“A Walk in the Clouds”
Contemporary Ink Painting
Elga Wimmer PCC
Nov 30th-Dec 14th 2018
Curated by Lan Zhang
By MARK BLOCH, December 2018
“How much tradition does an ink painting require to still be called ‘Chinese’?” asked the active and inquiring curator, Lan Zhang, when she presented the work of Liu Chunbing of Hubei, a province right in the center of China, to make plain, in two dimensions, the exact nature of this dilemma. His exhibition, called “A Walk in the Clouds,” provided valuable perspective on this essential issue, bringing to New York a thoughtful demonstration—by one skilled artist—of a cultural stretch taking place within all of Chinese art.
Liu’s exhibition really was like a walk in the clouds. Elga Wimmer has showed Asian artists since the 1990s, both in her gallery and as a curator for museums and foundations. As I entered her 3rd floor space I first encountered Liu's Walking in the Clouds Number 5 in which I, like the subject of the painting, a tall woman with teased out hair and wearing a flowing party dress, was immediately confronted with an odd image of four girls drinking pink soda through straws, welcoming me to the exhibit. Like a floating piece of the subject’s memory with difficult to read facial expressions, it provided a mysterious context for a slightly unsettling journey I was about to take.
The painting’s setting itself was vague. There were hints of landscape in the foreground and ancient buildings in the background, perhaps The Forbidden City, home of emperors and the political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years. But those women, the lady and her vision of other ladies? By alternately fusing and then creating tension between time-honored methods and the complex many-sided narratives of Western modern art, Liu’s work offered disorienting hints of Surrealism and Existentialism.
Five thousand years of Chinese art history that includes a solid one thousand years of Chinese ink painting gently but unmistakably places a heavy load onto the backs of today’s Chinese artists in the form of “tradition.” That tradition has its own cultural ecosystem that came into play during the Five Dynasties period around 900 AD and is now firmly entrenched. It presents a set of guidelines and considerations that create expectations for any artist that would attempt to capture or somehow depict the beautiful ecological wonders seen in the landscapes of the Asian world, and China in particular. The artist Liu Chunbing is obviously playing with this idea.
To the right of the soda-sipping ladies painting, I am stopped in my tracks by a series of striking traditional landscapes on long paper scrolls, hung together in a block. The five works on colored backgrounds and adeptly painted with black ink, are, respectively, on top of light blue punctuated with purple roofs, light green, then a faint bluish purple with more houses and their purple roofs, and finally pink and yellow, with the pink landscape highlighted by daring orange-red trees. The exquisite lines and brushstrokes were traditional but the background colors and especially the blasts of occasional color highlights were anything but.
Liu breaks ground with his use of color. Peeking through the established harmony of black ink and white paper the bold tints, stains, and hues, even in these more or less traditional landscape paintings, tip me off that I am not in traditional territory. A transformation of the language of pen and ink is also a theme coherently worked over in Liu’s work. He brings new life to traditional ink techniques and the implementation of brush strokes, nurturing the dignity and grandeur of Chinese painting while using composition and subject matter to bust out of what is customary.
In all, two sets of four scrolls each comprise a poem. I learn later they are inspired by the Diamond Sutra, one of the most important sacred texts in Mahayana Buddhism. It is Buddhism’s version of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book made with moveable type, But with the Diamond Sutra written 600 years before Gutenberg’s text, it is easily the oldest dated printed book in existence proved by a copy discovered in 1900. It’s significance to the artist Liu are the words that “life is like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud.” He explained, “Life occurs to us like a dream.” The text’s purpose is known to help us cut through our perceptions of the world and its illusions.
Liu Chunbing balances “tradition” and “breakthrough,” welcoming both the ancestral and unconventional. With the scrolls and with the entire exhibit, he created a visual tale that transcend both time and space, East and West, blazing a trail forward for Chinese ink painters into the world of international contemporary art.
His unique treatment includes figures that feel snatched off the streets of today’s China and transported to the past by a time machine, creating post-modern juxtapositions.
In Walking in the Clouds Number 11, groups of four and then two figures were impressionistically swabbed on, much like the woman’s dress in the first painting, juxtaposed against the more carefully executed spread-eagled girl in sunglasses in the foreground who looked carefree, perhaps defiantly so, leaning back and facing the right, revealing beautifully drawn legs. This was in contrast to Walking in the Clouds Number 12 with a more matriarchal figure in a glittery coat against a stained background with a glittery area to the right of a sparkly castle that looked as majestic as the seated figure.
Walking in the Clouds Number 3 and 7, at the back of the gallery, stood in contrast to Number 8, closer up front, in which the fascade of a castle suggested that we had reached “inside,” penetrated beyond the taboo into the inner sanctum. A reclining figure in 8 stared absently like a zombie or could be asleep or even dead. In 3, an arched gate entrance with girls outside and a foreboding sky projected the figures as outcasts. Shopping females in summer clothes in the lower left of the frame with pink lipstick were an example of one of various uses of pink in this painting: pink leaves near the top left in front of a mountain, pink cars, pink flowers. A similarly forboding sky in Number 7 resonated with the gate to a new place, an archway that suggested we are half in and half out of some city—somewhere between forbidden or forgotten.
There is an all-encompassing term for pictures of women: shih-nü hua. And while there are distinctions in Chinese culture that we in the west, depending on the audiences they were created for, would call high art or low art, Liu’s cloud-walk peppered with the female figure popping up in unexpected places represents a break from the past. There is a secret history of sexual iconography in Chinese art from all periods in which distinguished women as well as courtesans and concubines are pictured in the company of innocent looking objects like peaches, peonies or a fragrant Asian fruit called the finger citron or Buddhist hand fruit nearby, presumably as proxies for erotic ideas proper artists couldn't openly depict. Veiled allusions like an open sleeve inviting a man to gaze into it, budding plum trees symbolic of male rejuvenation or women gazing at rabbits or coupling dogs, cats or butterflies are still being considered within the Chinese scholarly literature that makes rules.
Liu’s images are not exactly erotic but can be sexually provocative in places, telling a story spanning time, space, and culture in a painting language familiar to audiences both Western and Eastern. His works undoubtedly provide an excellent model for other artists who are exploring Chinese ink today; through these works, he establishes his own powerful interpretation of how Chinese painting could continue to move forward. He uses every available tool to intentionally and playfully confuse and obfuscate, not clarify, differentials between what is old and new, young and old, East and West, familiar and foreign.
He combined another nicely dressed woman with her arms crossed in front of her parted legs in Walking in the Clouds Number 4, this one directly facing the viewer, with another similarly clad lady with jewelry looking on, equally seductive and ambiguous. Both were as potentially innocent and as guilty as the brush strokes resembling calligraphy in the trees above her.
Liu was born in 1963 at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. “I am in the middle of the change, I participated in it,” he told me of the turmoil that has changed China in what seems like an instant, like the lightning referred to in the Diamond Sutra landscapes he created. “I experienced all these things.”
Liu has been a professor at many important art schools, after he majored in fine brushwork figure painting and received a master degree of art in 2006. He is now the Deputy Secretary General of the Hubei Artists Association.
He started learning ink painting with his father who was also a painter as well as an aesthetician, a scholar during the 1930s and 40s. A 60s Italian art critic once considered his father’s work experimental, a claim the father did not acknowledge, citing he had simply learned western Modern art history—“from Cezanne to Dali,” his son told me.
Liu also explained that Chinese painters are frequently scholars too. “Painting a line is about 70% reading and only 30% drawing.” He explained that spirit is the key to Chinese thinking. It is an abstract concept completely different from the Western approach. Liu was taught to paint based on yin and yang, female and male, yielding energy balanced by more aggressive energy or ch'i . “Through the line and the brush stroke they express thought and feeling,” Liu said. The curator Zhang, added, “spirit is the number one thing in his mind.”
Liu has chosen the women as a symbol for this spirit he is experiencing as he is watching the Chinese gates continue to open, “a process that began 40 years ago.” He has seen a lot of good and a lot of bad. “So much change.” So the yin forces, often embodied by women, as opposed to the male yang, were his choice in these latest works to reflect the whole reality—both good and bad. “A new conception of beauty has been pushed to the edge,” he said, as the central traditional role of “the castles”—as the Chinese refer to the buildings in the long-established ancient cities—is diminished.
Walking in the Clouds Number 1 very much reflected this disturbance in cultural normalcy, the conflict between old and new. The interior of a bus or subway directly faced the Chinese Forbidden City that was looming up ahead like Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. Inside the bus, half China and half New York, the eventual destination for this show, and on the outside all castle, all Forbidden City, all anciently established but turning into something more like man-made memory foam than a cloud—right before my eyes. The transforming Chinese landscape was thus depicted in all its contradictions, bold but not confrontational, which is culturally taboo.
Ms. Zhang told me that Liu’s previous show focused on ambiguity and she spoke at length about how this exhibition extends that idea. From his world that insists on the embrace of tradition and in which that tradition still looms large, Liu has brought alive Chinese contemporary society in which everything has been turned upside down within the span of a single lifetime that happens to be his.
Liu spoke excitedly about the Chinese public's first opportunity to see original works by a contemporary western artist—a retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg's work that opened in November 1985 at the National Gallery, Beijing, and had a profound impact on all the artists Liu knew at that time. But he called its impact conceptual and not technical.
“Western skill consists of basically copying what is seen,” he said, explaining that the Chinese go into nature, experience it, remember their experience and then express it, perhaps with an emphasis on presenting the world as it should be, not as it really is. “Chinese landscape painting is a connection to heaven, to a spiritual experience of the landscape, the mountain, the water, the cloud. Connecting to the earth.”
He continued, “Painters are often hermits who purify their spirit by immersing themselves in nature. They remove themselves from society.”
This is the tradition that has produced Liu Chunbing. But instead of removing himself from society, he has embraced it. Liu seemed to want to stress that what China took from the West was not about linear perspective, the method we in the West use to create the illusion of space on a 2D surface or about shadow or even Cubism but instead it was “a kind of philosophy from the beginning. It has a different meaning.” He went on to explain Chinese “scatter perspective.” Unlike western painting, with one perspective per work, Chinese painters divide a surface into three parts, each with its own perspective, a distinguishing feature of traditional Chinese painting allowing for variable viewpoints.
Liu has extended this idea into subject matter as well as style, mashing up a multi-dimensional spiritual hybrid—combining traditional training with thoughts and feelings about the cultural shift he has lived through. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at email@example.com and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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