Contemporary art Interview Exhibitions China

The new vitality of ink art

Liu Guosong says that many ancient painters would break with conventions, which has inspired the veteran artist’s experiments with brush, ink and paper since the 1960s

Liu Guosong has been experimenting with the techniques of ink painting since the 1960s: Movement in Stillness, 1963-67

Liu Guosong’s exploration of the materials and techniques of ink painting began in the 1960s. His bold works were both frowned upon and applauded. In this year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong, his works can be seen, including on a solo stand at Galerie du Monde (3D15). The artist is also due to take part in an Artist Talk (Thursday 15 May). He stresses the importance of developing new ideas, techniques and even paper while being ever mindful of ink painting’s long history.

Can you describe the materials and concepts behind your new works?

Traditional Chinese paintings put a great deal of emphasis on the seamless conflation of the colour of ink and lines. At the same time, the philosophy of Daoism, which has a significant influence on Chinese paintings, stresses the importance of the duality of ying and yang. I therefore wished to insert white lines (the lines of yang) into the painting to exemplify the duality of ying and yang. I also created a new kind of paper by incorporating bark fibres, which are yet to be completely corroded, into the surface of the paper. These rough fibres on the paper block the ink, so the lines running along them are white. This kind of paper is my own invention, known as “Liu Guosong paper”. I believe both the techniques and themes of art should reflect the era that we are living in. The literati have directed the art scene since the Yuan dynasty. They have put too much attention on the mood and concepts of the paintings at the expense of techniques. As a result, many people felt that there is no hope for Chinese painting and turned towards Western art. Under such circumstances, I invented new techniques of painting on rough and textured paper and achieved a unique white linear effect. I also embrace new themes. For example, my “Space” series was inspired by the images transmitted from outer space by Nasa.

How do you see the use of an unconventional medium?

There is an ancient Chinese saying: “Control the brush as opposed to being controlled by the brush.” Artists should search for the most suitable materials and tools to execute their artistic ideas. They have the freedom and power to do so. There has been an emphasis on the incorporation of calligraphy in Chinese painting since the Yuan dynasty. People always believe that they should paint according to the “centre tip” technique, which is to exert a vertical force onto the brush tip. They assert that only the centre tip technique can create good paintings. I consider that a very narrow way of thinking and painting. Many ancient painters would actually never allow themselves to be limited by a particular type of material. They would explore the unconventional medium. The flexible use of materials and techniques is one way by which Chinese painting can achieve breakthroughs.

There have been major changes in the medium and concept of Chinese painting. What kinds of meanings do “Chinese characteristics” embody in relation to “Chinese painting”?

Chinese painting must reflect the spirit of the Chinese people. We should uphold the Chinese traditions as our core values while absorbing Western ideas in order to create something original. It is not merely about copying and transplanting ideas. I realise where the mistake was after blindly adopting a Western style of painting before. I therefore propose that “the imitation of the new should not replace the imitation of the old” and “the emulation of the West should not replace the emulation of the Chinese way of creating”. Ever since then, my creations have been like a double-edged sword, pointing at these dichotomous concepts.

What do you think of the recent debates related to ink painting?

I believe that it is a trend. I have always felt very positive since my return to ink painting in the 1960s. The paths taken by both the Chinese and the West are actually the same: they went from naturalism to being impressionistic, and ultimately reached abstraction. When Liang Kai created Immortal in Splashed Ink in the 13th century, the Renaissance in the West had not even begun yet. The spirituality of ink painting has always been in the lead. We should not let Chinese painting die in the hands of our generation. Because of this, I return to ink painting from complete Westernisation and continuously emphasise the need for modernisation and a new sense of vitality in Chinese ink art.

Bio: A native of Qingzhou, Shandong, Liu was born in Anhui in 1932. He moved to Taiwan in 1949 and graduated from the National Taiwan Normal University in 1956. He taught at the Department of Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong between 1971 and 1992. He has been learning traditional Chinese painting since the age of 14. Liu later followed Western art traditions and co-founded Taiwan’s Wuyue Huahui (Fifth Moon Group). At the age of 28, Liu felt that the complete adoption of Western art was inappropriate, so he picked up the traditional medium of brush and ink again. Since then, he has actively promoted and helped revolutionise Modern Chinese painting.

Artist Talk: Liu Guosong in conversation with Lesley Ma, ink curator M+, and Zhu Hongzi, Beijing-based curator, Thursday, 15 May, 10am. He was among the artists honoured by the Asia Society at a gala on Monday

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