Installation view of WANG GONGYI’s “Memories of West Lake” at Galerie du Monde, Hong Kong, 2017. Courtesy Galerie du Monde.

Memories of West Lake

Wang Gongyi

Galerie du Monde, Hong Kong
China Hong Kong

The stunning scenery of West Lake (or Xihu) in Hangzhou—not far from Shanghai—has inspired generations of scholars and poets in China; in 2011, it was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The manmade lake, which was created by repeated dredgings between the 9th and 12th centuries, has occupied a prominent position in Chinese art and literature for many generations. Su Shi, a famed poet of the Song Dynasty (960–1279), equated West Lake with one of the Four Great Beauties—women who were renowned for their allure and grace—of ancient China. When Wang Gongyi was studying woodcuts at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now called the China Academy of Art) in the 1970s, located beside West Lake, she would take strolls along the water to pass time. Those were quiet moments before she would break out in China’s art scene shortly after her graduation.

For Wang’s first solo show in Hong Kong, the artist has mounted “Memories of West Lake” at Galerie du Monde, with 11 ink paintings created between 2013 and 2017 that each depict a particular element of West Lake’s landscape. The artist’s contemporary twist on traditional shanshui (“mountain and water”) landscape painting filled the exhibition space with sweetness and reminiscence. In particular, two works in the show were notable.

WANG GONGYIPeach Blossom, 2016, mixed media on Xuan paper, 18 pieces, 70 × 138 × 18 cm each. Courtesy the artist and Galerie du Monde, Hong Kong.

The air of spring filled the center of the gallery. A monumental, 18-panel work on Xuan paper arrests the viewer, even from a distance. In Peach Blossom (2016), impressionistic rouge blotches depict the petals of a peach tree, evoking sentiments of warmth, sweetness, passion and love. Layers of ink wash resemble raindrops falling on the ground, emanating gentle pink ripples from the point of contact. The density and distribution of pink and white in each panel varies—some are filled with bigger and tighter daubs, while others are embellished with rhythmic dots—offering every frame its own personality, but maintaining a delicacy throughout the work. Wang uses different densities of the striking hue to create such an effect, gracefully capturing the gestures and motions of petals found in a peach blossom, still in a moment of calmness or blown in a gentle breeze. Meanwhile, the tree trunks, sharp and angular, rendered in shades of brown and black, not only provide structure to the lightness of the peach blossoms, but also serve as connectors for the 18 panels.

Installation view of WANG GONGYI’s “Memories of West Lake” at Galerie du Monde, Hong Kong, 2017. Courtesy Galerie du Monde.

WANG GONGYILotus, 2016, mixed media on Xuan paper, 147 × 367 cm. Courtesy the artist and Galerie du Monde, Hong Kong.

The other notable work on show was Lotus, also dated 2016. Lotuses have long been depicted in Chinese ink paintings, as the plant carries many meanings in Chinese culture. Not only is it a symbol for good fortune under Buddhism (it is often regarded as the throne of Buddha), the lotus also signifies purity, as it rises out of mud to bloom, never tainted by the muck from which it grows. In this painting, the Wang uses layered tones of blue—the artist’s favorite color, which she finds to be “simply stunning” and “too beautiful for words”—to portray the bountiful growth of lotuses in West Lake. The artist once said, “Making art is sensory; when you’re creating, you really have to let go and feel the thing.” With softened forms that bleed into each other, the artist develops a sense of space, following her instincts instead of the conventions that define traditional Chinese painting. As Wang might say, the “images of nature come out of nowhere.”

Installation view of WANG GONGYI’s “Memories of West Lake” at Galerie du Monde, Hong Kong, 2017. Courtesy Galerie du Monde.

When the artist was young, she was plucked from rural farmland and brought to the Affiliated High School of the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing during Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958–1962), which led to millions of deaths due to famine and violence, as well as a shattered economy in China. Later on, in 1978, two years after the death of Mao, she would enter the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, when notes of optimism about the future were in the air. At the school, she was equipped with skills that would define a successful career—“And so it felt like it was just fate,” she would later say—and the time she spent by the quiet waters are intricately entangled with those experiences. Memories of West Lake resonate deeply within the artist, inspiring new paintings even decades later.

Sonia Yu is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

Wang Gongyi’s “Memories of West Lake” is on view at Galerie du Monde, Hong Kong, until December 14, 2017.

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