By Michael Eilers
Arizona Daily Wildcat February 29, 1996
The West has had a longstanding fascination with the
Orient, from Marco Polo's bold voyages to our recent
political struggles with the Communist dictators that rule China. With a thousand-year head start over the cultures of Europe, China was able to produce some of the finest examples of craft yet seen on this globe, from exquisite Ming Dynasty vases to intricate silks to the Great Wall itself. Drawing from that illustrious history, a group of artists from Shanghai have brought their works to the UA Museum of Art, to further fuel our curiosity about the mysterious East. Shanghai Ink has come to Tucson.
Their works are studies in contemplation as well as craft. While extremely diverse in design and technique, these artists share a passion for precision and exquisite detail. What appears to be a casual splash of ink reveals, upon inspection, that hours may have gone into every brushstroke. Deeply influenced by the principles of Bhuddism, these works seem designed to instill peace in the viewer, and have a gentle harmony that can be hypnotic.
As abstract and beautiful as these pieces are, they are ultimately political in content. Long held to the strict doctrine of socialist realism, the type of artwork encouraged under China's Communist government, Chinese artists are only beginning to emerge as individuals and express themselves without fear of repression. Socialist realist art required state-prescribed elements of propaganda and realistic content to be the focus of an artist's work for it to pass the Communist regime's censors.
These artists are also breaking tradition with an artform that boasts a 3,000 year history. The Chinese art of ink on paper has been around as long as paper itself, and became a stylized and precise form, much in the way the Chinese alphabet became standard and uniform across China. By using new mediums, new techniques, and increasingly abstract imagery, the Shanghai Ink artists are charting a bold new course for Chinese art€one does not put aside 3,000 years of tradition lightly.
The works of Qui Deshu are the most dominant of the collection, not only by sheer size but in their dazzling use of technique and imagery. Huge sheets of rice paper mounted on canvas are filled with intricate detail, described by bold blacks, blues and reds against the stark white paper.
Deshu's technique is unsurpassed. With the care and dexterity of a watchmaker, Deshu hid every brushstroke, delineating precise forms and geometric shapes that lock together like a puzzle. The result is a surface that appears more organic than manmade€Deshu's dexterous sleight-of-hand allows his pieces to seem as natural as the subjects he is depicting. Using the translucency of rice paper to his advantage, Deshu added layers of paper with each new ink color, giving the paintings a depth and density not possible with traditional works or paint on canvas. His pieces have a fractal density, gaining detail and symmetry the deeper you look.
"Fissuring-Genesis: Great Power, Stirring Beauty" is the name of a series of 5 paintings on the north wall of the museum's main gallery. Up close, these pieces are a fascinating sprawl of red and black ink that varies from geometric patterns to organic forms and splatters. From a distance, the piece becomes five giant faces, each portraying a distinct and powerful emotional state. Varying in expression from fiery anger to peaceful contemplation, these faces are split and shattered by many "fissures"€a detail that Qui Deshu said was deliberate, symbolic of the fissuring of Chinese culture under the Communist Regime.
"The fissures are like the pieces of a cracked pot€the ones thrown down in the street and smashed during the Red Revolution in China," he said at the opening of the exhibit.
Chen Jialing's "Lotus: White Birch" is a study in minimalism that seems to instill an instant air of contemplation. Nine panels of rice paper depict a stand of white birches described by the simplest, most graceful brushstrokes possible. Jialing used an "ink-wash" technique that allowed him total control, while maintaining an organic and natural look.
Across the way in the Joseph Gross gallery, the show continues. First to greet the eye are a series of playful, energetic photographs by Gang Feng Way. Small but packed with detail, these photos of old people, children, and scenes of Shanghai life are just as precise as the ink paintings on the walls surrounding them. Way has a wonderful eye for both composition and moments that capture the human experience.
Five other artists are showing in the Gross gallery, each with a unique style and technique. The pieces of Wang Tiande are sure to catch the eye, composed of large, circular paintings full of detail. His aggressive brushstrokes describe grasslands and prairies, along with spirals of smoke and the dense texture of animal fur. Blending the aesthetic with the political, his artist's statement explains that he paints in memory of the Chinese grasslands, which are being consumed by development and the expansion of cities.
The mysterious works of Zhi-ping Lu have the deftness and surprise of a well-executed magic trick; you are dazzled, but have no idea how it was done. Enigmatically described as "etchings," these pieces have a deeply layered look that is reminiscent of recent digital images, yet are composed of materials as old as history itself. His "Notes of an Archeologist" series is nothing short of breathtaking.
Rounding out this superlative show are the works of Chen Xing, Wang Jieyin, and Li Hou. Each has their own take on the collision between ancient techniques and modern culture. Wang Jieyin is perhaps the most conservative of the group overall, and his woodcuts seem utterly timeless, an homage to tradition. Xing and Hou are much more playful, splattering ink and using the organic effects of ink wash to augment their works.
Stressed out by midterms? Thesis deadline on your mind? Sick of Sienfeld? I highly recommend a stroll through the Shanghai Ink exhibit. These breathtaking pieces are sure to inspire an instant attitude of contemplation and inner peace € or at least more peace than an evening of Must See TV could inspire ...
The UA Museum of Art is located on Speedway and Park, in the Arts Complex. Hours are 10-5 weekdays, Noon to 4 Sundays. Shanghai Ink will be showing through March 14. Feedback on this review? firstname.lastname@example.org.