Installation view of TAI XIANGZHOU’s “Celestial Tales” at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, 2015. Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery. 

“Celestial Tales”

Tai Xiangzhou

Paul Kasmin Gallery
China USA

Chinese ink painter Tai Xiangzhou is currently presenting his solo exhibition, “Celestial Tales,” at New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery. The show debuts four ink paintings from the Beijing-based artist’s most recent body of works, which reflect his continuing engagement with science and astronomy, as well as his interest in the philosophies and roots of early Chinese landscape painting. Tai has garnered critical acclaim for his oeuvre, which is rooted in Chinese painting traditions yet embodies a sense of novelty in its expression and vision. In his latest works, Tai delves deeper into the investigation of the greater universe, offering a new interpretation of the Chinese landscape painting genre.

The four large-scale paintings (the biggest of which spans over three meters in width), which are part of the “Celestial Chaos” series (2014–15), hang across three walls of the exhibition space. Produced over the last two years, these paintings reveal a more expressive and vibrant style compared to that of Tai’s earlier “Genesis” series (2010–14), which portrays landscapes composed of dense and stark, biomorphic rock formations. Each work in this series features an abstract composition of rock formations and meteorites surging through mist and billowing clouds. In Chinese tradition, such elements of nature—rocks, trees, clouds, mist and water—are seen as physical manifestations of cosmic forces and rhythms of the universe. In art, these forces are expressed through brushstrokes. And Tai contrasts bold, lively brushstrokes with skillfully controlled and layered ink-washes to create dynamism and movement in “Celestial Chaos.” There is a feeling that this energy emanates far beyond the confines of the surface of Tai’s paintings.

TAI XIANGZHOU, Celestial Chaos No. 3, 2015, ink on silk, 77.4 × 196 cm. Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York. 

Just as he drew from the history of Chinese painting, Tai also reexamined ancient paper-making methods and now exclusively paints on paper and silk made using 10th-century techniques. He also only uses ink from the Qianlong era (1735–96), which is considered to be one of the highest quality inks. To display only four works in an exhibition may seem somewhat laconic; however, Tai has imbued each of the paintings with distinct ambiance and character. As the viewer, we feel compelled to walk from one to another to draw comparisons between their otherworldly, visceral realms. Celestial Chaos No. 3 (2015) particularly stands out. Our eyes are drawn to the center of the painting, where rock formations are surging towards a haunting abyss of darkness, on the cusp of a violent explosion. At the same time, there is an eerie glimmer of light that appears to shine through the layers of blackness. By contrast, in Celestial Chaos No. 1 (2014), which hangs on the opposite wall as No. 3, light-grey-toned meteorites dance through billows of clouds in the galaxy.   

Drawing from the age-old Chinese ink painting tradition to create a work that is novel and relevant to the ethos of today is a considerable feat. This is foremost a challenge, as studying and emulating past masterworks have been, and still is, a central part of every ink painter’s formal art education. Tai began his studies in calligraphy and painting at the age of four. While he pursued painting as a serious hobby throughout his professional life, it was not until he saw the works of renowned ink artist Liu Dan (b. 1953) that he felt inspired to return to ink painting. Liu accepted him as a student in 2005, and Tai has studied under his tutelage since. While Tai has inherited an artistic pedigree, it is evident from this exhibition that he has developed a confident and highly personal style of his own.

In these compelling works, Tai succeeds in demonstrating the power and versatility of traditional Chinese painting: the chaos and mystery of the cosmos is formidable and frightening, but a rare sense of calm pervades, inviting meditation. To view the exhibition is a rather humbling experience. I left the gallery reminded that we are only small, ephemeral beings existing in a vast, eternal macrocosm. 

TAI XIANGZHOUCelestial Chaos No. 1, 2014, ink on silk, 149.2 × 308.6 cm. Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York. 

“Celestial Tales” is on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York until October 3, 2015.