When the Interest of Scholars Is Turned into Contemporary Temperament
In the first 8 years of the 21th century, new art in China is striding towards internalization. In other words, it is being admired and accepted by increasing audience as well as institutions both at home and abroad in an unprecedented scale, degree and scope. Modern artistic forms and materials, such as oil paintings, photography, sculptures, performance art, devices, videos and digital works, have predominated the so-called contemporary Chinese art, while the traditional media and methods such as ink and wash painting and calligraphy are usually ignored. Then people cannot help asking: cannot traditional media be applied to contemporary art? There is also a relevant question: among the artists dealing with traditional artistic media, are there anyone who are exploring the contemporary art? Of course the answer is “yes”. The exhibition has introduced more than 10 young artists who are researching and exploring the transformation of ink and wash painting from its traditional form to the contemporary shape. Having knocked down the barrier in the techniques and ideas of ink and wash painting with their works and inherited the oriental traditional aesthetic essence, they are developing contemporary art in different ways which have enriched the practice of contemporary Chinese art and provided it with diversity and academic depth. Such exploration rooting in its own oriental culture has offered successful cases to the development of contemporary Chinese visual culture. While showing its vitality, it may help with the creation of new contemporary works accepted and appreciated by artistic authority and audience both at home and abroad.
“Water/Color”, the title of the exhibition, has following meanings. At first, the image of “water” symbolizes key aspects of the traditional Chinese aesthetics. For example, we can find such proverbs such as “The highest good is like that of water” and “The virtuous love mountains while the wise like water” in Chinese classics. Besides, the symbolization of water is still influencing our thought and aesthetic tendency. Water symbolizes mobility, adaptability as well as containment. Places with water are full of vigor and vitality while where lack of water will become deserts and wastelands. “Water is glittering in sunny days, and the misty mountains appears fancy in the rain” - the personated description of “water” shows the traditional oriental aesthetic philosophy and sensory experience. Moreover, the key of ink and wash painting lies in how well the painter can handle water, and ink is merely used to add color. The saying “ink has multi-level colors” just emphasizes the trace, interest and aesthetic experience resulting from water. The western painters use oil to mix colors, while in the eastern painting the ink or paint is toned with water. Besides, the reason for adopting absorbent rice paper is to fully show the subtle sense and aesthetic interest brought by water trace, for which we have the saying “interest and taste are brought by the brush and ink”. To make the artistic narration contemporary is to master the sensibility of water and convey its spiritual meaning. Therefore, regarding to the use of medium materials, the core values of ink and wash paintings are different sensory experiences and the expression of aesthetic sensibility towards water. This can also explain why the skill of using ink is not the single and ultimate standard for ink and wash paintings. The character “se”, which means “color”, holds a wealth of meaning in Chinese, and it refers to “social reality” and “scenery” in this exhibition; of course here it also implies “sex” and “beauty” to some degree. Therefore, what the exhibition “Water/Color” emphasizes is to focus on the real life with traditional Chinese aesthetic angle of view towards water and discover the possibility of creating contemporary artistic visual scenery with traditional media and concepts.
Shapeless, colorless, tasteless and seamless, water can fully reflect the traditional aesthetic standard of “The most beautiful scenes do not have fixed forms, and the greatest music cannot be enjoyed with ears.” Such aesthetic sensibility towards water can be reflected in many exploring practices targeting at ink and wash art, regardless of the materials, methods and artistic ideas such practice and exploration is finished with. The traditional Chinese aesthetics rather values sensibility and intuition, and association, comparison, meaning transferring as well as metaphor are important rhetoric methods. The feeling towards “water” can lead to various associations. For example, water symbolizes “pureness” and so can be compared to friendship, such as that in the proverb “Two gentlemen appears indifferent to each other but their friendship is as pure as water”; it is also likened to the lingering and endless love as well as yearning between lovers, such as that in “Night after night I miss you, but what I see is only the water in the Yangtze River”; when used to describe kindness, it makes people feel its intenseness and deepness, such as that in “The water of Peach Blossom Pond is a thousand feet deep, but Wang Lun’s kindness is much deeper than that”. Besides, water can also be used to express one’s melancholy and disappointment, for example, “If you ask me how sad I am, just see the water in the river flowing east in spring.” Just like traditional literati paintings often use the plum, orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum and pine to symbolize lofty characters such as faithfulness, elegance, modesty, nobleness and toughness, water in such painting tradition also has profound meaning which is broader and more common and can even rise to the level of aesthetics and world outlook. For example, in Yin-Yang and Five Elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth) of Taosim, “water” is just in the middle. Water plays an important role in the traditional heritage of Chinese visual art, too: it has become significant object of artistic expression and experience. Paintings portraying natural environment and scenery are called “landscapes” in the west, while Chinese call them “Shan shui paintings” (mountain-and-river paintings). Having always been in the dominating position, such paintings have influenced the surrounding countries such as North Korea and Japan. It is widely believed by the artistic experts in China that the mountain-and-water painting is the kind of ink-and-wash painting that has attained the highest artistic achievement because it has reflected the character and interest of the ancient intellectuals. The literati’s interest has become more popular, commercialized, and sometimes even vulgar in the past century, while that growing out of ink and wash painting does not undergo great change.
The idea about materials and media is an important clue for the development and criticism of international contemporary art. For the materials and media, once their instrumental features are transformed into autonomy, they will acquire their own property of culture and value, by respecting which the artists can produce values and significances of contemporary art through selecting and using the materials in a given contemporary cultural context. Therefore the abstract and conceptual art are vitally and directly related with the artist’s understanding as well as perception towards materials and media, for which the narrative function of artistic works faded while the individual creativity of the artist is released on the international stage. In the contemporary Chinese art pedigree that is recognized by artistic authority at home and abroad, few Chinese artists have researched modern materials and media deeply and carefully. Rather, the artists’ energy and intellect have been distributed to symbols, schemas and stories -- the narrative and literary functions - about ancient China and the Cultural Revolution. Therefore the criticalness of contemporary Chinese art is always superior to its exploration and refinement towards cultural tradition. Insensitive to modern industrial and technical materials as well as media, the art mainly highlights the traditional oil or ink-and-wash painting skills and emotional catharsis. Of course, the sociopolitical tendency of contemporary Chinese art has its own realistic necessity, because among all social relations in the current society of China, the political power is always dominating. Battles and contradictions between different social classes and political forces have endowed the society with complex appearance, and it is understandable and acceptable that some artists are keen to describe such complexity. However, if the visual art in China is dominated by such works, then it will be disappointing and never go in line with the international art.
The universal principle that contemporary art should be diversified also requires the diversification of contemporary Chinese art. Although the current artistic practice cannot completely get rid of its narrative tendency, it has more room for exploring and transforming the media and materials. In such art, water, ink, rice paper as well as mineral paints remains the basic elements, and we still use the brushes and ink; however, the interest produced by “brush and ink” has been diluted and defused. Even the traditional ink-brushes are being replaced with western brushes, pencils, air brushes, oil pastels and food, and the ink has been substituted by acrylic and oil paints. Among all these elements, water, which possesses both the traditional meaning of aesthetic sensibility and contemporary universality, is hard to be replaced by other new materials and techniques. At the same time, few foreign artists use water in their works or have aesthetic experience towards it. Therefore, from the perspective of material concepts in contemporary artistic practice, contemporary Chinese artists have unique potential in the refining the aesthetic sensibility of water, and their practice may provide contemporary international art with fresh cases for criticism and study.
How the contemporariness of “water” is shown in the artists’ creation? Obviously, natural water has composed an important component of the physical world. However, water in contemporary industrial-and-commercial society is not merely the “water” in the natural world but the processed or used material as well as hierarchical product such as purified water, mineral water, distilled water, sanitary sewage and industrial sewage. In real life, the worsening water pollution has badly affected people’s living quality, and the shortage of water has resulted in anxiety and conflict. Therefore, the water today is no longer that in a perfect Arcadia, or what surrounds the green mountains and can bring romantic moods, but the source material used for industrial development and living consumption. The young artists who immersed themselves in ink and wash art has a complex feeling towards water: on the one hand, they can enjoy the delicate use and meaningful expression of water in traditional art; on the other hand, they, in their lives, are facing various problems and conflicts concerning water. Therefore, a lot of young artists unwilling to be tied to traditional forms of ink and wash paintings are rebelling the complacency and conservativeness of traditional art while attempting to understand and digest the essence of such art in terms of aesthetics and techniques, because only such rebelling is powerful and constructive. Indeed, the practice of extracting “water” from ink and wash paintings and making it independent from the ink can somehow help us rectify this kind of art radically and be associated with the material concept of contemporary art. It is not necessary for the contemporary value of the works to be attached to the traditional concept and aesthetic taste of ink and wash painting; on the contrary, it needs revision and refinement. Thus the ink and wash art can gain liberation and more freedom in the realm of contemporary culture.
In the existing artistic field of ink and wash painting, both the academic authority and traditional concept have overemphasized the literati ink-and-wash paintings with drawing techniques as its core, while the meticulous heavy color paintings, which are more popular and easier to resonate with common audience, have been ignored. The latter stick to strict technical process and requirement, which is despised by the literati paintings that hold “Painting carelessly and not seeking similarity in the appearance” as their principle. However, it is the grand court meticulous paintings as well as bright and colorful folk meticulous paintings that have composed the foundation of traditional Chinese art. Since modern and contemporary artistic theorists, who are dismissive of the “artificial features” of works, have strong aesthetic interest as traditional literati, the spiritual heritage of meticulous paintings has always lacked systematic collation and in-depth academic research. There are many preceding artists who create with meticulous painting skills, but few of them, except for Li Shaowen, He Jiaying and several others, have been widely recognized. Fortunately, a group of young artists taking artistic exploration by painting with meticulous delineation and heavy colors are budding in the field of contemporary art during recent over 10 years, such as Zhu Wei, Lv Peng, Xu Xianglin, He Jian and Xu Hualing. With distinct personality and maturity, their artistic practice has been gradually recognized; all of them have shown their unique talent for art.
After many years of artistic practice and theoretical conflict between tradition and modern, the west and the east, as well as the national and the international, young artists have realized their cultural dilemma and opportunity soberly. Inspecting the cultural tradition of their nation from contemporary cultural perspective, they are still diligently exploring the possibility of depicting modern life with traditional meticulous figure painting and religious painting languages. After a long period of artistic practice and consideration, they have found their personal artistic sensibility and created their own realm with the artistic language of meticulous paintings. We can say that Zhu Wei, who have made outstanding achievement in the fields of ink and wash paintings, woodcuts and sculptures, is the first artist to introduce meticulous painting techniques into contemporary Chinese art. Especially, when numerous Chinese emerging artists were creating “political pop” and “satire-realistic” works with oil painting techniques 15 years ago, he began to explore the possibility of expressing the political life in contemporary China with traditional meticulous paintings and finished his representative works “The Utopia Series”. As an artist born and growing up in a military family in Beijing in the 1960s, he showed his reflection on the humanity of people in the political torrent. Al though his works have been greatly distant from traditional meticulous ink-and-wash paintings, the techniques he used, such as color selection, outlining and blending, have remained their basic features. The contrast between the traditional language of his works and the view of contemporary political life has endowed the paintings with irresistible attraction.
Lv Peng has long experience in ink and wash paintings, so he can utilize the techniques of freehand painting and meticulous ink-and-wash painting easily to shift between them or combine them freely. His works have integrated the fragments of Chinese culture in ancient times and real life with various symbols of “revolution” and “desire”. The pictures produced in this way seem complex and bulky, but they have shown the essence of the corrupted contemporary Chinese culture and people’s spiritual dilemma. Full of mobility and uncertainty, Lv’s paintings show a kind of confusing sub-consciousness that can extend freely, which is closely associated with the philosophical meaning of “water” upheld by traditional Chinese culture.
Xu Xianglin has practiced performance art and conceptual art. Later he created such works as “Taihu Rock” and “False Need” that shows the naked relation among desire, power and money with vivid images and direct artistic language by condensing his living and artistic experience on rice paper. Xu’s new works are made with multiple materials, including clipart, sketch, hard-pen drawing and line drawing, and composed of fragmental feelings towards the real life or the visual memory about time progress: all are about feeling blank and lost. He Jian is keen on ancient wall paintings in China, because the succinct design, accurate and recapitulative lines, variegated color as well as the coarse texture appear so distant and meaningful. However, he has selected contemporary urban life, such as the family, lovers, parties and boating, as the theme of his works that seem to have compressed the vivid real life into an ancient flat world. Lines, the modeling factor, play an important role and appear dignified, firm and expressive in his works. The visual experience brought by the dynamic curves and mottled pictures is far different from that produced by delicate and refined meticulous paintings. Oppositely, Xu Hualing’s works done on silks mainly depict young women in an exquisite and delicate way. The figures’ skin, faces, facial features as well as limbs are all personalized, wonderfully depicting the girls who are as gentle and pure as water. Aesthetic as the works appear, they can still reflect the artist’s personal experience towards life and time. She has achieved the ideal visual effect by blending water and colors repeatedly, so the lines are almost invisible in her paintings.
Room for artists to innovate is limited because of technical requirements of traditional meticulous painting and the texture of the materials to be used. However, the precision of meticulous paintings can make up the shortage of freehand ink-and-wash paintings. Seeking out subjects they interested in according to the features of the materials, the artists have created their own artistic languages and techniques after a great deal of research and practices, proving that it is possible for such an old painting technique as meticulous painting to be made contemporary. Traditional Chinese ink and wash paintings as well as their aesthetic connotation are a rich and profound treasure of art. Hundreds of years of development and exploration by masters of art in different period of the past century have provided contemporary artists with important reference for their mission today. In the field of contemporary ink and wash painting, a lot of artists are striving for the development and renovation of traditional Chinese paintings and ink and wash paintings, leaving rich heritage in the history of contemporary Chinese art with their achievement and talent. The contemporary figure paintings by Liu Qinghe, Li Jin and Li Xiaoxuan has not only inherited the essence of traditional freehand figure paintings but also expressed their subtle and rich experience as well as realistic concern towards the modern society.
Li Huasheng, the only artist senior in age attending the exhibition, was a literati painter of high attainments in freehand landscapes. The travel to America 20 years ago made him realize how the ink and wash art, which he was proud of and good at, was incompatible with modern society, and after that the trajectory of his artistic has changed. He began to explore ink and wash paintings with contemporary features. During recent over 10 years, he has almost given up the styles and images he adopted before entirely, and what are left are only lines drawn with the middle part of the brush as well as continuous or fitful mesh lines. In this way his works have been transformed into abstract paintings. Li Huasheng has endowed his works with international, oriental and personal artistic characteristics through integrating water, ink and lines to get rid of the traditional form and established ideas of ink and wash painting from the aesthetic perspective. With masterful skills and high capacity, he has created a brand-new artistic style and become a significant artist worth in-depth research. In the early 1990s, Jerome Silbergeld wrote an academic monograph on this painter -- Contradictions: Artistic Life, the Socialist State, and the Chinese Painter Li Huasheng. What Li has accomplished during these over 10 years deserves another research work composed by serious scholars.
Peng Wei, who was born in a traditional ink and wash painter’s family, has profound and unique understanding as well as feeling towards ink and wash paintings. At the same time, observing and experiencing the fad of modern commercial society in her personal way, she prefers contemporary artistic language very much. Moved from a flat world to a three-dimension space, she is exploring her own artistic realm among ink and wash paintings, sculptures, colored drawings and female fashion. The “Models” series, her new work, has reflected her spirit of exploration. The life-size models made of paper pulp are similar to traditional western sculptures such as busts, trunks and lower limbs, and the patterns such as butterflies, bees and flies drew in a realistic way on the sexy parts like breast, thigh, buttock and back show female consciousness and feeling with a sense of touching ambiguously and euphemistically. We can say that they are female arts that have subtly integrated commercial culture, traditional literati paintings, western classical sculptures and contemporary erotic culture. It is rather rare that an artist in her age can achieve so high traditional cultivation and feel and master ink and wash paintings so exactly. However, not complacent with her present achievement, she continues to explore new depicting methods and materials to express the social and mental content she interested in with contemporary artistic language, and the features and aesthetic experience of ink and wash paintings are still reserved. Compared with other artists’ works displayed in the exhibition, Lei Ziren’s paintings seem relatively traditional and conservative. The main reason for that is he has retained some features of traditional literati paintings, such as large white space, poems, Chinese seals and calligraphy in his works. We can say that Lei Ziren is a typical contemporary literati painter, because his paintings have precisely expressed his understanding about the tradition of literati paintings and true feelings towards modern life with unique artistic techniques. The pictures have fully reflected the living ideal and aesthetic taste of traditional literati which widely exist with more naked appearance in real social life. Water is well depicted in his works: the exquisite lines as well as the scene of fishing by a lake or bathing in room are all full of water-like lasting appeal. When enjoying his paintings, we can feel the profound meaning implied by literati paintings and the throbs of modern people’s inner world.
Among other exhibited works, Wei Qingji’s paintings are full of ideality that results from both his transformation of traditional ink and wash painting techniques as well as the integration of minimalism and cartoon images. Symbols, which generally appear humorous in his works, are occasionally used for indication rather than narration. In most cases the painter only utilizes water and ink, and colors are rarely adopted. Ink and water are distinctly separated on the pictures: the former is dense while the latter is mild. Geometric figures painted with thick ink set a sedate tone for the painting, while the light and identifiable visual elements are full of vigor and vitality; they have brought musicality to his works.
During the past over 20 years, Zhang Yu has always been devoted to the research, experiment and promotion of experimental ink and wash paintings and organized many times of exhibitions and publications on experimental ink and wash paintings. Besides, as an active practitioner of the art, he has dealt with new literati paintings, experimental ink and wash paintings as well as multiple-material art successively. His works always reflect strong idea of reason and mental implication. This time he displayed his “Finger-ink Series”. “Finger-ink”, i.e. drawing with fingers instead of brush, is an ancient ink and wash painting technique. As a kind of ink and wash painting for amusement, it is technically demanding but with low artistic quality. However, Zhang Yu has simplified and conceptualized such paintings: the only things left in the paintings are his numerous fingerprints that compose some limitless and simple pictures without any idea.
As a prolific artist, Hu Youben has attempted to deconstruct the form of traditional ink and wash paintings in various ways, including many extreme methods such as making huge sculpture with crumpled-up rice paper and creating traditional landscapes on wavy paperboards. Although the traditional materials such as rice paper, ink, paint and water are still used, he has deliberately dismantled and recombined them. Such method is somewhat metaphorical in contemporary China, and when facing his huge comprehensive works, audience and critics are hard to view them from any traditional angle. Hu is both destroying and challenging the traditional ink and wash paintings.
Li Tingting is a young artist who depicts the items closely related with human bodies, such as shirts, shoes, skirts, fruits and other foods, with ink and wash paintings. All these articles for daily use appear graceful and dignified in the paintings because of the materials selected by her. The proper representation of the industrial design products in the works shows her pursuit for design aesthetics. The combination of such pursuit and the traditional aesthetic experience brought by water composes a unique artistic style. It is estimable of the young painter to find her artistic feeling between ink and wash paintings and fashion design, and the practice has carved out a way for the development of her artistic career. She still has a long way to go.
Some young artists are not satisfied with adopting traditional rice paper, ink brush, literati ink and wash painting technique and calligraphy, so they graft performance art, devices, pictures, sculptures, videos and computer edit with ink and wash language as well as its aesthetic quality. Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Wang Tiande, Zhang Jianjun, Dai Guangyu and others have explored the subject actively and effectively. Besides Peng Wei’s ink and wash devices mentioned above, Li Geye’s devices and Lu Jun’s photography works have also been displayed at the exhibition. Li Geye’s representative works mainly depict men and/or women in water or rain with her unique ink and wash technique. Moreover, she has gradually developed the subject into devices and video works. By making use of modern image technology to produce innovative visual effect, she also combines paintings and videos in some of her works. Li tries to accomplish her artistic exploration through renewing and refining traditional artistic techniques and materials from which the new aesthetic quality is released step by step.
Lu Jun has always been a photographer, but he is fairly interested in traditional ink and wash painting. However, he is not contented with its form that always follows the set routines. In his artistic practice he has discovered the fantastic way in which ink disperses in water: it spreads slowly, forming an illusory image that changes erratically and at last fades away gradually. He found that this is the wonderful vein of water. Lu photographs various shapes of ink dispersing in water and processes the photos with the computer to create landscapes with vivid imagery. Such pictures are different from traditional ink and wash paintings in their texture: they have formed a dreamy metallic world created with digital technology.
Calligraphy is a kind of art sharing the common origin with traditional Chinese paintings, and its history has lasted for about 4,000 years, during which it has become a treasure of art. In the artistic exploration during the over 30 years, a lot of artists have tried to make traditional calligraphy contemporary in terms of artistic techniques and aesthetics. These artists, including Wang Xuezhong, Wang Naizhuang, Gu Gan, Wei Baorong, Wei Ligang and Zhang Dawo, have formed “Modern Calligraphy” School. Referencing the aesthetic experience about calligraphy, they attempt to refresh people’s prejudice against this kind of art. While learning from the methodology of western modern abstract art, they are creating the contemporary abstract art belonging to China.
Wei Ligang, the backbone of these artists, has dealt with traditional calligraphy, modern calligraphy and modern art successively. With a profound understanding about the cultural essence of traditional Chinese calligraphy, he attempts to carve out a way through the rich soil of calligraphy art. After his educational travel to New York in 2005, he has got personal understanding towards the relation between contemporary art and the development of contemporary Chinese art, and consequently his works has undergone deep change. By combining the structure and aesthetic philosophy of calligraphy organically and interacting with western abstract art constructively, he is creating visual images, which are full of sensibility to contemporary time, of ink-and-wash paintings and calligraphy. Wei’s works have completely abandoned characters in traditional calligraphy works. Instead, he borrows expressive lines and strokes from the structure and vivid presentation of handwritings, recombines them and finally produces a brand-new artistic form. The works of above artists are outstanding achievements made by the modern Chinese calligraphy circle for national as well as international contemporary art.
The artists selected to attend the exhibition share a common feature: they have all accepted the concept but not form of contemporary western art effectively and selectively. Having studied their traditional artistic language as well as aesthetic philosophy deeply and carefully for many years, they have formed unique and proper understanding towards the ethos of traditional Chinese art and gradually found their own methods during artistic practice and exploration. Their creations have shown their ability to communicate with international community to some degree, which is considered as an important quality for contemporary art. Meanwhile, they are all keenly concentrating on and sensitive to modern society and bearing on shoulders the mission of passing on and developing Chinese culture and art.
Recently, some promoters of new ink and wash paintings relate cities with this kind of art. It seems that they have found the last way to interpret and describe ink and wash paintings. Undoubtedly, associating the massive urbanization China is undergoing with ink and wash painting is a positive endeavor to release creativity of such paintings. However, we should also see that urbanization is not only the real background for artistic creation but also the spiritual home of western modernist art. The so-called ink and paintings in terms of “mental imagery of cities” are based on traditional realistic stance, and their depiction of urban people’s mentality usually mirrors the aesthetic quality of expressionism and symbolism. Such understanding is helpful for transforming traditional Chinese paintings into contemporary ink and wash paintings, but useless for ink and washes paintings to enter the aesthetic domain of contemporary international art. In the early years of the last century, two schools of artists grew out from those returning home from their study of art in the West: one was led by Xu Beihong and the other was represented by Lin Fengmian. The former reformed ink and wash paintings with western classical realism and formed the basic pattern of “Chinese paintings” now; this kind of method was closely related with political demands, so it established the foundation for the ideological national art. While the latter integrated traditional Chinese paintings with contemporary western art elements such as brutalism, cubism and expressionism, by which the old oriental art had been well cultivated with the most advanced achievements of the western culture.
It seems that such artistic practices are more inclusive and pure. Wu Guanzhong, one of Lin Fengmian’s students, has gone even further based on the aesthetic exploration of his teacher and become an unbeatable artist among his contemporaries. Of course, Li Fengmian was ahead of his time with respect to the condition of Chinese art then, for which his art was an “ivory tower” that had not been widely accepted. The main reasons for that are two: on the one hand, he had undergone a lot of political disasters; on the other hand, modern urban culture in China was still in the embryonic stage then. Today, if we merely take urban life as the background and object of ink and wash depiction, then the significance of Lin Fengmian’s artistic exploration will be ignored. Obviously, it is an up-to-date endeavor to examine urban ink and wash paintings against the background of urbanization, but the practice has carelessly fallen into the trap of western modernist art rather than integrating with modern culture, which is seemingly following Xu Beihong’s suit.
Contemporary Chinese art has been dominated by the taste and interpretation of western art institutions and authority, which is unlike to change for quite a long time. The tradition of Chinese visual culture they are not familiar with has been ignored intentionally or unintentionally, and their preference for Chinese stories, symbols, patterns and collective experience has brought some negative effects to contemporary Chinese art which are multiplied in the foam of art market. Moreover, the lack of works rich in cultural implication has always been a serious problem for contemporary Chinese art. As the world comes to know better about China, the value and significance of contemporary Chinese art rooting in the deep foundation of traditional culture is being recognized and accepted by more and more experts as well as elite collectors.
When I was studying art in my childhood, I, who had no condition or opportunity to contact with art, showed special interest in traditional ink and wash paintings and calligraphy (thanks to the peculiar environment I also met some masters of traditional art such as Qi Gong and Zhao Puchu). Later I began to study modern and contemporary western art as most of young artists, but the experience of learning traditional ink and wash paintings, as an aesthetic quality, has greatly influenced my judgment towards aesthetic value. When I studied in New York, I became an intern in Asia Society Museum and participated in a project titled “Inside/Out: New Chinese Art”, an exhibition with Gao Minglu as the guest curator. During the curation, Gao planned to display the works of some avant-garde ink and wash painters such as Wang Tiande, Zhang Yu and Yan Binghui. Then the co-curator, a westerner who was uncertain about contemporary Chinese ink and wash painting, asked for my opinion about it. I discussed with her the potential and possibility of ink and wash painting to participate in contemporary artistic practice, and she thought that my idea made sense but the real status of this kind of art was not persuasive enough. However, at last they admitted the works of above painters, including Wang Tiande’s “Ink-and wash Menu” and Zhang Yu’s “Miraculous Brightness”, into the exhibition. Since my return home over 10 years ago, I have seen more and more talented ink and wash painters showing themselves on the stage of Chinese art, having led to the attention as well as theoretical discussion of the art circle. To a considerable degree, a lot of artists’ practices have met my expectation for the transformation of traditional ink and wash art to contemporary art. We can say the exhibition is an achievement made by the curator after long-term observation, analysis as well as tracking study towards the artists.
Having seen symbols of the Culture Revolution, Socialist patterns and the narrative illustration of modern desire, contemporary Chinese art is calling for the contemporary artistic practice representing the profound Chinese culture, which reflects that this kind of art is entering a new stage. In recent one or two years, contemporary ink and wash art has appeared on the stage of Chinese art in different exhibiting forms, but such panoramic exhibitions are usually short for aesthetic standards as well as value judgment and held for artistic colleagues, or are even small art fairs with works of mixed quality and without in-depth academic study or analysis towards individual cases. Trying to study some valuable ink and wash works from the aspects of the communicability of contemporary art and the thinking mode as well as the innovation in artistic expression of traditional ink and art painting, this exhibition can be considered as an experiment. The entrance of ink and wash art into modern visual art cannot be accomplished instantaneously -- it is only the start of a long journey that is without predetermined destination or existing shortcut and does not need immutable ideas and methods. Just like the water of Yangtze River would be accepted and integrated by the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, ink and wash paintings will become a new kind of art that need our understanding for a wider angle of view after entering the contemporary art realm.
The article was firstly published in the picture album Contemporary Chinese Ink and Wash Exhibition: Water/Color, Page 1, Today Art Museum, 2009.
Zhang Zhaohui was born in Hebei in 1965 and grew up in Beijing. He got Bachelor’s degree in Nankai University of Tianjin in 1988 and Master’s degree in Fine Art from Chinese National Academy of Arts, Beijing in 1995 with Shui Tianzhong as his tutor. In 1998, he received his Master’s degree in Artistic Curation from Bard College in New York. From 1998 to 2002, he was devoted to art theory studies in National Art Museum of China in Beijing, and between 1999 and 2000, he served as Director of Curation Department of He Xiangning Art Musuem in Shenzhen. In 2002 he founded the Xray Art Center in Beijing and became its first Chief Director. Now Zhang is studying for his Doctor’s degree under the guidance of Professor Pan Gongkai, Head of Central Academy of Fine Art. He is also a researcher of Asia Art Archive Center, Hong Kong. The exhibitions he has curated include: “Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Xu Bing & Cai Guo-qiang” (1998, New York), “Setting off from China” (1999, Beijing), “Art Feast” (2000, Beijing), “Gravity Garden” (2000, Shenzhen), “○℃ Plan” (2001, Beijing), “Mask and Face”(2002,Beijing), “New Urbanism” (2002, Guangzhou), “The Produced Happiness”(2003, Beijing), “Life in the Electronic City ”(2003, Toronto), “Contemporary Asian Art”(2003, Seoul), “Bare Androgyny” (2003, Beijing), “Lively Color Brings forth Fragrance: New Life in the Metropolis”(opening ceremony for the Jianwai SOHO District in CBD of Beijing, 2003). Among them, “New Urbanism” was elected the most popular exhibition in 2002 by QianLong.com and Cl2000.com. Besides, he has also published a lot of articles on art in important Chinese art journals, such as Jiangsu Art Monthly, Art China, Modern Art, Avant-garde Today, Reading and National Art Museum, and English-language magazines such as Art Asia Pacific and Asia Art News. His publications include Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Western Art and Sexual Culture, Culture and Morality, Technical Art and New Ideas in Present Times.
在21世纪初的八年中，中国新艺术正朝向国际化的方向大步迈进，也就是说被越来越多的国内和国际观众与机构所欣赏和接纳，其面积之大，程度之深和范围之广，都是前所未有的。而所谓的中国当代艺术主要以油画、摄影、雕塑、行为艺术、装置、视频和数码等形式和材料为主，中国的传统艺术媒介和手法，例如水墨宣纸/书法等，则往往被忽略。人们不禁要问，难道传统媒介就不能做当代艺术吗? 相关的问题是，从事传统艺术媒介为手段的艺术家中有没有进行当代艺术探索的呢？当然，答案是肯定的。这个展览介绍了十多位从事水墨艺术从传统形态向当代形态转化的研究与探索的年轻艺术家。他们以各自的艺术成果，突破了前人关于水墨画在技术与观念上的藩篱，在继承东方传统审美精髓的基础之上，正在发展出各自不同的当代艺术图景，从而丰富和充实了中国当代艺术实践的多样性与学术深度。这种拥有各自东方文化根性的当代艺术探索为中国当代视觉文化的发展提供了有成效的案例，也正在呈现出富有生机的当代艺术景观， 并有可能演变出为国内外当代艺术权威与观众所接纳和欣赏的新的当代艺术品类。
参加这个展览的唯一的年长艺术家是李华生。他曾经是对写意山水画非常有造诣的水墨文人画家。二十年前的美国之行完全改变了他的艺术轨迹，使他意识到自己曾经非常自豪而高深的水墨画艺术在当代社会环境中是多么格格不入，他开始摸索具有当代感觉的水墨画。最近十多年来，他几乎完全放弃了原来的水墨画，而只保留了中锋用笔的勾线，形象也完全消失，只剩下格子状的连续或者断断续续的网状线条，从而蜕变成完全的抽象绘画。李华生的艺术则通过对水/墨/线条/的整合探索了兼有国际性，东方性和个人性的艺术面貌，从而在审美的层面脱离了水墨画的传统格式与固有观念，他以深厚的水墨画功底和素养，发展出崭新的艺术面貌，从而成为一个可以进行深入研究的重要艺术家。九十年代初，美国学者谢伯轲（JEROME SILBERGELD）曾经撰写了研究李华生的学术专著《矛盾：中国画家李华生的艺术生活与社会主义国家》（CONTRADICTIONS：ARTISTIC LIFE， THE SOCIALIST STATE，AND THE CHINESE PAINTER LI HUASHENG），而李华生最近十多年的新探索值得学者们再完成一部严肃的研究著作。
在少儿时代学习美术时，我曾经对传统的水墨书画情有独钟（因为特殊的环境也接触到一批包括启功和赵朴初等一代传统艺术宗师），也与当时没有条件和机会接触到西方艺术有关。虽然后来象大多数艺术青年一样，走上了学习西方现当代艺术道路，但儿时学习传统水墨书画艺术的经历作为一个审美素养积淀在自己的审美价值判断中。1996年，我在纽约留学时在亚洲协会美术馆做实习生，参与的项目是由高名潞客座策展的“INSIDE/OUT：NEW CHINESE ART”。在策展过程中，高名潞要将王天德、张羽、阎秉会等几位前卫水墨艺术家纳入展览。当时西方的合作策展人对中国的现代水墨感到不确定，问我对中国水墨的看法，我向她谈了水墨作为艺术资源与遗产参与到当代艺术实践中的潜力与可能性，她认为我说的理论有道理，但目前的艺术实践还欠说服力。但最终她们还是在展览中接纳了这些艺术家的水墨作品，包括王天德的〈水墨采单〉，张羽的〈灵光〉等作品。回国十多年来，中国艺术舞台上有越来越多的水墨艺术家脱颖而出，引起艺术界的关注和理论上的探讨，很多艺术家的实践在相当的程度上符合了我对传统水墨艺术向当代艺术转变的种种期待。这个展览可以说是策展人经过长时间地观察、分析、跟踪研究艺术家的结果。