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Contemporary Takes on China’s Oldest Painting Technique

Installation view of 'A New Fine Line' at the Metropolitan State University of Denver's Center for Visual Art (all images courtesy the Center for Visual Art)
Installation view of ‘A New Fine Line’ at the Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Center for Visual Art (all images courtesy the Center for Visual Art)

DENVER — Do viewers outside of China still expect contemporary Chinese art to “look” Chinese, and what does that even mean? The group exhibition A New Fine Line, on view at Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Center for Visual Art, considers the legacy of the gongbi brush style in a contemporary context. Curator Julie Segraves and creative director Cecily Cullen assembled artworks by nine Chinese artists who employ the gongbi style, a method of ink painting on silk or paper that reaches as far back as the Tang dynasty (618–906 CE). The gongbi brush line is more like a pen line than calligraphic. It is uniformly thick, even wiry, defining boundaries around figures and objects. The medium was the matchmaker between the artists included in this exhibition, but their works are generous with other meanings, from Mao’s utopia and China’s unrelenting economic growth and development, to reflections of the classic gongbi style and subject matter.

Zhu Wei, "Ink and Wash Research Lecture Series (unfinished)" (2015), ink and color pigment on paper
Zhu Wei, “Ink and Wash Research Lecture Series (unfinished)” (2015), ink and color pigment on paper (click to enlarge)

Gao Qian’s painting “Hua Jian Ji No. 2” (2014) is superbly executed in ink and pigment on paper. The artwork’s support initially appears to be silk, with the weave of a textile filling the abstract void behind busy butterflies, but it is actually the wire-like line of the ink inscribing the paper and disguising it as silk. Gao’s work is reminiscent of art from the Song dynasty, mastering careful observation and accurate depiction, yet capturing a spirit in the subjects that creates the impression that they could lift off the paper at any moment. Zhang Qing’s “Resemble No. 2” (2014) shows a great knowledge of the ancient style of representation called “fur-and-feathers,” the literal depiction of animals and birds often coupled with flowering tree branches. The painting’s satiny rendering of the bird’s feathers contrasts with the rough texture of the supporting tree branch bark, set in front of painted screens and open vistas that provide all the complexity and reality that are traditional characteristics of gongbi.

Several artists investigate the anxieties of modern China’s growth; the rapid degradation of the environment, the utopia the revolution sought to establish, and the commercialism that challenges both. Zhu Wei’s “Ink and Wash Research Lecture Series (unfinished)” (2015) depicts an older Chinese man wearing a charcoal-colored surgical mask and a mandarin-collared shirt in a portrait-like fashion, with only a red curtain for a background. The fine lines of the melancholy figure’s face are the only place where the gongbi technique can be discerned. Nearby, Zhu’s “Utopia” (2015) shows seven people seated tightly together, writing while framed by superimposed flowers reminiscent of the floral bounty filling many social realist paintings, like Vasilii Efanov’s “An Unforgettable Encounter” (1936–37). Taken together, Zhu’s images provoke the question, what does China’s utopia look like today? Is the glass half full rather than half empty? “In China my work is considered Western due to the abstract painterly style,” Zhu said at the show’s opening, “but in the US it is seen as Chinese due to content.” In such instances, the choice of medium becomes important. Images of China, produced in a distinctly Chinese medium, assert the artist’s authority to create the work and give viewers the authority to consume and criticize it.

Shang Jingkui, "Watching Plays" (2009), digital print on paper
Shang Jingkui, “Watching Plays” (2009), digital print on paper (click to enlarge)

Negotiating traditional visual language in a contemporary context is a recurring dialog among the exhibition’s participants. In “Jing Huan De Yu Yuan” (2014), artist Zhang Jian presents a partially disrobed court lady with sloped shoulders, a pointed chin and nose, holding a fan in her petite hand. To the immediate left of that work is the painting “Yue Se,” which depicts female buttocks caressed and partially obscured by threads of pink silk and a single apricot blossom branch. The handling of fluid, swirling drapery in gongbi figural painting is a hallmark of the technique, and “Yue Se” exemplifies this. The untraceable waves of fabric in the painting recall Zhao Mengjian’s Southern Song dynasty ink work, “Narcissus.” Both Zhang’s artworks were executed in exquisite gongbi style and both engage with the semiotics of desire, showing what is forbidden — but for a different audience in a different century.

Artist Shang Jing Kui blurs the erotic dialog in Zhang’s work further by depicting ambiguously gendered figures. “Revel in the Spring” isolates two lovers characteristic of Ming dynasty Chinese erotica in a bare landscape. Their faces have been blotted out and the female figure is rendered with a featureless chest, her breasts missing. The entire right side of the composition is blocked by a view of the back of a woman’s midsection, pushed so far into the foreground that the frame cuts her just below the buttocks and just above her chin. Her ruffled peach underwear and transparent veil seductively sway, mocking the eroticism of the couple. She is finished in a glitter paint, sparkling like Britney Spears in a diamond bodysuit.

Jin Sha, "Salute to Masters: Conversation with Grant Wood" (2014), ink and color pigment on silk
Jin Sha, “Salute to Masters: Conversation with Grant Wood” (2014), ink and color pigment on silk (click to enlarge)

Shang’s “Watching Plays” (2009) further mocks strict gender roles and eroticism with a crowded scene of contemporary figures and traditional ones seemingly devoid of gender. Peking opera actors dance-fighting, a bikini-clad figure with legs kicked high in the air, and a skateboarder mid-flight all occupy the foreground, seemingly unaware of each other’s presence. In the distance sits a row of audience members taking in the spectacle. These figures initially appear to be women, wearing high heels, accessories, and nothing else, but they are facially deformed and lack breasts and genitalia. Unlike the Ming couple whose lasciviousness is polished and subtle, Shang’s painting suggests that in contemporary culture gender roles are more fluid and few forms of desire are forbidden.

Resistance to tradition is a prominent theme in A New Fine Line, a show that ironically is anchored in China’s earliest painting practice. When asked if audiences outside China expect contemporary Chinese art to be identifiable as Chinese, participating artist Jin Sha responded, “Gongbi is the oldest type of painting in China, how can it ‘look’ anything but Chinese?” Despite using a technique and visual vocabulary that are undeniably Chinese, these nine artists create paintings that look unique.

Installation view of 'A New Fine Line' at the Metropolitan State University of Denver's Center for Visual Art
Installation view of works by Zhu Wei in ‘A New Fine Line’ at the Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Center for Visual Art

A New Fine Line: Contemporary Ink Painting From China continues at the Center for Visual Art at Metropolitan State University of Denver (965 Santa Fe Drive, Denver, Colorado) through October 24.

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