When art history invokes the ‘contemporary’, it refers to now, the current moment, and thus points into an unresolved perplexity. Now remains undefined, whether by science, philosophy, or mystical religion. Our contemporary ‘now’ is not merely an instant — not even a stretched or dilated instant. It is a time that is still with us, or which we continue to participate in, at once proximate and elusive, still awaiting its sense, obliquely intersecting the narrower present of chronological location and practical schedules.

The visual arts, at their most reflective, enter into this perplexity as into an animating spiral. Whilst succumbing to categorization — or time definition — within a still obscure and incomplete contemporaneity, the art work can also make the act of definition its own, reaching out into the now, and telling us what it has found. In doing so it tests itself against an ultimate abstraction.

In some such now, current but chronologically indeterminable, Chinese visual art encountered a critical threshold. The difference between heading forward or backward, advancing or retreating, ceased – at some ‘point’ — to be an option, or a choice. Instead, for that complex cultural trend and inheritance at once defined as — and defining — neotraditionalism, true modernity was discovered in the acceptance of tradition as a path. This wave of creative – even explosive – experimentation was also an excavation, and a recovery. It demonstrated that innovative variation was inextricable from the maintenance of a course, directed into a future already cryptically indicated by the past.

Beyond Black and White: Chinese Contemporary Abstract Ink, on show at Pearl Lam Galleries (until September 7, 2013), focuses with glorious intensity upon the neotraditionalist current. In keeping with this focus, it both fulfills and deranges expectations, through the audacious explorations of a heritage made new.

The exhibition poises itself between a number of dynamically balanced dualities. Most graphically, it is integrated by its primary material, the contrastive complements of black and white, ink and paper, yin and yang, perturbed only at the margins by subtle deviations of media, and occasional encroachments of color. Architectural balance is sustained by the great double-helix of Chinese ink wash tradition, the distinct but inter-twined lineages of pictorial and calligraphic expression, image and sign, with each strand inciting the other into heightened flights of formal abstraction. Past and future – as already emphasized — are mutually suspended in a multiplied contemporaneity. Through all of this, Chinese art is re-balanced in the world, communicating with alternative cultural traditions at the abstract limit of each, where the escape from formal constraint fuses with the reality of time.

“Abstract Ink” – as a culmination of tradition — is already distinctively Chinese, but the true cultural singularity that is pursued here exceeds the medium, to involve, minimally, a reciprocal creative irritation of painting and writing – twin twisted tracks that, between them, describe an aesthetic trajectory into abstraction. The Chinese tradition, propelled by this double training, cultivates resemblance and significance simultaneously, and thus, through relentless sublimation, flees both, into a horizon of purity where strokes and (gray-scale) tones become sheer flight, or indices of escape — cosmic gestures without substance or meaning.

Arrayed along the northern end of the gallery, several series of small pieces by Qiu Zhenzhong undertake systematic experiments with stroke and tone. Calligraphic scripts are disentangled by cursive lines into unintelligible forms, or melted through tonal dissolves into the indefinite, whilst images are simplified to the brink of an archaic ideography.

Wang Tiande – an artist of obvious centrality to the neotraditional renaissance – contributes two small pieces worked in his characteristic subtractive method — which combines stroke and tone in a piercing scorch – one tilted into his experimental practice from calligraphy, the other from painting. These pieces represent him (and testify to his importance), rather than demonstrating his work at its most fully or ambitiously achieved. Also included is a technically-complex textile work, in which the scorch method creates a calligraphically-annotated shirt.

Wei Ligang is represented by a single, large, calligraphy-based work (Unicorn-Crane, 2010), whose golden, flowing background relaxes the show’s chromatic discipline. Color also creeps in through Feng Mengbo’s video work (Not Too Late, 2010), which makes the modernization of tradition both theme and medium.

Qiu Deshu, a bold pioneer of neotraditional revival from the early 1980s, has two pieces on display (Fissuring, and Fissuring Life, 2012), more remarkable for their intelligence than their dazzling aesthetic presence. Abstract explorations of paper tearing and folding, they employ an intermediate ink tone to collapse shape onto the picture plane, bearing witness to a vanished spatial dimension.  (As with Wang Tiande, the casual encounter with Qiu Deshu in this show is best taken as an invitation to further engagement with a neotraditionalist artist of supreme importance.)

For sheer visual drama, the calligraphic dimension of the exhibition is dominated by Wang Dongling. The three works on show (Tiger Wind, 2010; Benevolence and Integrity, 2013; and Chuang-Tzu’s “Free and Easy Wandering”, 2013) are not only striking (even stunning) in themselves, but also remarkable for their extraordinary variety. Tiger Wind is a large three-character cursive work whose bold sweeping lines – unmoderated by intermediate tones – compose a frozen leap of tensed energy. Benevolence and Integrity is a more architectural work, structured by soul-sucking slabs of abysmal blackness, whilst Chuang-Tzu’s “Free and Easy Wandering” is a more traditionally composed work, using serried Chinese script to playfully explore the combinatorial space of shape and shade. These outstanding pieces amply reward a visit to the exhibition on their own.

Three superb works by Lan Zhenghui and Zheng Chongbin complete the more painterly dimension of the show, displaying the potential of Ink Abstraction at a thrilling level of aesthetic achievement. Lan Zhenghui’s huge ‘mop’ work (Leap Series No.4, 2010) exuberantly jumbles ink-tones and stroke-angles to construct a monumental celebration of the medium as a vehicle for artistic liberty. Zheng Chongbin’s exquisite abstracts (Untitled No.16, 2007; and Formless, 2010), sharpening the tonal scale with vivid acrylics, conduct an utterly absorbing visual expedition into the limitless involvements of light and darkness.

“These artists are part of a growing circle in China that draws inspiration from traditional Chinese ink painting and its philosophy as well as Chinese calligraphy,” the gallery explains. As the story of Chinese neotraditionalism takes shape, Beyond Black and White will surely find a place among the tellers, as well as in the tale. It is also a feast for sense and thought alike. Catch it if you can.

Address: Pearl Lam Galleries, 181 Jiangxi Zhong Lu, (G/F), Huangpu District, Shanghai (021 6323 1989), online.


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