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Chambers Fine Art
Red No.1-D, Cao Changdi,
Chaoyang District,
Beijing, 100015, China   map * 
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by Chambers Fine Art
Location: ArtFarm @Chambers Fine Art
Date: 1 Jul - 31 Aug 2011

This exhibition brings together works by eight Chinese artists which respond to the complexities of the Chinese written language. Traditionally calligraphy was supreme among the visual arts in China, reaching a level of sophistication unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Great works of calligraphy were the most highly prized of all works of art, and are still venerated even if the level of connoisseurship required to appreciate them is now rarely found.

Whether exposed at an early age to the practice of calligraphy or simply conversant with its basic premises, none of the artists here, however, with the exception of Gu Wenda work in the traditional medium of ink and brush on paper. Instead, we find calligraphy on silk and canvas supplemented with video (Yang Jiechang), burnt into xuan paper (Wang Tiande), executed by flashlight (Qiu Zhijie), reduced to one bit form and silkscreened on panel (Feng Mengbo), created from grape tendrils and photographed (Cui Fei) and finally painted in water on stone (Song Dong). For the most part the emphasis is on form rather than content and on unorthodox methods of execution, Qiu Zhijie choosing to write in reverse and from left to right rather than from right to left and top to bottom as is normally the case. Hong Lei uses ink not to write or depict a mountainous landscape but to create a miniature, three-dimensional mountain.

Gu Wenda, Yang Jiechang and Wang Tiande were all conversant with ink painting and calligraphy from an early age but chose different ways in which to develop their understandingundermine traditional Chinese was one of the first artists in the 1980s to use calligraphy first major body of work, Gu focused on Chinese characters, depriving them of meaning by reversing the order of the component parts, executing them upside down etc. Painted with tremendous energy, Gu’s forceful calligraphies investigate both the power and degradation of language that characterized the turbulent decade of the Cultural Revolution when it was impossible to escape from the political slogans of the “big character” posters.

Yang Jiechang and Wang Tiande both received a classical training as students but have utilized this background in entirely different ways. Yang Jiechang studied techniques of traditional paper-mounting, calligraphy and painting at the Folk Art Institute of Foshan and the Fine Art Academy of Guangzhou. After graduating he studied Zen and Taoism with Master Huangtao at Mount Luofu, Guangdong Province. In his first sustained body of work, the Layers of Ink, he renounced representation or calligraphic legibility in favor of abstraction. In I Often do Bad Things, he uses a banal statement for his calligraphy and provides and English translation in neon. Yang is a provocateur who attempts to create sudden flashes of illumination, unlike Wang Tiande who adopts a more nuanced approach.

Wang studied ink painting and calligraphy at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts and the Zhejiang Academy of Art but after graduating chose not to jettison all the techniques he had learnt as Yang did in his Layers of Ink but to use them in unexpected ways. In the ongoing Digital series, Wang continues to develop a technique he discovered by accident when burning ash from a cigarette fell on a sheet of rice paper creating forms that resembled Chinese characters and landscape forms. Typically, a landscape or calligraphic inscription executed in ink on paper and representative of tradition is covered with a sheet of translucent xuan paper into which forms reminiscent of the under- painting are burned. Glimpses of tradition can be seen through the contemporary scrim. A similar layered effect characterizes the Chinese Clothes, mysterious garments that look back to traditional patterns but are rendered unmistakably modern through the muted tones of the silk outer garment into which illegible characters have been burned.

Qiu Zhijie and Feng Mengbo are also strongly attracted to classical Chinese culture although seen from different perspectives. Before entering the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, Qiu had studied calligraphy under his grandfather. Although he soon began to work in a wide variety of media in the 1990s including video, photography and performance, the practice of calligraphy continued to be a central concern, notably in Assignment No. 1: Copying “Orchid Pavilion” a Thousand Times, in which he copied this celebrated masterpiece of Chinese calligraphy on a single piece of paper for three years. In his series of calli-photographs, he was able to combine two of his principal interests, using a long exposure to record his calligraphy made by using a flashlight instead of a brush. He also needed to write in reverse in order to create legible images in the photographic prints. In series such as Twenty Four Seasons and It’s Changed (2005-6), Qiu chose a wide variety of backgrounds for his light calligraphy, attempting not to drain characters of their meaning as is the case with many of his contemporaries but to restore the poetic meanings of traditional culture. In Twenty Four Poetry Grades, he continued his investigation of writing in reverse, using the recalcitrant medium of acrylic on canvas to recreate this classic calligraphic inscription.

Although Feng Mengbo is China’s foremost new media artist, famous for his interactive video games and computer based paintings, he too was obliged to study calligraphy and Chinese painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing from which he graduated in 1991 and was always an admirer of traditional Chinese landscape painting. After what he has referred to as “a decade-long romance with the computer,” he returned to painting in 2005, producing a series of digitally manipulated landscapes in 2007. For the Yi Bite paintings dating from 2010, Feng turned to images from the Jieziyuan Huazhuan (The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting) and randomly selected groups of characters from Buddhist texts. Reduced to one - bit form – the smallest amount of information possible for a computer image – and silkscreened onto wooden panels covered with silver leaf, these harsh black forms contrast in every respect from their source of inspiration. As Andrew Solomon has commented, “In this more recent work, the technological does not make life shinier; instead, Feng dryly puts us in touch with the primitiveness of all technology compared to the infinitely subtle artistry of which the hand is capable.”

Cui Fei and Song Dong owe least to traditional calligraphy since Cui works with twigs and thorns and Song Dong, although he uses a brush, does not use ink. Cui Fei received her BFA in painting from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts before moving to the United States in 1996. Cui’s work encompasses painting, photography and installations but uniting them all is a deep love of nature which she finds in materials such as “tendrils, leaves and thorns composing a manuscript symbolizing the voiceless messages in nature that are waiting to be discovered and to be heard.” (Artist’s statement). In addition to site-specific installations in which she utilizes locally-found materials systematically organized in ways that recall simultaneously traditional Chinese formats and Western minimalism, Fei also creates independent works such as the four pages from Read by Touch (2005-6) and Diary (2008) in the present exhibition. She also is fascinated by the way in which works of art become progressively detached from their sources in nature as in the three pigment prints Tracing the Origin VI – I – III, 2008. As she has written: “In the Tracing the Origin series, I use Chinese characters to explore the relationship between nature and culture…The found grape tendrils resemble Chinese characters which are written in the grass style. In my work, these elements are meant to represent nature. The images of the tendrils realized in different art making methods transform the three dimensional objects into two dimensional images of different colors and scales. Their origin, the tendrils, may no longer be finished in the finished artwork.”

For Song Dong calligraphy is a private activity that does not result in tangible results capable of being admired by connoisseurs. As one of China’s leading conceptual and performance-based artists Song Dong is not generally associated with the traditional medium of calligraphy except in his celebrated Water Diary (1995 to the present). Since Song Dong’s family was quite poor, Song Dong has recalled how as a child he was encouraged by his father to write in water on stone rather than waste ink and paper. What started as a pleasurable amusement eventually became a valued meditational practice and beginning in 1995, he began committing his most intimate thoughts to water on stone on a daily basis. Recorded only in photographic form, Song Dong’s extended calligraphic practice may be seen as both a comment on the evanescence of life (a classic Buddhist theme) and the constraints of living in China where privacy is in short supply and committing thoughts to paper can be a dangerous activity.

Song Dong practices calligraphy without using ink. Hong Lei, on the other hand, uses ink as a sculptural material without diluting it or using a brush. In his Ink Mountain he uses ink to create a miniature mountain, a discreet homage to the material used by Chinese painters and calligraphers from the earliest times until today.

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