Phoenix Art Museum brings Chinese ink drawing to the Valley with A Tradition Redefined: Modern and Contemporary Chinese Ink Paintings from the Chu-tsing Li Collection
For the downright dazzling opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, world-famous film director Zhang Yimou utilized the form of a basic painting scroll as the quintessential backdrop for his techno-savvy take on 5,000 years of Chinese cultural history. As it unfurled, Zhang's mammoth 95-by-381-foot roll became the perfect prop for projecting photographic images of every histo-cultural highlight of China's past — from cave paintings, Ming porcelains, and the Great Wall to Peking opera, tai chi, and martial arts. Zhang even had black-clad dancers, rolled in black ink, spinning, twirling and squirming across a large canvas laid on the scroll, mimicking calligraphic brush strokes — the distillation of the essence of ink-and-brush painting for which China is justly famous.
Captivating ink paintings like the ones inspiring Zhang's over-the-top spectacle are truly the stars of Phoenix Art Museum's four-pronged exhibition, "A Tradition Redefined," which originated at Harvard University Art Museum. A collective curatorial project between Harvard and PAM, the show's organizers include PAM's own curator of Asian art, Janet Baker, and the museum's Chinese research curator for Asian art, Claudia Brown.
Sixty-three ink paintings, created between 1950 and 2000, have been carefully selected for display from the extensive personal collection of Chu-tsing Li, professor emeritus of the University of Kansas, an important Chinese art historian and collector of modern and contemporary examples of this classic Chinese painting genre. Interestingly, Baker and Brown, as well as their co-curator, Robert D. Mowry, curator of Chinese art at Harvard's prestigious Sackler Museum, studied under the legendary Dr. Li.
Steeped in history, ink drawing is still a vital form of contemporary Chinese aesthetic expression, one that has endured the vagaries of war, invasion, popular-art movements, and political repression through the centuries. This manner of painting, referred to as "literati painting," or wenrenhua, originated among erudite intellectuals, usually honorably employed as government officials vetted by the rigorous examination system of China's civil service, during the latter part of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). These scholar/official painters pushed the idea that the highest form of painting was created by cultured amateurs, like themselves, devoted to poetic and personal self-expression, rather than by professional court painters, whose work was deemed merely realistic and eye-candy decorative. Literati painting, which often included poetry written by the painter and bravura calligraphic flourishes, continued through centuries of dynastic change and cultural upheaval, even despite the imposition of Communism on China's masses in the mid-20th century.
Led by the irrepressibly pro-proletarian Mao Zedong, Communists established the People's Republic of China in 1949. In a nutshell, Mao — basically an uneducated peasant turned Supreme Leader and Arbiter of Good Taste — nixed personal self-expression when it came to any of the arts, claiming the arts should only serve the millions of workers engaged in the struggle for liberation from capitalist imperialism. The chilling consequence of this attitude was China's devastating Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), during which thousands of intellectuals and "counter-revolutionaries" (i.e., anyone even suspected of not toeing the Party line) were imprisoned, murdered, or sent off to "re-education camps."
For a terrifying 10 years, any visual art deemed elitist or not promoting nationalist sentiment, including ink painting, was tragically destroyed and its practice forbidden. Hokey, Western-style Socialist Realism — glorifying Mao and the Revolution in gaudy paintings, shrill graphics, and kitschy plaster-of-Paris figurines — took the place of ancient art forms during the black hole of the Cultural Revolution.
The Li collection on exhibit at PAM includes work by brush-and-ink artists who chose or were forced by circumstances to remain in mainland China after Communist takeover, as well as those who, either before or after the PRC was established, emigrated to Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States, Europe, and other foreign countries. The latter were liberally exposed to Western aesthetic values of the times, which in turn influenced their approaches to classic literati painting.
Zhu Dequn (born 1920), who left for Taiwan and Europe in the '50s, as well as other artists included in the show, flirted with Abstract Expressionism as an alternative (or at least moderating) approach to traditional ink painting. Zhu's exuberantly brush-y Untitled (1964) could easily be confused with work by American Ab Ex painters Robert Motherwell and Clifford Still. Other Chinese artists practiced a form of automatism championed by the Surrealists, allowing serendipitous blotches of ink to guide their ultimate imagery. Technical experimentation also became widespread among those exploring Western styles, a group including Liu Guosong (born 1932). Liu managed to incorporate collage, monoprinting, rubbing, and dabbing ink onto extremely fibrous paper, from which he peeled off strands to create craggy negative space, as in his powerful landscape painting, Wintry Mountains Covered with Snow (1964)
Artists such as Lu Yanshao (1908-1993), who remained in mainland China, somehow survived the cultural chaos and continued to produce traditional work, though Lu was banned from painting during the Cultural Revolution. His Electric Power Station in a Mountain Village (1976), which features a serene mountain face scarred by electrical "improvements," demonstrates the artist's ability to work within his ink and paper medium while simultaneously paying lip service to the mighty industrial advancements purportedly wrought by Communist leadership.
Yu Chengyao (1898-1993), who served as an officer in the Chinese army during the Sino-Japanese War, later moved to Taiwan, where, entirely self-taught, he painted lush landscapes in the literati tradition. His very representational work, however, is rife with tiny, obsessive brush strokes, in later years enhanced by bold color. Yu's black and white Deep Ravine, Rushing Torrent (circa 1960s), and his more recent color landscape, Zephyr at Huangsi (1988), are both impossibly dense with detail and, for me, two of the most interesting pieces in the show.
"A Tradition Redefined: Modern and Contemporary Chinese Ink Paintings from the Chu-tsing Li Collection" is one of those exhibitions incapable of being digested in one, or even two, visits. So do yourself a big favor and buy a copy of the exhibition catalog, which includes full-color reproductions of the works on display (many of which have never been seen in this country before) together with curatorial essays containing engaging information about each of the painters in the show and their art historical significance.
And, heads up: This show, though genteel, nuanced, and not half as flashy as Zhang Yimou's Olympic intro, is unquestionably the real blockbuster in Phoenix Art Museum's current season.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.