HOUSTON — One of the things that the artist Xu Bing struggled with the most when he moved to the United States from China in 1990 was language. “Your thinking ability is mature,” Xu later recalled, “but you have the speaking and expressive abilities of a child. You are a respected artist, but in that linguistic context, it’s as if you’re illiterate.” In response to his situation, Xu developed Square Word Calligraphy, a hybrid system of writing that embeds English letters within Chinese-style characters. This innovative new language would become a cornerstone of his artistic practice in the 1990s.

A number of Xu’s Square Word Calligraphy works are on view in Summoning Memories: Art Beyond Chinese Traditions at Asia Society Texas. Curated by Susan L. Beningson, assisted by Owen Duffy and Rebecca Becerra, the exhibition features 32 artists of Chinese descent who, like Xu, negotiate the long legacy of Chinese calligraphy and ink painting through alternative approaches and materials.

“This exhibition is about building an intergenerational conversation about how artists today are pushing the boundaries and plumbing the depths of different Chinese artistic traditions,” Duffy told Hyperallergic on a recent tour. The 50-plus artworks on view take on tradition by reinterpreting cultural influences — artistic conventions and techniques, as well as poems, stories, plays, and literature — from a wide range of historical periods, decades and even centuries in the past. For example, Zheng Chongbin’s large ink painting “New Six Canons (Xin Liufa)” (2012) references a fifth-century text on the fundamentals of Chinese ink painting, while Zhang Hongtu’s tongue-in-cheek “Zodiac Figures” (2002) condenses old and new as tricolor Tang dynasty-style ceramic animals don the outfit worn by popular figurines of Mao Zedong from the 1950s and 1960s.

Left to right: Fu Xiaotong, “719,560 Pinpricks” (2019), handmade xuan paper (courtesy the artist and Chambers Fine Art); Bingyi, “Can The Eyes Sing? The Bodies of Sacred Mountains” (2021–22), ink on paper (courtesy the artist and INKstudio); Zhang Jian-Jun, “Rubbing Planet in Shui-mo Space” (2022), Chinese ink, oil paint, acrylic, and rice paper on canvas (courtesy the artist)

Other artists relinquish traditional materials completely. Wu Chi-Tsung’s “Wrinkled Texture 113” (2021) appears from across the gallery to be a deftly executed painting of cresting waves or craggy mountains, but up close the piece reveals itself as a cyanotype made from crumpled paper exposed to light. Nearby, Fu Xiaotong’s densely textured “719,560 Pinpricks” (2019) relinquishes paintbrush and ink completely, creating a lush vista from only the repeated, expert incisions of a needle. Fu’s piece is a gentle rebellion against tradition that also subtly brings ink painting into three dimensions.

Of course, ink painting on paper does not disappear completely from the exhibition. Bingyi’s “Can The Eyes Sing? The Bodies of the Sacred Mountains” (2021–22) is a wall-sized tour-de-force that envelops the viewer’s body. Though inspired by nature — the artist created the massive painting while staying in the Taihang Mountains — its swirling, pulsating brushstrokes evoke a psychic more than a physical landscape. In the next room, Yun-Fei Ji’s 10-foot-long scroll “Three Gorges Dam Migration” (2008) is a delicate but engrossing take on China’s rapid modernization using traditional ink-painting techniques.

Several works were specially commissioned or are being exhibited in the United States for the first time. A notable example is Yang Yongliang’s “Imagined Landscape, Rabbit” (2022), where the characteristic mountains and waterfalls of traditional Chinese ink paintings are formed by digitally collaged photos of high-rise buildings and military vehicles. The piece is a sharp commentary on today’s political tensions and climate anxieties in and outside of China. 

One of the most moving pieces is Ren Light Pan’s “Sleep Painting – 12.31.14” (2014), a deeply human expression of quiet strength. The wall label describes the piece as made of “water, body heat, ink, and despair on canvas.” To create it, the artist saturated the canvas with ink and slept on top of it inside of her parents’ garage. Her curled, protective posture and the work’s dark palette exude a tender vulnerability with which viewers cannot help but empathize. “She’s a trans artist, and this piece was done before her transition. For her it almost functions as a portrait of a previous life,” Duffy explained. While other artists in the exhibition may look at history from hundreds of years ago, Ren looks back to a former self. Either way, the artists in Summoning Memories use the past as vital, living material for work made today. 

Zheng Chongbin, “New Six Canons (Xin Liufa)” (2012), ink and acrylic on xuan paper
Ren Light Pan, “Sleep Painting – 12.31.14” (2014), water, body heat, ink, and despair on canvas (courtesy the artist)
Installation view of Summoning Memories: Art Beyond Chinese Traditions at the Asia Society Texas
Zhang Hongtu, “Zodiac Figures” (2002), earthenware with three-color (sancai) glaze (courtesy the artist)
Installation view of Summoning Memories: Art Beyond Chinese Traditions at the Asia Society Texas
Yun-Fei Ji, “Three Gorges Dam Migration” (2008), ink and watercolor on xuan paper mounted on silk (courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery)
Installation view of Summoning Memories: Art Beyond Chinese Traditions at the Asia Society Texas

Summoning Memories: Art Beyond Chinese Traditions continues at Asia Society Texas (1370 Southmore Boulevard, Houston, Texas) through July 2. The exhibition was curated by Susan L. Beningson, PhD, with the support of Owen Duffy, Nancy C. Allen Curator and Director of Exhibitions, and Rebecca Becerra, exhibitions manager and registrar.

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist. Her writing has appeared in Apollo, Artsy, Atlas Obscura, Flash Art, Frieze, Glasstire, Mousse Magazine, and other publications.