The philosophical and religious tradition of Taoism that developed in ancient China has long remained enigmatic to Western thought. Its mysterious translation as “the way” or “the path” continues to bewitch new age seekers of enlightenment without being rooted in the actual Chinese cultural context from which it sprang. From an American perspective it is rather spellbinding to consider that the 4000-year span of Chinese history is approximately 17 times the age of US History. Though In Riotous Profusion: The New Possibilities of Ink Art presents itself as “rebelling against the tradition” of Chinese ink brush painting, it does so by also depending on basic expressive and philosophical ties that come from that same tradition. The exhibit makes its American debut in Chicago after traveling from Beijing and Brussels and will continue on to Taiwan.
The most basic consideration of the work is how it engages the abstract modernist traditions of Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism. Yet the exhibit comes full circle through the historical consciousness that both movements owe some degree of spiritual and aesthetic influence to Asian art and culture. It is necessary to witness the art in person: photographs cannot translate the intimacy that exists between matter-as-nature and how it bonds with intuition and feeling. It is a reminder that in Asian culture, at least as far as pre-contemporary society is concerned, art existed within the flow of everyday life, not in a museum.
On the entry wall are large hanging scrolls by Qin Feng. Broad calligraphic strokes swim over paper surfaces with great energy, spattering the surface with powerful organic force. They remind me of similar aspects in works of Wilhelm De Kooning and Robert Motherwell as well as the Zazen tradition of bold calligraphic ink painting. Ink painted on the back of the paper infuses ghostly grey shadows on the front surface, adding extra movement and dynamism to Feng’s images.
The paintings of Lan Zhenghui translate an equally bold relation to Abstract Expressionist influence. Like Franz Klein, areas of brushwork lines and masses alternate between architectural structures and improvisation. Compressed forms move from the sides and edges into the center to create a sense of great forces at battle in a dark and cataclysmic landscape.
Lan Zhenghui Untitled ink on Xuan paper 96 x 122 cm 2014
Liu Zijian follows a similar approach. Diffused grey and black masses create a strange surreal depth. The fluidity of water dispersing the ink gives the illusion that some great cosmic explosion is at hand. Small printed images of people on a train or a fragment of printed type are scattered in this vast landscape. They seem to symbolize insignificant moments of human consciousness tossed about in a vast chaotic void. Both Zijian’s and Zhenghui’s works echo the same existential sense of chaos and upheavel that can be found in the work of the Abstract Expressionists following WWII.
Liu Zijian Distinguished Pieces ink on Xuan paper 136 x 68 cm 2008
Some of this turbulence is reflected in Yuan Shun’s work, but in a distinctly more optimistic vein. Craggy rocks and splashing waves from traditional Chinese landscape paintings are meticulously transcribed onto a dynamic abstract whorl that explodes with vitality. It is as though the abstraction of recognizable nature has released a torrent of powerful forces in a burst of essentialized spirit.
Yuan Shun Future Season #29 ink on paper 99 x 140 cm 2015
Qiu Deshu eschews the use of the brush in his work, relying entirely on collage. The crushing, rubbing, and tearing of paper gives a sense of deep materialism to his surfaces. In one dramatic piece a giant rift of torn white paper is mounted on a solid black background. This gives the illusion of the paper turning into a strange natural phenomenon: imitating the cracks in a stone or an aerial view of shifting continents drifting apart. The paper becomes nature in a primordial state of transformation.
Qiu Deshu Fissure ink and acrylic on paper 120 x 120 cm 2014
Many works play with the water dispersion of ink as a natural phenomenon in patterns that may seem decorative to Western eyes, but reveal a deeper philosophical intention on closer examination: the Taoist value of simplicity. Li Gang creates grids from folded paper that are spontaneously spotted with dots of water-dispersed ink. This is contrasted with dots and spatters of heavy ink that sometimes crumble off the surface. He lets the medium deteriorate or flow as its own unique material nature dictates.
Li Gang Ink Elements No. 20140208 ink on Xuan paper 90 x 163 cm 2014
Zhang Zhaohui also uses grids, but to create meditative minimalist surfaces. Carefully laid bands of grey ink wash conjure a woven surface that looks like light shining water. Like the paintings of Agnes Martin, Zhaohui approaches Minimalism as a means of concentrated meditation: an expression of essentialized nature. This stands in opposition to the approach of Minimalists like Carl Andre and Donald Judd, whose use of non-natural industrial materials represent a reductive minimalist approach.
Zhang Zhaohui Linear Light #3 ink on Xuan paper 92 x 63cm 2015
Sang Huoyao also uses a minimalist means to express the fluidity and essence of natural phenomena. The all-over decorative appearance of his surfaces reveal a multiplicity of overlapping shapes that seem to compose themselves into thousands of freely formed abstractions. Painting on silk lends a dimension of shimmering depth to the surface, giving the feeling of fluid water suspended in glowing puddles on the surface.
Sang Huoyao The Way and the Truth of Life ink on silk 168 x 85cm 2014
It is both remarkable and refreshing to see the nature-based and meditative aspects of this work re-essentialize and re-spiritualize Modernist movements that lived a relatively short life in Western art. The harmonizing of the intuitive self with nature is the most basic aspect of Taoism, an approach that is fundamentally alien to American thinking and history. In today’s art world the belief in the postmodern denial of the existence of the self – that the self is a construction and no more- along with the profuse reliance on technology has considerably reduced engaging human instinct, expression, and intuition in contemporary art. Riotous Profusion challenges the constraints of these narrow circumstances with generous gifts of meditative essence and intuitive sincerity that come from an ancient past. It presents the wisdom that the forces of intuition and spontaneity remain innate within human nature if we can so grasp them.
Top image: Qin Feng Untitled ink and acrylic on linen paper 98 x 128 cm 2015
Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, IL. She is a 2002 recipiant of a Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant and is represented by the Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago and the Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico.