The history of abstraction in the West charts a clear trajectory, beginning with the advent of Modernism in the early part of the 20th century and the work of artists such as Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian. In China, however, abstraction is simply one of the many parallel styles available to contemporary Chinese artists – considered neither in opposition to, nor independent of an alternative figurative form of practice. The language of abstraction in China developed independently, through diverse influences including traditional calligraphic aesthetics, Taoist philosophy and as a challenge to dominant forms of painting promoted during the Cultural Revolution. An appreciation of abstract forms is deeply embedded in Taoist thought, while the arrangements of calligraphy, arguably the most abstract of traditional Chinese painting styles has, in part, shaped the discourse around contemporary abstraction. This exhibition draws together paintings by nine Chinese artists whose work, in different ways, contributes to this rich dialogue.
Echoing the structure of traditional Chinese calligraphy, where characters are formed around vertical columns, the monochromatic paintings of Qin Yifeng feature perpendicular stripes, interrupted by sinuous brush marks. The application of the fluid strokes is akin to calligraphy as well as to the spontaneity of gestural abstraction.
The ink wash paintings of Tang Guo have their roots in ancient traditions. Using both the element of chance and a controlled brushstroke, the paintings are formed using colour gradations and a decentralised perspective, resulting in works that resonate with ideas of post-painterly abstraction.
The congruent structures of Yu Youhan’s ‘Circle’ paintings are an exploration of the harmonious unity expressed in Taoism (yin and yang) as well as, in Yu’s words, ‘a metaphor for both the fleeting moment and eternity’. A pioneering figure of the ’85 New Wave’ group, considered to be one of the first contemporary art movements in post-liberation China, Yu has repeatedly returned to abstraction as a metaphysical exploration of ‘nothingness and being’.
Qian Jiahua’s spatial compositions comprise solid blocks of colour, anchored with borders and lines that subtly disrupt the flatness of the image. Through a manipulation of line and through variations in hue, the rhythmic balance of angular forms and colour relationships in the paintings create a pliant, almost playful rigour, thereby challenging the two-dimensional nature of so much contemporary abstraction.
The paintings of Zhou Li take nature as their starting point, particularly the mountainous landscape of southern China. Zhou employs free-flowing lines of charcoal and washes of ink, overlaid with solid arcs and circles of white paint, in delicate, harmonious compositions, to create very personal, lyrical abstractions.
Using the ancient techniques of Chinese lacquerwork, Su Xiaobai’s monochrome paintings are informed by the traditions of Buddhist philosophy and its notion of ‘everything is nothing, nothing is everything’, as well as by Western abstraction, which Su first experienced while a student at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf in the 1980s. The paintings have a sculptural quality, expanding in convex form from the painting surface, building layers of lacquer to produce a shimmering, opalescent surface.
In the works of Jiang Zhi, from which the exhibition takes its title, the ‘system errors’ from a computer screen, where a data glitch causes a corrupted or fractured image, are rendered in large-scale to create complex patterns and forms. Hovering between representation and abstraction, the paintings’ dynamic compositions and palette are meticulously translated freehand from screen to canvas.
Liu Wentao’s paintings are made with densely applied graphite pencil lines, drawn in straight rows which, through marginal mathematical adjustment, interweave to produce compact, refracted surfaces. Exploring the dichotomy between the ‘concrete’ and the ‘void’, a central tenet of Taoism, Liu also takes inspiration from the minimalism of Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly, whose work he encountered when he studied in the US.
Liang Quan refers to his mixed media collages, which incorporate rice paper and ink, as ‘abstract diagrams of traditional Chinese landscape’. Following a period of study in San Francisco, Liang became interested in the work of Richard Diebenkorn with whom he shares an affinity, both of them working with geometric forms, spatial relationships and passages of ‘empty space’. Also inspired by Zen Buddhism and meditation, this ‘emptiness’ in Liang’s work is realised with intricate, subtle details, ‘driving simplicity with complexity’.