Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 7, 2014
Maxwell K. Hearn Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China Exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013. 208 pp.; 250 color ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300197037)
Exhibition schedule: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, December 11, 2013–April 6, 2014

As Maxwell K. Hearn explains in his introduction to this important book, which serves as the catalogue of an exhibition he curated, for over two millennia ink made from lampblack or pine soot has been the principal medium of the allied arts of painting and calligraphy in China. Ground with water to form a liquid and applied with a brush to paper or silk, ink is an infinitely flexible medium: ranging in tone from jet black to pale, silvery gray, it records every inflection of the artist’s arm, hands, and fingers transmitted to the tip of the brush. Ink was vital to the civil bureaucracy that governed the Chinese empire through the ceaseless flow of written documents; and the arts produced with ink, often by people who were themselves government officials, were central to China’s elite culture. Brush and ink yielded towering landscape paintings as well as improvisatory personal letters; and the stones on which ink was ground and ornamental inkcakes were themselves objects of connoisseurship prized by collectors. Over the past century, oil painting, photography, film, video, and other media imported from the West have greatly expanded the forms of art produced in China, but even for artists who employ these newer media, brush and ink often inspire their works or embody traditions to be critiqued, parodied, or rejected.

What Hearn sets out to explore in the exhibition, the first at the Metropolitan Museum dedicated solely to contemporary art of the Chinese mainland since the 1980s, and in the accompanying book, is not simply how ink has been used by artists over the past few decades during China’s bewilderingly rapid modernization and rise to the status of an economic superpower. For Hearn, “ink art” signifies an aesthetic sensibility, as it is much more than an artistic medium. His larger argument is that within the history of painting and calligraphy—the archetypal ink arts—exist paradigms of revival, allusion, and transformation founded on an abiding awareness of the past. In his words, “the past is present in Chinese art.”

Following Hearn’s introduction is an essay by Wu Hung on experimental ink painting of recent decades and the critical debates surrounding it in China. Ranging beyond works in the exhibition, Wu’s essay is an excellent overview of the conceptual evolution of ink art since the rise of “Chinese-style painting” (guohua) as a medium-based expression in the early twentieth century as well as of much broader developments in contemporary art. The heart of the book consists of Hearn’s four chapters that correspond to sections of the exhibition. Works in the chapter titled “The Written Word” incorporate brushed or printed texts and display strategies through which recent artists, including Gu Wenda, Song Dong, and Qiu Zhijie, have departed from earlier forms of writing by making characters illegible, inventing new technical procedures for writing, or incorporating writing into performances of various kinds. Of all the works in “The Written Word” chapter, Book from the Sky (ca. 1987–91) by Xu Bing is the most celebrated; indeed, this installation of printed books and scrolls is arguably the most significant work of Chinese art of the twentieth century and the first work of Chinese art of any period to reach a truly global audience. As is now widely known, Xu Bing created this work by inventing thousands of nonsensical characters, hand-carving pieces of wooden moveable type, and using them to print pristine, stitched volumes that resemble those of the Song or Ming period. Only upon looking closely does the would-be reader discover that although the characters follow the rules of normal Chinese orthography, they have no lexical or phonetic value. Hearn sees Book from the Sky as “the artist’s remarkable response to the often blatant contradiction between propaganda and reality, words and actions, in a China where . . . texts could no longer be trusted” (43). Though it fills an entire gallery, Book from the Sky emanates a modest, chaste simplicity and a technical perfection extremely rare in contemporary Chinese art.

Hearn’s chapter titled “New Landscapes” and the corresponding section of the exhibition make the case that the artists included “have invoked traditional media or imagery in ways that anchor them to a distinctly Chinese vision of nature . . . [or have] transcended their models to create startling new images that bespeak the expressive potential of this ancient medium” (73). Hearn’s concept of landscape is capacious, embracing paintings in ink on paper and polyester, oil on canvas, photographs, and animated videos. Two of the works most obviously based on traditional techniques of texturing and ink wash, huge handscrolls by Ren Jian and Liu Dan, are also suffused with modeling through strong contrasts of light and shade derived ultimately from Western art. The results are grandiose rather than grand. Landscape (2009) by Shao Fan, based on a Qing dynasty painting, displays velvety textures of rock and subtle effects of mist—produced not with brush and ink but with a pencil, exemplifying Hearn’s argument that ink art is an aesthetic orientation rather than a medium.

View of Tide (2008) by Yang Yongliang emulates a Song landscape handscroll. Upon close examination, what appears to be an ink painting turns out to be made of cleverly manipulated photographs of skyscrapers and electrical power-line towers—a transformation of the traditional composition that yields “an apocalyptic vision of urbanization” (109). Among other photographic works in the exhibition are scrolls by Xing Danwen. This artist, one of the few women in the exhibition, creates sequences of overlapping exposures that when developed on a long sheet of photographic paper approximate the effect of a handscroll, though the photographic origins of the images remain clear. Also in the “New Landscapes” section are animated videos by Qiu Anxiong, Chen Shaoxiong, and Sun Xun. Profoundly influenced by the drawings and animations of William Kentridge, the relentlessly grim works of these three Chinese artists express visions of political oppression, urban loneliness, and environmental degradation. A handscroll of grotesque figures in a landscape by Liu Wei fits uncomfortably into the landscape category, though Hearn relates it to monochrome paintings by the Ming painter Dong Qichang. Said to be the artist’s “messy sex diaries,” the images, like most diaries, probably should have been kept private.

After the section of landscapes dominated by works that are almost uniformly bleak or ironic, the abstract works that follow appear bracingly fresh and original. Massive scrolls by Wang Dongling display calligraphic brushstrokes magnified to monumental scale, readily appreciated by any viewer with a taste for paintings by Robert Motherwell or Franz Kline. Large scrolls from Zhang Yu’s Divine Light series (1994–2003) conjure up glowing visions of interstellar space or mysterious geological processes. Produced through lines, washes, and sprayed ink, the paintings are, in Hearn’s characterization, “neither strictly Chinese nor strictly Western but a bridging of both traditions” (153). Also employing new ink techniques, Yang Jiechang created his series titled 100 Layers of Ink (1989–99) by saturating large sheets of paper with ink and then painting irregular geometric shapes with black acrylic. The wrinkles of the ink-soaked paper create relief patterns that recall texture strokes of traditional landscape or the pitted surfaces of garden rocks. The most radical of all the abstract paintings are by Li Huasheng, one of the oldest artists in the exhibition. In 1998, this veteran painter who had spent decades producing landscapes in a literati mode suddenly changed course, devoting himself instead to covering huge scrolls with ink-drawn grids requiring intense concentration and brush control. “My subject matter,” the artist explains, “is the time I spend painting” (146).

The chapter titled “Beyond the Brush” and the corresponding works in the exhibition encompass a painting made of ink and burned gunpowder by Cai Guoqiang, refashioned pieces of Chinese furniture by Ai Weiwei, including a table that seems to be climbing a wall, and a shiny stainless steel garden rock by Zhan Wang—another example of transformation of a traditional form, which Hearn argues throughout the book is a hallmark of the ink-art aesthetic.

Hearn’s insights into individual works are invariably subtle and elegantly expressed, and they display a deep knowledge of the brush arts of China—knowledge lacking in much critical writing on contemporary Chinese art. Still, these final works push to the limit Hearn’s concept of ink art—a concept so broad that it may leave the reader asking if there is any contemporary Chinese art that is not ink art. Where Hearn sees continuities between the cultural patterns embodied by artists of pre-modern China, for whom art was assumed to be a vehicle of self-expression, and the practice of contemporary artists participating in a global network of art production and a supercharged art market, discontinuities and disjunctures are just as apparent and leave the reader longing for more commentary on them. Finally, responding to Hearn’s argument that in contemporary Chinese art “the past is present,” a reader might observe that all art, in myriad ways, is engaged with the past: it is where art comes from.

Robert E. Harrist, Jr.
Jane and Leopold Swergold Professor of Chinese Art History, Department of Art History and Architecture, Columbia University