of the landscapes, with traces of passers-by who have left the places forever. These paintings speak of nostaglia and solitude, as much as the impossibility of connection. In ‘Late autumn’, human figures appear in deliberately odd and random relations to one another, and their presence accentuates rather than fills the void. In Liu’s world, the light shines on a painful reality and his feelings for a homeland that is fading away--once he has left a dwelling, a locale or a city, it changes and becomes an image from the past, an unreal entity.

In the same vein as other post-80’s Chinese artists, Liu delivers a personal, emotive take on the social issues phenomena in mainland China today. While Liu forsakes the abstract treatment that is popular among his contemporaries, his works strike an intriguing balance between realism and an intense subjectivism. His ‘comic books’--works on sketch books--are a remarkable example. ‘Two stories’ depict the monotonous lives of factory workers who migrate to the city from their hometowns. The drawings of these faceless characters spell imbalance and desperation--they have no way out of the nightmarish universes that stem from the artist’s vision. The sense of pressure, of a surreal existence gives poignancy to Liu’s interpretation of the subject, since it brings the audience very close to his feelings.

Farewell My Country gives some scattered and unsettling glimpses into a country that eludes the grip of her people, and Liu’s works are at times disturbing for their mix of cold and dark colors and melancholy subjects. ‘Crow’s moving castle (part)’, an installation of painting on boxes, may seem like a surprise amid the paintings of gloom and anonymity. The cardboard boxes--ones used for containing bottled mineral water--give a false sense of movement, yet the images speak sorrow and despair. The recycle signs interfere with images of anguished characters, demolished realms, ruined nature and crows flying like messengers of death around a lighthouse with a Chinese flag. For the receptive audience, Liu’s debut solo exhibition in Hong Kong may feel like a brief preview, but it is certainly a good introduction to the artist’s repertoire and sensibility.