Hong Kong’s frenzied arts month in March saw Alisan Fine Arts inaugurate its new space in the Central district with a solo exhibition by the Foshan-born ink artist Yang Jiechang, entitled “This is Still Bird and Flower Painting.” Having been located in the southern Hong Kong area of Aberdeen for the past few years, this second space will serve as the gallery’s main home, while the one in Aberdeen will focus on showing emerging artists. It has been two years since Yang—who left China in 1988, and has since been based in Paris and Heidelberg—has had a solo exhibition in Hong Kong. Whereas his two-part show in 2015, also presented by Alisan Fine Arts, surveyed the artist’s oeuvre over the last three decades, this current exhibition predominantly features works from his latest series.
Entering the gallery, visitors are immediately drawn to the right side of the room, presenting floral arrangements with accompanying paintings. Gold and white vases filled with realistically rendered porcelain flowers, are installed on pedestals against the walls. The porcelain flowers, created by ceramic artists in Dehua, Fujian province, under Yang’s direction, are the newest iteration in his “This is Still Flower Painting 1911–2011” series (2009–14). Intended to be viewed as a triptych, each bouquet, or individual flower, is displayed with two different representations of flowers. For the first image, Yang copied an artwork by a young Adolf Hitler from the early 1900s—this process of copying was central to art education in China, whereby for centuries students of painting carefully studied and emulated works by their teachers, not only to learn their techniques, but also their moral character. The second is an interpretation of the first, which Yang renders in meticulous gongbi (“fine line”) brushwork associated with traditional Song dynasty bird-and-flower paintings, using ink and intense mineral color pigments on silk.
The most eye-catching of the eight triptychs on view is This is Still Flower Painting 1911–2011, AG02 (2012–14), in the corner of the space. Yang’s copy of Hitler’s painting is an oil-on-canvas depicting a vase of flowers on a sun-lit windowsill overlooking a bucolic landscape. In Yang’s own version, the flowers are painted in somber shades of red, orange, white and green, against a black-colored background, with blooms so full they appear on the cusp of decay. Displayed next to it is a porcelain flower arrangement matching the vibrant colors of the oil painting. While Hitler’s work has served as his model, Yang has created something beautiful, albeit disturbing and unsettling. This sense of moral unease can be felt more strongly in This is Still Flower Painting 1911–2011, AG09 (2013), which hangs opposite. Here, a monochromatic pencil drawing of a single flower blossom, contrasts with Yang’s seductive portrayal, which he painted in deep tones of red on a black-colored background. Mounted on the wall beside it is a delicate, demure porcelain flower.
Yang’s innovative deployment of ink can be observed in the four paintings from his “Stranger Than Paradise” (2009–13) series, which are located in the same section as his “Flower” triptychs. This series was inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century The Decameron, a collection of short stories in which 10 escapees of the Black Death in Florence take turns telling stories over 10 days. The storytellers sought refuge from the ravages of the plague in their entertaining and irreverent tales. Yang took on the role to become the 11th storyteller. Spanning over one-meter in width, Stranger Than Paradise – Red Stone (2009) is painted with ink and mineral color on silk and executed with powerful, calligraphic brushstrokes. A large garden rock and gnarled tree frame the composition. The scene depicts a variety of animals and a naked female figure engaging in expressions of affection and sex. While the notion is bawdy and grotesque, upon closer examination, one can see that there is a sense of amicability and compatibility in the interaction between the cross-species couples, suggesting a kind of utopian landscape. Like the turbulent times of Boccaccio’s plague, Yang’s paradise is set against today’s context of human conflict, prejudice, violence and war. As he states, when writing about the inspiration for this show: “Our times resemble so much the times of Song Emperor Huizong. Art is some kind of medicine, revitalizing and clearing the mind.”
The exhibition continues in the smaller adjacent room, which showcases a glimpse of Yang’s earlier representative works. Xuanzai Ink (1992–96), from the “100 Layers of Ink” series, is an expressive splatter of black, luminescent ink over a wrinkled, textured surface of xuan paper and gauze. Another work is God Created the World, the Rest is Made in China (2014), an example of his signature pithy calligraphies, which upends traditional aesthetic standards. Here, Yang covered two large canvases, each spanning over one-meter-in-width, with expressive calligraphic ink brushwork on white acrylic paint. One canvas displays the work’s titular exclamation in Chinese, the other in English.
The works in this exhibition demonstrate the ongoing social engagement and iconoclastic spirit of one of the most unorthodox ink artists. While the themes are unsettling, the works possess a certain beauty that is unexpectedly uplifting and particularly refreshing in today’s world that is fraught with much instability and discord. The show also offers an opportunity to observe the radical ways in which Yang continues to reinterpret the ink-painting tradition.