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Category: Ronin Gallery Catalog

Spirit Resonance: A New World of Chinese Ink Painting

Capturing the profound expression of an artist’s inner greatness, Spirit Resonance is a timeless concept in a shifting world. Tracing back to the 6th century scholar Xie He, this principle asserts that something ineffable is transmitted from artist to artwork in the act of creation. Ronin Gallery is pleased to present a curated selection of seven of the most exciting ink artists in China today. Working in a rapidly changing society, each artist plants his or her roots deep within the spiritual, material and expressive past of ink, color and paper. From the ethereal to the vibrant, these artists present a contemporary understanding of a timeless spirit.

A New World of Chinese Ink Painting

Spirit Resonance is a timeless concept in a rapidly shifting world. Its doctrine captures the profound expression of an artist’s true greatness through the power of creation. Driven by a newfound freedom of expression, today’s Chinese artists are flourishing as never before. And as the current market experiences a period of constant transformation, these innovations of the present draw on a rich artistic past.

Written in the 6th century, Xie He’s The Six Points to Consider When Judging a Painting remains essential to contemporary art in China. This foundational work emphasizes the physical aspects of painting as well as the intangible, and arguably most important, principle of Spirit Resonance: the understanding that something ineffable is transmitted from artist to artwork in the act of creation and that the use of brush, ink, and paper is best suited for this spiritual and expressive act. Ronin Gallery is pleased to present Spirit Resonance: A New World of Chinese Ink Painting, a curated selection of some of the most exciting ink artists working in China today. Each artist plants his or her roots deep within the spiritual, material and expressive past of ink, color and paper.

As implements of spiritual exchange, ink, color and paper engage in an intimate relationship with contemporary artistic forms and techniques. While the tradition of Western art is brimming with paintings on canvas, the tradition of Chinese painting has always relied on paper as the foundation of expression. Eastern paper differs from that of the West: rather than stiff wood pulp, both xuan and washi paper result from a combination of wood fibers, rice, and organic matter. The mixture of these materials makes the resultant paper incredibly absorbent and strong: an ideal surface for the expressive and nuanced stroke of a brush.

Imbued with classical concepts and turning to traditional materials, contemporary Chinese artists are looking into their rich history, even as they firmly position their work in the present. Just as the literati painters of the Song and Yuan Dynasties valued the individuality and creative potential in the marriage of ink and paper, today’s artists employ these same qualities in the context of a new age. Whether using bright, vibrant color, black ink or experimenting with line, these artists assert the inherent eloquence of traditional materials.

As works on paper command the most coherent center of the contemporary Chinese art market, it is clear that the expressive potential of paper is uniquely powerful. In this exhibit, past and present intertwine in paintings of both established and emerging artists. From the ethereal to the vibrant, Spirit Resonance: A New World of Chinese Ink Painting presents a contemporary understanding of a enduring spirit.

History of Ink Painting in China

Touching animal-hair brushes to cloth, the artists and calligraphers of the Warring States Period began a long history of ink art. During the Han Dynasty, brushwork became a narrative tool, depicting a complex story of creation myths and worldly values upon the burial shrouds of the wealthy. These images, carefully rendered in ink, were not merely mimetic representations of the earthly world, but also functioned as deeply spiritual acts of communication with the heavens. By the 6th century, painting was elevated to a level of serious philosophical discourse, ushered in by Xie He’s treatise The Six Points to Consider when Judging a Painting. At the dawn of the Tang Dynasty, painting was largely centered in the court, where an academic style was used to depict aspects of aristocratic life. This period also saw the development of shan shui, or landscape painting. Translating to “mountains”(shan) and “water” (shui), these works focused on the immensity of nature and the cosmos in relation to the miniscule nature of human actions, an important Confucian ideal. As the stability of the Tang Dynasty collapsed in the first years of the 10th century, artistic expression rapidly shifted in response to the chaos. It was not until the Song Dynasty that political stability enabled renewed cultural expression. Imperial painters began to reinterpret the inherent beauty of nature and the genre of the “monumental” landscape was born. Artists turned from the all-too-real violence of the human world to the more peaceful and meditative retreats of the mountains, lakes, and streams. Additionally, the Song Dynasty ushered in a period of increasing power for Confucian scholars. These scholars followed ideals of morality, hierarchy, and cultivation of the self. These beliefs demanded a high degree of literacy and study of the arts, especially calligraphy and painting. The scholar-officials who were particularly adept in painting, called the literati painters, valued a gestural spontaneity similar to calligraphy. Literati ink paintings were most often monochrome and incorporated poetry and image together in a highly sophisticated, atmospheric way. Ultimately, these works focused not only on the expression of the thing depicted, but also on the expressive inner nature of the artist.

At the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty, Mongol rule stirred feelings of subjugation among the existing intellectual class. An increasing sense of alienation and separation from both state and culture pushed many of the Yuan Dynasty literati painters to incorporate a sense of hermetic monasticism and withdrawal from the world into their paintings. As the genre “landscapes of the mind” began to surge in popularity, so did the importance of the “heart print,” a visual manifestation of the artist’s emotional state. Among certain circles, this aspect was one of the most important qualities of ink painting.

Throughout the Ming and the Qing Dynasties, manners and methods of ink painting diversified. The popularity of the established literati paintings persisted, but the Ming Dynasty witnessed the reintroduction of more classical, academic methods of painting. By the three-hundred-year-long Qing Dynasty, there were three very loosely defined categories of painters: the traditionalists, the individualists, and the professional court painters. Each group embraced distinct stylistic and expressive qualities and painted for different audiences.

China’s tumultuous twentieth century put a great deal of constraint on the development and success of its artists. The fall of the Imperial lineage system in 1911 ushered in an era of Chinese radicalism and revolution. The first several decades of the twentieth century saw artists partnering with radical factions to create art that was equally exciting, dramatic, and revolutionary. Yet, the eventual solidification of power under the communist state subsumed most artistic production under the regime accepted mode of social realism painting. By the 1960s and 1970s, the Cultural Revolution stifled the presence of artistic innovation and expression in China. With absolutely no political support, no chance of independent financial gain, and the increasing reality of outright prosecution, Chinese artists went silent.

Chinese Contemporary Ink Painting

Today’s shui mo, or ink painting, has found new life thanks to a group of innovative artists. Both Cindy Ng Sio Leng and Zhang Yuanfeng showcase the incredible potential of ink as a medium. While Cindy echos the literati “landscapes of the mind,” Zhang considers the incredible mutability of ink through her delicate insects. Further examining the material nature of the medium, Wang Weiqi explores the nuances of lineless meigu (boneless) technique in her animal portraits. Turning to the shan shui tradition of the Tang dynasty, Xu Ming and Yeh Fang consider the landscape of modern China.

As Xu Ming presents a current world in a classical style, Yeh Fang offers a contemporary interpretation of this Tang innovation. Adopting aerial perspective in his paintings and designing traditional Chinese gardens worldwide, Yeh Fang captures the underlying harmony of shan shui on paper. Through the work of Yeh Lan and Wang Qian, the ancient Bird and Flower genre becomes fresh and inventive. Yeh Lan reinterprets the da xieyi style in vibrant color and abstraction, while Wang Qian executes classical compositions in a hybrid of the conflicting gonbi (meticulous) and meigu styles. Though the customary copying of masterpieces once discouraged modern artists from the genre, it is clear that ink painting is no longer an old fashioned art form.

Employing various techniques and styles, these contemporary artists use the freedom and natural grace of the art form to incite a dialogue between contemporary China and the rest of the world. In the past ten years, an increasing number of museums and galleries have presented diverse exhibitions of contemporary Chinese ink painting. Shui mo (ink painting) has entered into a period of transformation, becoming a revolutionary and experimental manifestation of a traditional practice. A new generation of innovative artists has not only emerged, but has truly blossomed, elevating ink painting to new heights and testing classical boundaries. Working in both black and color ink, today’s ink artists are reinvigorating the Chinese art scene with personal works that question tradition, memory and meaning.