Installation view of “Is it Ink Art” at Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong, 2016. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts. 

LIU JIAN, 2015, Dreamscape 8, 2015, Chinese ink on paper, 71 × 69.5 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

LIU JIAN, Dreamscape 5, 2015, Chinese ink on paper, 67 × 67 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

Is It Ink Art?

Liu Jian and Zhang Yu

Alisan Fine Arts Gallery
China Hong Kong

Imprinted with a wealth of cultural histories and associations with the Chinese dynastic period, the genre of contemporary ink art has stayed, peculiarly, undervalued. Fortunately, and deservedly, more new and experimental approaches to the medium have been cast into the spotlight as of late. Since the ’85 New Wave—an art movement that marked the beginnings of Chinese contemporary art, spurred by China’s economic reforms in the mid-1980s—the conceptualization of contemporary ink art has been gradually advancing. A group of avant-garde artists, starting with figures such as Gu Wenda and Yang Jiechang, have reinvigorated audience’s perception of the medium. The exploring and pushing of the ink medium has led to the current exhibition “Is It Ink Art?” at Hong Kong’s Alisan Fine Arts, which features recent works from Chinese artists Zhang Yu and Liu Jian, who both seek to challenge ink art, in regards to both its material and philosophy.

Born in Shanghai, and trained at the Art Institute of Beijing, Liu Jian made calligraphy-based landscapes early in his career. It was only after his visit to Germany in 1987—with the works of Joseph Beuys particularly leaving an impression on him—that Liu began experimenting with his techniques in Chinese ink, which resulted in a deconstruction of traditional forms that then led to abstraction. Liu is famously quoted as saying, “The problems facing painting are formal problems. When the solution of a problem takes form, a painting is born.” As a result, the solutions that he felt resolved his questions toward painting manifested in splashes and drops of ink, as well as spontaneous brushwork.

Since his move to Canada in the early 1990s, following the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, Liu has gone on to experiment with other materials, such as the oils and acrylics seen in Untitled 98-4 Pink-Blue (1998) and Square Series VI (1999). Yet with his latest series, “Dreamscape” (2015), the artist returns to his origins in traditional Chinese painting. With works from the “Dreamscape” series, Liu brings together Chinese and Western art aesthetics in a set of dynamic abstract paintings using Chinese ink on xuan paper. Each painting is covered in multiple layers of ink, creating a dark and dense composition of ink washes, saturated blacks and sharp brushstrokes. While the vigorous brushstrokes and ink splashes dominate the foreground of Dreamscape 8 and Dreamscape 9 (both 2015), there are slivers of earth tones that emerge in the background, seamlessly negotiating between the realms of Chinese ink painting and western abstraction and recalling stylizations of abstract expressionism.

Surrounding Liu’s paintings are a series of five pieces of xuan paper marked with concentric circles made from pu’er tea, entitled “Imbued with Tea”(2016), which are works that resulted from Zhang Yu’s performance and installation Ascending (2016). On a table within the exhibition, 50 white porcelain bowls of pu’er tea are placed on eight pieces of xuan paper. During the opening reception of the show, Zhang performed Ascending by pouring pu’er tea in each bowl, deliberately spilling over the tea, which then stained the paper. The action of pouring was repeated every day over the first week of the exhibition, resulting in reddish-brown rings.

The visual arrangement of Ascending resembles Zhang’s earlier installation Ink and Wash-Ritual (Process of Behavior) (2013), in which 600 porcelain bowls filled with black ink were steadily placed on the floor during the artist’s solo exhibition at Gwangju Museum of Art in Korea in 2013. While the 2013 installation looked at the core property and intrinsic value of ink, the current series explores notions of artistic process and of time.

Zhang once said, “The spirit of ink art can be diversely represented”—a sentiment that is successfully illustrated at the Alisan exhibition. Showcasing techniques and approaches that go beyond traditional representations of Chinese ink, the show not only raises questions about the materiality and ideas behind contemporary ink art, but also supports the idea that this medium has continued its lineage and is still very much relevant today.

ZHANG YU, Ascending, 2016, Pu’er tea, rice paper and ceramics, 115 × 240 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

“Is It Ink Art” is on view at Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong, until April 30, 2016, when they will also be holding a closing reception with a performance by Zhang Yu.