Inked up

Back by Cai Guangbin Photo: Courtesy of G. Dot Art Space

Three Chinese artists currently based in Beijing want to bring Chinese ink painting back into contemporary Chinese art. By using inks traditionally applied in Chinese landscapes dating back to the Tang dynasty (618-907), they aim to preserve the cultural significance of ink in contemporary Chinese art while forging ahead with pieces inspired more by Pop Art and Surrealism from the West.

The ink-focused trio of Nan Qi, Cai Guangbin and Zhang Quan will present their works in the exhibit In Retrospect, which runs March 30 through April 28 at the G. Dot Art Space on Central Gallery Street in the Songzhuang Art District in Tongzhou district.

Nan, Zhang and Cai treat Chinese ink as their essential medium, but don't use the techniques normally associated with it. Chinese ink paintings traditionally present the essence of an object using brush strokes to capture the object's metaphysical properties. In Retrospect, however, shows work based on modern photographic images rather than interpretive brushwork. The exhibition's title suggests a call back to history, yet Chinese ink appears to form only the surface of what seems more a tribute to Western art of the 20th century.
Featured prints from Nan, 53, from Zhejiang Province, depict the People's Liberation Army in a style reminiscent of Andy Warhol's icon portraits of Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities. Nan's print Bearing Arms in the Square applies Chinese ink to pigment similar to Roy Lichtenstein's comic illustrations.

Nan says his work takes after Western art movements, though he insists it is culturally authentic. He says his prints have their own "personalized artistic language," which he says forms much of the thinking behind contemporary Chinese ink painting.

"Chinese ink lies at the heart of the Chinese artistic spirit," he says. "[It's] perfectly natural to take influence from Western art of the last century." He says he and his peers featured in the exhibit have maintained tradition by working mostly with Chinese ink that's been ground and diluted using ink stick and ink stone.

Nan's use of Chinese ink is limited to variations on the color red. His application of red ink on photographic prints tends to produce faded, watered-down tones. But this shows a strong connection to traditional Chinese ink wash paintings that often revolve around repeated color schemes.

However, Cai, commenting on Nan's Bearing Arms in the Square, says this use of color more resembles Pop Art than Chinese ink painting.
"Nan uses bright and dazzling colors similar to Warhol, whereas Zhang and I tend to use more gray inks in our work. I think Nan's use of color is actually very close to Pop Art," says Cai, 50, originally from Heilongjiang Province. His paintings vividly show the forms of ghoulish figures curled up in dark, dank corners.

In Zhang's Bridge on the Yangtze River, an iron bridge traced in harsh gray ink floats between barely distinguishable sky and water, a landscape similar in eeriness to those of Max Ernst in his Surrealist period.

Of the three featured artists, Zhang comes closest to capturing the main ideas guiding Chinese ink painting. Zhang, 46, a Hubei Province native, uses mostly photographs which are later reproduced on grainy surfaces and colored with ink to achieve abstract images.
In Retrospect's artists share one common artistic goal. However, the exhibition will likely divide viewers over whether they ultimately achieve what they set out to. The attempt to merge two artistic traditions across a gulf of centuries and cultural distinctions is one that visibly represents a struggle in each artwork. But the size of that struggle overall may well be worth its weight in ink.