Chinese ink new future for 1,000-year tradition


Classical Chinese painters were masters of rocky mountains, but Liu Dan, one of a group of contemporary artists putting a new twist on 1,000-year-old tradition, sticks with just the rock.

Liu’s minutely detailed “Scholar’s Rock” — a large-scale, almost photographic exploration of a single gnarly, eroded stone — at once pays homage to the classical tradition of scrupulous ink and brush skills while turning the notion of soaring landscapes on its head.

The work, among a collection of contemporary paintings that went on show Thursday at Christie’s in New York, is emblematic of a modern school seeking to breathe new life into China’s heritage.

Challenging the country’s staid traditions is nothing new. Ever since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution receded, Chinese painters have been exploring Western innovations, adopting oils and contemporary abstract sculptures. But a smaller group of painters, one that Christie’s reckons is now poised for commercial success, looks to classical techniques as inspiration for 21st-century work.

“They are working in a traditional medium, but in a very contemporary vernacular,” Paul Johnson, a senior director for Christie’s North America, said.

Although still a “niche,” this reborn classical genre has a strengthening presence in the Asian art market and is winning a foothold in the West, Johnson said.

The exhibit of 25 works by nine artists in Manhattan is part awareness-raising, part business: Although not on auction, the paintings are discreetly for sale, with prices ranging between $27,500 and $770,000.

In a sign of growing recognition, a “major U.S. museum” will soon devote an exhibit to this new-old Chinese style, Johnson said, declining to name the institution. The artists on show at Christie’s mix their modern and ancient in different quantities.

Liu, who has lived in the United States and now resides in Beijing, has turned his lone rock into “something like a landscape painting where you can travel through all the little cracks,” said Carmen Shek, a China specialist at Christie’s.

Meanwhile, Li Huayi’s “Clear view of mountains” or “Landscape in snow” bear a close resemblance to traditional paintings, but when you look closely “you notice all these lights” that lift the moody landscapes in a more modern way, Shek said.

Liu Kuo Sung also sticks to mountains and water, except he flips the usual techniques, using white — not black — to outline the mountains, for example. And unlike historical Chinese artists who Shek said “never portray water movements,” Liu uses collage, ink rubbing and other techniques to create unpredictable, greenish water closeups.

Then there’s Gu Wenda, a star of the new movement who lives in Brooklyn, New York. To the uninitiated, his huge paintings couldn’t be more Chinese, as they center on outsized characters of the alphabet. This references the hallowed tradition of Chinese calligraphy, which often features discreetly in the margins of typical ink paintings.

The difference is that Gu’s characters are gigantic — and they’re made up, puzzling even native Chinese speakers and hitting several artistic buttons at once.

“From the outset, viewers are supposed to feel familiar and confused,” Shek said. “The artist also affiliates the large, fake character with the propaganda posters during the Cultural Revolution, when the meaning of words were often deceptive.”