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New York Asia Week Special Project | Christie’s Contemporary Art Asia X Fu Qiumeng

11- 30 September 2020

Christie’s Contemporary Art Asia department invited Fu Qiumeng to curate the online exhibition White Ground during Asia Week New York 2020. For the first time, her curatorial work brings together artists active in different systems of art and provokes relevant discussions to expand the discourse on Asian contemporary art.

“People usually think that the traditional and the contemporary are opposite concepts. We aim to break this stereotype through collaboration with Christie’s New York. We hope to provide New York—the center of global contemporary art—a fresh perspective on Chinese contemporary art.”

Fu Qiumeng is the founder of Fu Qiumeng Fine Art in New York. She is dedicated to bringing artworks rooted in traditional aesthetics into the realm of contemporary art. She initiated the QM Project in 2018, aiming to connect traditional Chinese aesthetics and global modern and contemporary art through academic research.

Fu Qiumeng Fine Art represents leading figures in Chinese art. In January 2020, they held the solo exhibition of Fung Ming Chip, The Null Set. One of Fung’s works in this exhibition entered the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2019, Arnold Chang and Michael Cherney’s collaborative work Mt. Huang Album was on view at Streams and Mountains without End: Landscape Traditions of China at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2017, Yau Wing Fung was included in the show Wu Bin: Ten Views of a Lingbi Stone at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In the same year, Tai Xiangzhou’s Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang became part of the permanent collection of the Princeton University Art Museum.

The gallery is also working on re-positioning traditional aesthetics in contemporary art. “Most of the well-known Chinese contemporary artworks address people’s interests in the transformations in China in the twentieth century, while neglecting the persistence of the culture inheritance beneath. The artworks rooted in classical Eastern aesthetics embody the enduring cultural threads that extend from the ancient past to the present. Without understanding this context, it is difficult to predict the future of Chinese art.”

“We work to make progress both in academic research and the art market. As we know, Chinese contemporary art is in its early stage of development. The artworks influenced by traditional aesthetics have a cultural root intrinsically different from Western art; thus, they have hardly been noticed in mainstream global art discussions. As I see it, future Chinese art will be rooted in local culture, while also expanding its presence in global contemporary art.”

White Ground:
Connecting the Traditional and the Contemporary

The online exhibition features contemporary artworks rooted in ancient Chinese aesthetics. By “ancient,” we mean the periods in Chinese history that saw great advancements in visual arts, music, literature, technology, and philosophy. Depending on areas of interest, some associate this with the Song and Yuan Dynasties (960–1279; 1279–1368), while others trace it back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). These high points engendered modes of thought and expression that exert profound influence on the arts, philosophy and etiquette of East Asia.

The balance between black and white constitutes a recurring theme in Chinese aesthetics. While ink brushstrokes convey a sense of solidity, the white ground often signifies emptiness. The artist is expected to devise the whole composition by wisely balancing the white ground with the brushwork. The delicacy of this balance is key to understanding Chinese culture, for it holds philosophical connotations beyond the realm of art. The Book of Changes, for example, includes the following precept, “Knowing the white, retaining the black, this is the form of the world.” (知其白,守其黑,为天下式), meaning that people should retain a sense of naivety even when they have reached a knowing state.

White Ground as Calligraphic Space

White ground is thought to hold traces of the artist’s physical movement during the working process, which not only includes actions across the artwork, but also those vertical to the paper support. Thus, for artists and viewers alike, the white ground is inherently three-dimensional. According to theorist Xiong Bingming, the white ground functions as a relief-like space in Chinese calligraphy. “White Ground is neither two-dimensional nor three-dimensional,” he writes, “It resembles the space in murals that exists between the two and three-dimensional space.”

C. C. WANG (WANG JIQIAN, 1907-2003), Untitled (Poem), signed in Chinese (lower left), ink and color on paper mount on paper, 27.5 x 30.5 cm. (10 7/8 x 12 in.), circa. late 1990s, one seal of the artist

The conceptualization of white ground as a three-dimensional space constitutes a running thread that Chinese artists have worked with or against in modern times. C. C. Wang offered a reiteration of white ground in his experiments with calligraphy, of which the following piece is an example. At first glance, the work features a strong linear pattern. While the contours of the ten characters is still discernible, the lines of each character are elongated into interlocking swirls and spirals. This linear pattern is not flat. Rather, it inhabits the relief-like space of calligraphy. This relief-like space is not only indicated by the swirling and intersecting lines that seem to protrude from the surface, but also by the solid and rounded calligraphic lines. The shifting widths of these lines make them look like tangled ropes meandering on the surface of the paper, creating a three-dimensional effect.

C. C. Wang used yellow to paint parts of the space between the lines, and green for the background. This uncommon color scheme blurs the line between pictorial and calligraphic space. This may be a reference to the poem written in the piece, which reads, “The bright moon shines between the pines; the clear spring water flows over the stones”. The yellow and green color blocks are suggestive of the moonlight in the woods, while the twisted lines may remind one of a running stream or intersecting tree branches at night. Even for viewers who are not familiar with the poem, the color blocks and swirling lines imbue the relief-like space with a subtle sense of movement.

FUNG MING CHIP (B. 1951) Section Script, hanging scroll, ink on paper, work: 67.8 x 69.8 cm. (26 3/4 x 27 1/2 in.), scroll: 113 x 88 cm. (44 1/2 x 34 5/8 in.), 1999, one seal of the artist

Fung sees calligraphy as a spatial-temporal continuum demarcated by the beginning of the first stroke of the first word and the last stroke of the last word. This temporal-spatial construct of calligraphy finds its visual expression in the written characters as well as in the space between the lines. Based on this re-conceptualization of calligraphic space, Fung has invented more than one hundred scripts, all featuring distinct techniques and styles.

In his Section Script, Fung Ming Chip has first written down the characters in light ink, after which he has painted one end of the xuan paper black. The white ground of this piece is both the background for calligraphy as well as part of an abstract composition. Fung painted the top part of this piece while the ink of the written characters was still wet. The painted ink was only partially absorbed in places where the water of the written characters had saturated the paper. When the ink dried up, the characters came to appear as if they were floating atop a dark background. This contrasts with the white space below, where the characters written in light ink hover between emergence and disappearance.

At the center of the work, Fung Ming Chip has positioned a red seal that indicates the name of his studio. Seals are common in Chinese art; they usually appear at the periphery of artworks as a way to mark artists’ or owners’ names. Unlike in traditional practice, Fung often includes a seal as an integral—even central—part of the whole composition. The red color and triangular shape of the seal stand out from the subdued background. The white ground wavers between relief-like calligraphic space, as part of an abstract painting as well as serving as the background for the red triangular shape.

WANG FANGYU (1913-1997) Cold Mountain, hanging scroll, ink on paper work: 42.8 x 42.5 cm. (16 7/8 x 16 3/4 in.), scroll: 142.5 x 63 cm. (56 1/8 x 24 3/4 in.), circa. 1980s, two seals of the artist

The two characters written here—han (寒) and shan (山)—represent the name of poet Hanshan (literally translated as Cold Mountain), a mysterious hermit said to have written a collection of poems from the Tang Dynasty. Having been translated into English in the 1950s, Hanshan’s poems served as an inspiration for the Beat Generation writers and artists such as Brice Marden. By writing Cold Mountain, Wang Fangyu may have been reflecting upon his own experience of growing up in Republican Era China and migrating to the United States in the 1940s, as well as his role of connecting Chinese and American culture.

Wang Fangyu uses seals in a creative manner in Hanshan. Instead of depicting Chinese characters, the two seals show ideograms that represent the artist’s first name Fangyu (方宇). Featuring the same pattern with opposite color schemes, the two seals constitute a key element of the dynamic composition.

White Ground as the Beholder of Life
TANG KE (B. 1972) Winter Melon, signed 'Tangke 2013' (lower right), oil on canvas, 60 x 79.8 cm. (23 5/8 x 31 3/8 in.), 2013

Tang Ke’s paintings are based on his experience of growing wax gourds in his garden, as well as his day-to-day observation of them. He regularly writes notes on cards to document seasonal changes of weather and plants. After closely observing wax gourds for some years, Tang noticed that he started to intuitively grasp the rhythm of these plants’ life. “It is bound to flourish at some point, and bound to wither at some other point,” he wrote, “Time goes by in cycles. It never ends. I experienced this in my life, and I see it in the growth of plants.” Through Tang Ke’s painting, one may perceive the artist’s empathetic connection with his plants, an enduring engagement with them, a care for their life, and a resonance with their cyclic changes. This echoes the idea that painting follows the rhythm of the continuous creation of life, an idea rooted in traditional Chinese painting. Inherent in the white ground of Tang Ke’s painting is an innate sense of life.

White Ground as Painting Space

A single unified ground and a fixed viewpoint have always been uncommon in ink painting. In this sense, traditional ink painting strikes a chord with European modernist artworks that similarly complicate the spatial relationship between figure and ground. Ink painters mostly mobilize a moving perspective, adding details observed from different viewpoints to the composition. Even when the space appears unified in an ink painting, there is usually no undivided ground-plane connecting various parts of the composition. Artists and viewers are expected to see the white ground as a highly malleable space that, depending on the visual cues, can expand or shrink.

YAU WING FUNG (B. 1990) Floating Mountain VII, ink and color on paper, 135.5 x 69.5 cm. (53 3/8 x 27 3/8 in.), 2020, one seal of the artist

Yau Wing Fung divides the pictorial space into grids to resemble the format of a sequence of satellite images. In a rather subtle way, the different shades of white create a sense of discontinuity, as straight lines rarely exist in a natural landscape. Meanwhile, the clouds (represented by the white ground) weave various pictorial elements into a continuum, guiding the eyes of the viewer to move smoothly from one spatial unit to another. According to the artist, white clouds function as “the main structural element of his paintings.” It defines shi (势), namely, the direction, the rhythm, and the relationship between compositional elements.

In his working process, Yau first crumples the paper and then rinses it with water. This generates an intricate network of lines on the work surface. Additionally, the artist paints on both the front and back of the thin cicada paper (蝉衣纸). The half-transparent paper allows the paint at the back to be discerned from the front. In this way, the back color that shows through—the materiality of the paper—and the front of the painting conjure a translucent yet densely textured surface.

The white ground of Yau’s clouds evoke a clear sense of spatial recession. Depending on how viewers approach the paintings, the pictorial space can expand and compress. It may represent the immense distance between satellite and earth; it is also reminiscent of the random dot pixels displayed on a flat digital screen. The ambiguous pictorial space conjured by Yau’s white ground highlights the complexities inherent in a contemporary visuality transformed by technology.

ARNOLD CHANG (B.1954) Gazing after Glow, ink, and color on xuan paper mounted on paper, 46.4 x 89.6 cm. (18 1/4 x 35 1/4 in.), 2018, one seal of the artist

Arnold Chang uses white ground as a structural element in many of his works. In the center of his work Gazing after Glow (2019), thrusting lines give form to a meandering central ridge, where rock formations on the mountaintops are visible. As viewers move their gaze from the center to the periphery, the mountain ridges morph from solid to airy. The formless clouds not only create an aerial perspective of the upper reaches of mountains surrounded by masses of clouds and mists, but also connect various ridges emerging out of the clouds. Chang has also applied light color washes of yellow, purple, and green to the painting, which might remind viewers of light refractions in mist.

ARNOLD CHANG (B.1954) x MICHAEL CHERNEY (B.1969) Mt. Huang Study, photography and ink on xuan paper mount on paper, work: 21.2 x 37.5 cm. (8 3/8 x 14 3/4 in.), mount: 24 x 40.5 cm. (9 1/2 x 16 in.), 2014, one set of dual seals of the artists

The collaboration between painter Arnold Chang and photographer Michael Cherney creates a dialogue between two mediums and provides a new way of reading white ground. Since 2009, Chang and Cherney have created a series of artworks that merge painting and photography. To make these works, Cherney first selects one or two details from his photographs and prints it on the kind of Chinese painting paper that Chang prefers. He then sends a number of these sheets to Chang, who responds by painting in a way that connects with the patterns on Cherney’s photograph. Both artists’ practices are informed by the aesthetics of traditional Chinese painting. Their visual languages—despite the difference in medium–resonate with each other. The white ground in these works constitutes part of the photographic space as well as that of the painted space. It can be seen as Cherney’s photographic index of mountain ridges, as well as Chang’s painting of an imaginary landscape emerging out of the clouds.

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