Little of Hong Ling's art survives from the unsettled political era of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) in China. The exhibition begins with a rare work from 1979 and includes other student works from the 1980s, the period of Hong’s training in art colleges in Beijing: these are works from the studio such as nudes and portraits, as well as series of hutong (traditional courtyard) paintings. In the 1990s, following increasing critical and commercial success, Hong began to travel widely and set up a studio residence in the picturesque region of Mount Huangshan in southern Anhui Province, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since then, Hong Ling has focussed exclusively on landscape painting, working in parallel studios devoted to oil and ink painting, while dividing his time between Beijing and Huangshan. Since 1990, Hong Ling's work has also been richly informed by his extensive travels across China, Asia and many remote parts of the world, including the north and south polar regions— experiences documented in his sketchbooks, albums, watercolours and photographs, some of which are included in this retrospective.
Having undergone a rigorous academic training before becoming a teacher at CAFA, Hong Ling paints landscapes that are technically very rich. This is seen not just in his honed compositions of the wilderness and rigorous handling of pictorial space, but also through the complex layering of paint and effects of opacity and transparency. At the same time, Hong Ling's painting belongs in the lyric, aesthetic tradition of Chinese painting. His works embody personal human experience and values in the ways they echo the dramatic and intense seasonal changes among the high peaks of Huangshan. Hong Ling's is a dignified painting practice in China's scholar-painter tradition of self-cultivation, but it is also provocatively modern and reflexive. These works will have an instinctive appeal for modern audiences as paintings in their own right. Yet, they also tell a story of one artist's personal development, his embrace of the natural world and his spiritual growth, and as such, provide evidence before our eyes of the dramatic social and political changes that have transformed life in China over the last half century.