The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Monday, September 12, 2016

Hu Qinwu: 天下All Under Heaven

Earlier this year I wrote a catalogue essay for an exhibition of paintings by Hu Qinwu at Melbourne's Niagara Galleries. I have loved Hu's work since visiting his studio on my first trip to China at the start of 2011, my first encounter with this softly spoken and gentle artist. Here is the essay, in both English and Chinese versions, with thanks to Niagara Galleries, China Art Projects and my wonderful translator in Beijing, Xu Yining:
Hu Qinwu in his Beijing studio, 2011, photograph Luise Guest
Can painting be a form of meditation, even of prayer? In the work of Beijing-based painter Hu Qinwu we find a cosmos teeming with energy, like constellations seen through a powerful telescope, or the unseen worlds beneath the ocean’s surface. Hu works in an idiom that seems at first glance to echo western modernist conventions of abstraction – fields of rich colour are activated with a grid of lines and marks that appear to shimmer and float across large canvases like echoes of Rothko, immersive and profoundly beautiful. Almost minimalist, they are stained in grey, gold, crimson, viridian or jade. 


(untitled 20161), 2016

acrylic, pigment on canvas 150 x 120 cm
Image courtesy of Niagara Galleries
Unlike the mid-century American colour field and gestural abstractionists, however, Hu Qinwu’s abstraction emerges from a particularly Chinese art historical moment. The abstract painting that emerged at the end of the twentieth century in China is the antithesis of western minimalism; art historian Gao Minglu coined the term ‘Maximalism’ to define their particular character: anti-theatrical, consisting of both interior and exterior space, imbued with philosophical and spiritual notions of temporality, these works reflect the conceptual space within the artist. Inheriting this specifically Chinese history, every work in Hu Qinwu’s oeuvre is an expression of his Buddhist practice – slow, deliberate, reflective and spare. Not a mark is wasted; there is no excess. This is painting that has been pared back over time, stripped of all that is inessential, reduced to its essence. 

For thirty years under Mao the only permissible style for Chinese painters was Soviet Socialist Realism. Painters were trained in Russian and French methods of academic realist painting, and even today figuration dominates. There is a growing interest in abstraction, however, and an acknowledgement that there is indeed a history of abstract painting in China. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first there have been reciprocal exchanges between Chinese and western modernist artists in relation to abstraction. A complex history of transnational discourse that defies easy codification, this has not been a one-way influence, or a kind of artworld colonialism. In post-war New York artists such as Rothko, Motherwell, Kline and Tobey were fascinated by ink painting and calligraphy, and by Zen Buddhist thought. In post-Mao China, a late twentieth century revival of ink painting took western abstraction as a visual language of line and mark and adapted it to a very different philosophical paradigm. To view Hu Qinwu’s paintings as an adaptation of high modernist ‘all-over’ painting would be to entirely miss the point. His practice is grounded in Buddhist philosophy, Chinese history, and his life in Beijing, far from his home town in Shandong Province. To understand his paintings as a form of prayer is closer to the artist’s intentions. 


(untitled 13021), 2016

acrylic, pigment on canvas 150 x 120 cm
Image courtesy of Niagara Galleries
Hu Qinwu describes his careful layering of wash, stain and glaze as ‘a process of alternative confirmation and disavowal’ in which a repeated brushing away and re-drawing ultimately creates harmony. Lined up against the walls of his studio, his canvases seem to be texts that could be read if only you could decipher the script. Braille-like, these paintings are a coded language of dots, dashes and marks. Like Buddhist sutras, you imagine them chanted aloud. Acrylic works on paper are stacked on tables; deep red, cobalt or ultramarine pigment is layered over black, or sometimes reveals itself from underneath darker shades of aubergine and dark grey. The surface patterning of dots and marks is made by the artist’s practice of dropping water carefully and methodically onto the surface of the work. Sometimes Hu uses a soldering iron to burn holes into the surface, evoking natural processes of weathering and decay. In the past he has burned into the pages of Buddhist sutra books to obliterate certain characters on each page, rendering the text unreadable. To the artist, this is not a nihilist absence of meaning, but an action embedded in a Buddhist theology in which language is just one possible means of labelling and defining the world. In the ‘Buddhist Volume’ series a fine gold grid overlays Chinese characters partially revealed through a patterning of dots in darker and lighter washes of ink on heavy paper. They seem to shimmer and dissolve, disappearing and reappearing under the patterns of tiny repeated circular forms. 

Trained in oil painting in his native Shandong Province, Hu Qinwu came to Beijing to pursue a Master’s Degree in Painting from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 2008. Today, he lives and works in the capital, in a peaceful studio far from the city centre, and his practice extends from painting into photography, printmaking and sculpture. His immersion in the traditional practices of ink painting, his own personal history and the recent history of China have all had a profound impact on his work. ‘Chinese history and culture are in my blood’, he says. Austere, yet lyrical, his paintings convey tranquillity, as well as a determination to create order from the constant change and frenzied re-invention that characterises life in Beijing.


(untitled <<13006>>), 2013

acrylic, pigment on canvas
80 x 90 cm
Image courtesy of Niagara Galleries
Works such as ‘Untitled 13006’ and ‘Untitled 13008’ (2013) feature veils of rich red pigment over darker underpainting. The characteristic grid of dots in these works makes them appear weightless, floating, suggesting the rhythmic pulsing of blood in the veins. In ‘Untitled 13021’ (2013) a myriad of dots and marks vibrate across rich grounds of black and grey, at once dramatic and subtle. Abstract and yet also not abstract, they are immersively meditative. On careful viewing these works reveal elaborate and sophisticated variations of colour, shape and texture; every mark and subtle transition of tone is carefully considered. There are no accidents here. The authoritative presence of Hu Qinwu’s large canvases are underpinned by his deep knowledge of ink painting.

The term ‘tian xia’ in Chinese literally translates as ‘under heaven’, but its meaning is far more complex. Rooted in Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian philosophies, it refers to the order of things, the wholeness of the universe, as well as to physical geography and the metaphysical realm of mortals. Far beyond the visible and physical world, ‘tian xia’ implies a cosmology covering earth, heaven and everything in between, including the social, psychological and political worlds. Archaeologists have discovered ancient Chinese artefacts, jade carvings, temple structures and sacrificial platforms which employ the square (‘cong’) and the circle (‘bi’) in a symbology of the cosmos. The archetype of round heavens above and square earth beneath also formed the ancient symmetrical axis of the design of Beijing. Scholars speculate that, as far back as the ancient Neolithic period, these abstract designs functioned as astronomic and magical instruments to create magical connections between human and supra-human worlds.

Now, in a time of doubt and chaos, this ancient cosmological symmetry is seductively appealing. In works such as ‘Untitled 15001’ (2015) the darker vertical lines and streaks of paint make up a grid that echoes the brutal concrete, glass and steel structures of hypermodernity, the edifices that have replaced the grey courtyard houses and lanes of old Beijing, surrounded by eight-lane ring-roads. Punctuated by the circular forms made by the slow, deliberately controlled dripping of water onto the wet surface of the canvas, these paintings also evoke rainfall, weathering and the cyclical process of the natural world. Hu Qinwu has been profoundly affected by the transformation of his society in the last twenty years, and the dramatic changes in China’s economic, cultural and political landscape. He turns inwards, he says, to find ‘a quiet, calm place’ in which he can reflect on true and enduring values amidst the turbulence of rapid social change. 
Hu Qinwu (untitled 15002), 2015
acrylic, pigment on canvas 90 x 80cm
image courtesy Niagara Galleries

The startlingly vivid turquoise surface of ‘Untitled 15002’ (2015) is interrupted by long vertical drips and dribbles that intersect with wave like chains of droplets, suggesting light on water. Hu Qinwu presents us with a paradox. Dropping water onto his canvases from above, he apparently opens himself to the vagaries of chance. At the same time, he controls the process as much as any painter of the literati creating fluid calligraphy with ink and brush. Mass and void, control and release, simplicity and complexity, light and dark, order and chaos – Hu Qinwu’s practice deals with apparent contradictions. Relying on the repetition of forms to create rhythmic harmonies, he creates works of great complexity with simple means. Yin and yang: the heavens above and the earth below.

 Luise Guest May 2016


Hu Qinwu, Untitled 12007, 2012, acrylic and pigment on canvas, image courtesy Niagara Galleries

绘画作品能否成为冥想甚至祈祷的一种形式?来自北京的画家胡勤武为我们描绘了一个充满能量的宇宙,如同透过超级望远镜望见的一系列星座,又仿佛是世人无从窥见的海底世界。 乍一看去,胡勤武的作品似乎承袭了西方现代主义者的抽象画传统——线条和符号构成的网格赋予色彩缤纷的田野无限生机,而这些网格又闪烁不定,漂过大大的油画布,和罗斯科的画作如出一辙,让人身临其境,又富含深刻的美。如同一位简约主义者,他们将作品染成灰色、金色、深红色、青绿色以及翡翠色,它们散发出微弱的光和阵阵的悸动。然而,不似中世纪时美式的色视野和抽象主义者,胡勤武的抽象作品起源于中国艺术的特定历史性时刻。兴起于中国二十世纪末的油画是西方极简主义的对立;艺术史学家高名潞创造性地提出“极繁主义”这一术语用以定义它们独有的特性:反剧场性、兼具内部空间与外部空间、充满世俗的哲学和精神层面的意味,这些作品反映了艺术家内心的概念空间。基于中国历史的这一特殊时期,胡勤武的每一件作品都在表达着他的佛法修行——慢节奏、审慎、深思熟虑以及清心寡欲。符号的数量恰好,多一分则过,少一分则缺。随着时间流逝,他的作品不断浓缩,冗赘通通抛却,只留下精华部分。
Hu Qinwu, Untitled 20162, 2016, acrylic and pigment on canvas, image courtesy Niagara Galleries
历史,蔑视着肤浅的概念,这既非一种单向的影响,也不是艺术世界的殖民策略。战后,纽约艺术家如罗斯科、马瑟韦尔、克莱因以及托比,痴迷于水墨画、书法以及禅宗佛教思想。毛逝世以后,水墨画在二十世纪末的中国复苏,将西方的抽象主义视为线条和符号的视觉语言,并将其改造为极为迥异的哲学范式。如果将胡勤武的画作视为极盛现代主义的“去中心化”,那么将会完全不得要领。他的绘画植根于佛教哲学、中国历史以及他在北京的生活经历,而与他的故乡——山东——相去甚远。如若将胡的画作视为一种祈祷形式,才算是领略到了个中要义。 胡勤武认为,他精心地清洗、着色、上釉是“一个用另类方式加以确认和否认的过程”,在这一过程中,重复的刷洗和绘画最终成就了和谐。在他工作室的墙上,排列着一幅幅的油画,仿佛一篇篇待读的文章,而要读懂它们,你必须破译其中的密码。如同盲文一般,这些作品就是圆点、破折号和各种符号组成的密语。像佛经一般,你想象着人们将其高声咏唱。丙烯酸颜料绘就的作品在书桌上堆起;深红色、深蓝色或者青蓝色颜料涂在黑色之上,或者,有时这些颜色从底下紫红色和深灰色的暗影中显现出来。圆点和符号构成的表面图案是胡勤武小心翼翼而有条不紊地将水滴在作品表面形成的。有时,胡勤武会用烙铁在作品表面烙出几个洞,从而形成老化和衰败的自然现象。过去,他曾在圣经的书页上烧过洞,每一页上都会烧掉几个汉字,导致圣经失去了可读性。对胡勤武而言,这并非毫无意义,而是一种嵌入了佛教神学的行为,这其中,语言只是定义世界的其中一种方式。在圣经经卷中,厚厚的纸上点着或明或暗的水墨点,它们覆盖着汉字,而这些音乐可见的汉字纸上则覆着细腻的金色网格。这些网格似乎闪闪烁烁,似在溶解,在重重叠叠的圆形图案下消失、再现。
胡勤武在山东老家学习油画创作,而后来到北京就读于中央美术学院并于2008年毕业,获得油画系硕士学位。目前,胡勤武在北京生活和工作,他安静的工作室远离喧嚣的市中心,而他的工作领域也从绘画延伸到摄影、版画制作和雕塑。他对水墨画传统画法的痴迷、他自身的经历以及中国近代历史无一不对他的作品产生了深刻影响。“中国历史和文化就流淌在我的血液里”胡勤武如是说道。朴素而不失情调,他的作品传达出宁静以及他的决心,那就是从不断的变化和标榜北京生活的、狂热的再发明中创造出秩序。 胡勤武的作品,如《无题13006》以及《无题13008》(2013)是在较暗的底色上涂上一层浓浓的红色颜料。这些作品中独特的圆点组成的网格使它们看起来没有重量,似在漂浮,彰显着血管中血液的节律性搏动。在《无题13021》(2013)中,无数的圆点和符号在黑色和灰色之上颤动,透露出戏剧性和微妙之处。抽象而又不抽象,这些作品展现出冥想的意味。仔细审视,这些作品展现出色彩、形状以及结构的精细而复杂的变化;每一个符号和色调的微妙变幻都经过精心考量。在这里没有巧合。胡勤武对水墨画的深刻理解构成了他的大型油画存在的基础。
远在远古的新石器时代,这些抽象设计就以天文的、魔法般的工具角色在发挥作用,在人类和超级人类世界之间产生了奇妙的联系。 眼下,我们生活的时代充斥着怀疑和喧嚣,这一来自古代的宇宙对称性论愈发充满吸引力。在诸如《无题15001》(2015)等作品中,暗色的垂直线条形成网格,与颇具超级现代性的、冷冰冰的混凝土、玻璃以及钢铁建筑相呼应,摩天大楼将老北京灰色的天井院子和胡同取而代之,八条环形道路将北京围绕其中。 过去二十年间,社会变革、中国经济、文化以及政治面貌的巨大变化都对胡勤武产生了深刻的影响。他说,他试图从内心深处找到“一处宁静、祥和”,社会变化极其迅速,产生了种种混乱,而胡勤武希望能够其中真实而持久的价值观加以反省。《无题15001》(2015)惊艳的蓝绿色表面因垂直下落的水滴而断断续续,这些水滴又与波浪交织在一起,如同水滴形成的链条,形成一片波光粼粼。胡勤武向我们呈现出一个悖论。水滴从高空落下,落到他的油画上,而很明显,他将自己融入于奇思妙想之中。同时,又如同任何一位用笔墨创造流畅书法的骚人墨客一样,他控制住整个过程。巨大与虚无,控制与释放,简单与复杂,光明与黑暗,秩序与混乱——胡勤武的作品着眼于显而易见的矛盾。依托形式的反复出现创造出韵律的和谐,胡勤武的作品据此糅杂了巨大的复杂性和简单的方法。阴与阳:天与地。
Luise Guest