Aktis gallery will showcase a selection of 10 Chinese ink paintings by the renowned Zao Wou-Ki, the greatest Chinese artist of the lyrical abstraction movement. The works range from 1950 through to the year 2000, providing a fascinating insight into the span of Zao's artistic practice. They will be exhibited alongside a group of 16 sculptures by the exceptional contemporary sculptor Wang Keping. Both artists left their native homeland for Paris in the 20th century, gaining recognition by the European art world as well as continuing to build their reputation in China.
They are also well recognised by art historians such as Michael Sullivan who thought “Wang Keping’s instinctive feeling for sculptural form is so powerful that his figures seem almost to burst through their skin, enlived by his optimism”, and described Zao Wou-ki’s contribution as “the Abstract Expressionist element in his own tradition” in his critically acclaimed book Art and Artists of Twentieth-century China.
“Everybody is bound by a tradition. I am bound by two.” – Zao Wou-Ki
Followed by his passion for oil painting Zao Wou-Ki had moved away from ink-wash painting for years before rediscovering his roots in the patterns of nature, but more importantly the reflection of Chinese philosophy. As his friend poet and art critic Henri Michaux said, “in his own way Zao Wou-Ki had revived ink-wash painting. More liberated from tangibility than his predecessors in China, more so than even in his own paintings on surfaces more bare, more intact.”
His ink paintings can be described as a blend between classical Chinese landscape painting and Western abstraction. Born in Beijing in 1920, he studied art at the School of Fine Arts, Hangzhou, and his early work was influenced by Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso. In 1948, on the eve of the Chinese revolution, he left China and settled in Paris and was soon immersed in the Paris avant-garde movement of the time. Under the influence of Paul Klee he embraced abstraction. In his own work he marries abstraction and traditional Chinese calligraphy to produce poetic and moody compositions, which are often interpreted as landscapes.
Zao Wou-Ki’s first retrospective was held in 1965 at the Folkwang Museum Essen, Germany, and he was subsequently recognised with major exhibitions at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1981, the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume (2003) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (2008). Zao Wou-Ki died in April 2013 and examples of his work are in important museums worldwide including Tate, MoMA New York, and the Guggenheim Museum New York.
“Black is the most stubborn colour – black is extreme; black is pure.” - Wang Keping, 2016
The group of sculpture showing at the exhibition features the highlight of Wang Keping’s most recent works on his profound search for the essential elements in life, from the human body with his stylised sculptures of couples, men and voluptuous women, as well as figures from the animal kingdom, all created using abstract forms determined by the wood itself. “What concerns me most is the shape of the wood; the cracks and bumps on the wood can give me inspiration,” he said.
For each sculpture, Wang Keping exerts his total artist control on the artworks, from the initial collection of the wood, to the carving, firing, burnishing and glazing of each piece. He said ‘black is the most stubborn colour – black is extreme; black is pure.’ After firing and burnishing the artwork with fire, the natural grain of the wood will emerge and become unbreakable.
His sculpture art practice has been remarkably consistent for over 35 years. He said ‘the most important - yet difficult - thing is to make a piece of work that represents your own unique style. To make an excellent small piece of work is not easy. As for large pieces, I have made a few. Sometimes it does not take long to make a large piece, as they do not require lots of detail. The difficulty is not about whether a piece is small or large in size; it is about making something that is unprecedented, style that has not been seen. That’s the most difficult thing.”
Wang Keping was born in 1949 in Beijing in an artistic family to a writer father and an actress mother. As a founding member of The Stars (Xing Xing), often called the first avant-garde contemporary art movement in China, he moved to Paris and has lived there since 1984. His work has been exhibited widely around the world, including in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Musee Cernuschi and Musee Zadkine in France; in the Ashmolean Museum in the UK, in the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland; in the Brooklyn Museum in the US; and in the National Art Museum of China, He Xiangning Art Museum and Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. He was awarded Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2015.
There is also a feature film interview to accompany the exhibition and an artist in conversation at the exhibition opening, as part of the Asian Art in London, St James’s late night.