“In my art, I try to explore the origins of landscape painting, attempting to return to that primordial, awestruck state of mind when human beings were facing nature. With this as a point of departure, an artist can eventually unfold a journey to a place that the viewer has never been before.” ——Tai Xiangzhou
September 18 – December 23, 2021
65 East 80th Street, Ground Floor, New York, NY 10075
“Cosmic Matter: From Nothing to Being” is the gallery’s first solo exhibition devoted to the artist and scholar Tai Xiangzhou. Conceived as a complement to the Art Institute of Chicago’s (AIC) show – Cosmoscapes: Ink Paintings by Tai Xiangzhou – Fu Quimeng Fine Art will feature 12 new works, including 11 vertical and horizontal scrolls on silk and a 13-leaf album set, that engage with themes introduced in his evolving series; “Celestial Chaos,” “Cosmic Symphonies,”“Contemporary Classical Mindscape,” and “Revitalization of Ancient Artifacts.”
An influential member of the Contemporary Ink movement, Tai uses traditional techniques and materials, including 10th-century silks, to create large-format works that synthesize his interests in classical Chinese literati painting, Confucian and Daoist cosmologies, and contemporary science. Tai’s works in the series “Celestial Chaos,” “Cosmic Symphonies,” and“Contemporary Classical Mindscape” reference classical landscape painting from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 C.E.), a period widely considered to be an artistic ‘golden age’ and a pinnacle of literati culture. His works for the series “Revitalization of Ancient Artifacts” are equally concerned with ancient Chinese cosmology but shift focus toward Shang (1600–1046 B.C.E.) and Zhou (1046–256 B.C.E.) bronze artists’ attempts to capture nature’s vital forces in three-dimensional forms.
· Celestial Chaos ·
“Classical landscape has lost its sense of grandeur for us today, the mankind’s reverence for nature would be obtained from the celestial world.”——Tai Xiangzhou
Northern Song landscape artists sought to produce a transcendent view of the natural world. Their paintings of rocks and mountains, and streams and waterfalls, rose above simple mimesis to become a vision of moral order bound to the physical world. Similarly, in Tai Xiangzhou’s “Celestial Chaos” series, the depictions of other-worldly landscapes set on distant planets feel like a contemporary quest for order in the ineffable. The artist explores landscape painting’s past and future using richly-layered ink washes to achieve profound depth and dimension. Bright flashes of negative space simultaneously reference the works of his Song predecessors while reminding us, a millennium later, how little we still know about the cosmos we inhabit.
Key to Tai’s practice is his dual concern with modern physics and ancient Chinese cosmology. He is particularly interested in topological phase transition, the process by which physical objects transform between gas, liquid, and solid states. Titling his work from a verse in the Tao Te Ching, “The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to…” the artist draws our attention to correspondences between the Law of Conservation of Mass (matter can be neither created nor destroyed, only changed) and Daoist and Confucian cosmologies that describe the universe as a marriage between matter and energy, joined in a constant state of flux.
In “The Supreme Good is Like Water,” Tai’s cosmic matter emerges from a natural world that is indeterminate and inconstant; a piece of rock appears solid, but under the right conditions, it might evaporate into mist or dissolve into a bubbling stream. These changes ripple across the silk surface, creating a constantly shifting rhythm that disintegrates the barriers between representational and abstract forms.
A master of the silk medium, Tai can transform its texture, incrementally or entirely, by applying various natural ingredients. Silk is an unusual medium for most contemporary painters. Tai’s preference for silk is tied to its reflectivity, a quality that allows it to convey both luminosity and depth more effectively than paper. When it reacts with glue and alum, the silk can be transformed to raw, half raw, half processed, and completely processed conditions, each offering specific tactile and visual properties to balance and enhance his brushwork.
Tai’s deep knowledge of silk stems from his five years of training as a conservator for Chinese paintings at Palace Museum Beijing. This experience made Tai more sensitive to the relationship between ink, the brush, and silk surfaces. Tai generally begins by painting directly onto the raw silk. The ink permeates the ground with the first brushstroke, revealing the process of vaporization. He brushes the glue and alum several times to process the silk gradually, creating a surface capable of hosting the hard, sharp outlines of details; If the effect is not enough, he washes off the glue and alum, turning sections of the processed silk back to its raw condition. Every state of the process is manipulated or reversed and re-manipulated until the desired result is achieved. The silk’s steady transformation complements his laminar brushwork, paralleling its depth and intensifying the sense of momentum and fluctuating energy.
“Endless Celestial Motions” is a dynamic composition that captures indeterminate forms of cosmic matter, mid-transformation. The mercurial shapes seem to waver between solid, liquid, gas, and plasma states, materializing and receding in an exquisite rhythm of ink brushwork, light, and transparency. Referencing terrestrial and extraterrestrial landscapes, these works – intense and exuding energy – evoke fantastic cosmographies that fuse the majestic and the monumental.
· Cosmic Symphonies ·
The Chinese title Huangzhong dalü 黄钟大吕, (literally “Yellow Bell, Great Tone”) refers to the yang and yin tones of ancient Chinese ritual music and their traditional association with power and harmony. Accordingly, the works in Tai’s “Cosmic Symphonies” series draw inspiration from consonant forms in modern science: wave theory and fluid mechanics.
Tai’s 13-leaf album “Waterscape” depicts shifting physical states as a continuum by capturing water and vapor at the critical moment of their transformation. The series is a vehicle for the artist to explore personal questions about the nature of existence while interrogating potential links between modern wave theory and ancient Chinese ontology. On each leaf, Tai reproduced passages derived from classical Chinese texts that address water’s metaphysical properties. In doing so, he invites us to view the universe from multiple perspectives, from the eye of the contemporary artist informed by the lens of modern science to the historical perspective of Chinese philosophers.
· Contemporary Classical Mindscape ·
“We modern people have abundant visual experiences, such as film, digital images, virtual reality (VR, AR, MR), social media image information, compare to ancient people, our visual experiences are very complicated.” ——Tai Xiangzhou
In the “Contemporary Classical Mindscape” series, Tai transforms Song Dynasty painting by re-imaging its landscapes from the perspective of the modern viewer.
In “Purity of Mind,” Tai paints from the same multiple-point perspective favored by his Song predecessors. The viewer is drawn into an immersive natural vista marked by a rhythmic balance between voids and solids. But the tallest mountain, a literati symbol of the search for enlightenment, is pushed far into the distance, leaving the viewer’s path ambiguous. Qi flows zephyr-like, floating between the nooks and crannies of low hills in the foreground and levitating gently at the base of the far mountain. And rather than being urged to scale the mountain’s peaks, the viewer is invited to rest and explore at his leisure, discovering a modern literati landscape where the primary goal is the journey itself.
· Revitalization of Ancient Artifacts ·
Working from the concept that landscape paintings and bronzeware share a unified origin grounded in ancient Chinese cosmology, Tai’s brushwork seeks to exalt his subjects equally. Whether depicting a limitless cosmos, a rare moment of physical transformation, or the creative essence eternally fixed in bronze, the artist’s ink washes breathe across his carefully prepared silks, animating their surfaces to create a multi-layered visual experience.
Like his other works, Tai’s “Revitalization of Ancient Artifacts” series is rooted in his fascination with ancient Chinese cosmology. However, the artist now interrogates the relationship between Asian philosophy, the natural world, and three-dimensional artifacts. Focusing on works from China’s Shang and Zhou ‘Bronze Age’ cultures, Tai seeks to reproduce ten of the period’s most important works in monumental ink-painted forms. By magnifying the scale of these intricately cast and carved objects, the artist lets viewers scrutinize the fine details in their designs. In the Zhe Fu Fangding 諸父方鼎, we read decorative forms ranging from dragons and birds to geometric patterns and taotie (monstrous mask faces).
Untethered to a ground line, the painted fang ding shed their corporeal weight and levitate in space, reclaiming the sublime stature their ancient forgers intended. The combination of their great size and surreal placement focus our attention on the objects’ spiritual role: as reifications of Chinese cosmological beliefs and attempts to capture the power of nature by permanently annealing it in bronze form.