.‘Ink Worlds: Contemporary Chinese Painting’

New Cantor exhibit explores the link between Western art and Chinese calligraphy

‘Celestial Chaos No. 8,’ a 2015 illustration by Chinese artist Tai Xianzhou.

The relationship between art and the Chinese art of calligraphy is a recurring theme that emerges after a tour through “Ink Worlds: Contemporary Chinese Painting” at the Cantor Arts Center. For those who can’t read Chinese, the drawings live in a beautiful, if elliptical realm. Standard meanings, though, even if you can read the language, will be deconstructed.

The works are intellectually imposing in conception, execution and size—many take up all or at least half of a gallery wall.

In Qin Feng’s watery ink-on-paper drawing Desire Scenery No. 1 (2007), two contorted shapes composed in willowy black ink sink down inside a pale blue background. They suffer from spasms and bend angrily in the midst of their dissipation. This could be a muddled state of unrequited desire, the end of love, or the failure of language to create order out of thought and emotion. Feng’s characters are cousins of the opaque ones that the peaceable aliens “draw” in Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 sci-fi film Arrival. It’s plausible that Villeneuve found inspiration for his movie from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2014 exhibit “Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy.” Arrival, like “Ink Worlds,” is all about decoding language and bridging cultural differences.

The subtitle of the Cantor show is “From the Collection of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang.” Yamazaki and Yang also chose selections from their collection for that Met exhibit. Yang, the co-founder of Yahoo, and his wife are both Stanford alumni and are reportedly worth somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billion. Walking through the galleries and taking notice of the scale and number of drawings, one imagines that the couple must have a very large house, or houses, or warehouses or airplane hangars, with blank walls now where the artwork used to hang.

One section of the exhibit entitled “InKommunications: Text, Image and Grids” makes explicit the relationship between artistic techniques and the artfulness required of anyone drawing Chinese characters. In Tong Yangtze’s Mountains High, Waters Long (1995), the artist has abstracted a Tang dynasty poem. According to the description, the poem’s characters are legible but only just. She’s elongated, twisted and arranged them across the paper until they also take on a separate, visual meaning that may reinforce or stand apart from the poem itself.

There’s an intriguing side-by-side juxtaposition of Franz Kline’s Figure 8 (1952) with Wang Dongling’s Great Kindness (2013). Both have created a riotous character with similar broken circles, smudges, loops and angled lines. The inclusion of Kline’s oil hints at cultural appropriation as the painting gestures toward Asian calligraphy. And there’s a gestural nod sent from Dongling to Kline as he reclaims, in his own black inks, what’s been appropriated.

Other drawings are astonishingly intricate and divorced from textual referents. In the “Visionary Ink” section, Zhang Yu’s Untitled (1996) and Tai Xiangzhou’s Celestial Chaos No. 8 (2015) imagine an imperiled galaxy. In the center of a scroll, Yu has drawn what appears to be an imploding planet—until you take a few steps back from it. Then the central object becomes the pupil of an eye suffering from macular degeneration, about to go blind. Xiangzhou’s chaos is faithful to its name, resembling a telescopic view of Yu’s dying planet. Craggy meteors form and are set adrift near fiery fumes of smoke and ash. Something has caused these worlds to fall apart.

But the painstaking, meticulous efforts of these and other artists serve beauty as much as disintegration and destruction. The exhibit’s first gallery contains “Interrupted Landscapes”—in which contemporary artists depart from more traditional approaches of drawing landscapes. It’s hard to fault that departure in Li Huayi’s Dragons Amidst Mountain Ridge [6 panels] (2006-2009). Huayi draws an eagle eye’s view of a mountaintop. Clouds drift across the vista rather than winged dragons. We look for them and for meaning in the swirling mists, in the cliffs and the weather, as we hover above the world at such great heights.

On July 19, Li Huayi will be on the Stanford campus to discuss his work with consulting curator Michael Knight.

Ink Worlds: Contemporary Chinese Painting
Thru Sep 3, Free
Cantor Arts Center, Stanford


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