Some years ago, Chinese finance guru Frank Yang had his eyes on Liang Quan’s xuan paper collage in Hong Kong’s Osage gallery. In the work, muted tea stains seeped through the delicate, pearly paper. A few light colors slit through the inky haze. A hole-puncher left two rows of perfect circles—portholes to deeper shades that have been paved over by lighter bands. Yang noticed the 2009 artwork shared a title with a 14th-century ink-painting masterpiece, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, by Huang Gongwang. The 600-year-old original is known for its elegant application of the ink medium that culminates in the perfect composition of land and lake, with a richness rarely found elsewhere. Liang’s minimalist contemporary reinterpretation fascinated Yang: lines were no longer naturalistic traces left by a brush, but the edges of blocks formed by strips of rice paper. He took the piece home. It was his first acquisition.
Yang told me that he appreciates the artwork’s callback to tradition, and that it embodies a subtle, cherished feeling in its pure maturity. Liang, a Shanghai-born artist with roots in Southeast China, is considered a representative of Chinese “abstract naturalism.” Yang decided to go after Liang’s other creations, collecting them whenever he could. Eventually, Yang amassed enough pieces to chart the artist’s professional development, and mounted “Light as Tea,” a small exhibition at Extra Space—the top floor of his villa in Shenzhen—that reviewed Liang’s creative output since the mid-1980s.
The artist’s mid-career works tend to embrace a cloak of darkness, as seen in In Remembrance of Jiangnan – Pear Blossom in the Rain at Night (1998). Squares of sky blue, mantis green and lusty red pop through layers of sooty wash. Ripped and burned pages of text find their ways into the frame, rotated sideways. The artist, as I was told, would spend long spans of time reflecting on his collages as they evolved, making minute adjustments as days or weeks passed. Liang may have been heavy-handed in his creations during this time, but his experiments paved the way for a signature lightness—“light as tea,” as Yang described him.
More recent works departed from the heavy palette for an airy yet nonetheless momentous form; an untitled 2006 xuan paper collage stood out for its surface blanketed by bulbous tea stains and a few dabs of ink. Liang’s adaptation of tea drinking’s quotidian experience has influenced a younger generation of creators. Hong Kong conceptual artist Kingsley Ng, best known for his pinhole tram project Twenty-five Minutes Older (2016), created his installation Spring (2013) in homage to Liang Quan. Spring included glasses of water that were used as sundials, placed on xuan paper; each vessel contained water from a different source—France, Italy, New Zealand or another location. Ng’s Spring was a literal marker of time by translating the sun’s path, and the artist said that Liang’s “nuanced treatment of the surface of painting, with paper on paper, is at the same time exquisite and subtle.” Ng sees Liang’s “distinctive use of tea as a record of an everyday practice.” On paper, Ng said, “tea is a mark of time.”
“Light as Tea” was not merely an art show. It was an intimate look at how a collector and an artist can go much further than forming a transactional relationship to forge a friendship. The artist once gave this piece of advice to Yang: “Life first, art second.” With that in mind, the collector decided to mount art exhibitions in his own residence, to reintroduce a personal touch typically absent in commercial or public art spaces.
Extra Space itself was a minimal venue—aside from Liang’s creations, all that could be found were a comfortable, leather sofa (where Yang reads) and a piano. A set of blue watercolors created in 1995 lined the wall beside the musical instrument. Yang said he saw rhythm in those strokes, and the playful, spirited shades were placed there to inspire his son, who hits the keys to practice every day. These small works on paper were created shortly after Liang relocated to Shenzhen. At the time, Liang was living in a small motel room, thus the scale of his art was limited by the size of a sketchbook—though his drive to create was not.