2016/02/17

Ink-wash art hat defies traditions

Ink-wash painters He Xi and Wu Yiming both studied traditional painting but they use ancient techniques and symbols to craft modern messages. Wang Jie visits their studios.

Once Wu Yiming was assailed by critics for his odd, "faceless" ink-wash works that seemed to turn tradition on its head. Today they are collected by the Shanghai Art Museum, a sign of acceptance.

"Both the form and the content of those old traditional paintings are like dreams of the past - they have nothing to do with the present life and society," says Wu. "I don't want to live in the past, especially the ancient past. I am standing in a land of reality."

Shanghai-born Wu is one of the pioneers in changing conventional thinking about conventional ink-wash and pushing its boundaries.

"At first, my paintings were severely attacked because they were too strange in the view of some people," he recalls. "It was so difficult for me to take part in any exhibition since no ones know for sure how to categorize my works, classical or contemporary."

He is known for figures with empty faces placed in various settings, their vacancy a commentary on their surroundings. At first he dressed them in ancient costumes and gave his works the "distressed" and worn texture of stained old scrolls. The ancient world was vividly present, utterly mysterious in beautiful hues of orange and watery purple.

Wu Yiming

The blank, featureless faces, some say, may represent the artist's own inability to see the meaning of China's enormous history.

"I try to express that today's people are fashionable but empty or shallow in mind," he explains.

After painting figures, Wu switched to candles in candle holders, also rendered on rice paper.

"Why? Because I'm always pondering the relationship between human beings and religion," he says.

"Candles in stands and holders are common in churches, a setting that's closer to god. It's forbidden in the West to light a cigarette from a candle in church."

Wu works in a 200-square-meter studio covering two adjacent warehouses in M50, the artists hub in Shanghai.

"I'm interested in trying different things instead of sticking to some old subjects.

"I bet you haven't seen this," he says, taking out a painting of Princess Diana, with a clearly recognizable face.

"Recently, I'm a bit inclined to draw some familiar figures. I don't know why, maybe it's like coming full circle," he said.

A work by He Xi features isolated fish in an angular glass tank containing a strangely shaped rock.

He Xi is a painter of few words - he lets his art speak for itself, since he himself has a stutter and prefers to write and paint succinctly.

Working in traditional ink-wash, his works on rice paper are startling, black-white-gray, modern and unusual. He's famous for a picture - actually a carving or engraving on rice paper - of isolated fish in an angular glass tank containing a strangely shaped rock, possibly from a classical Chinese garden. Some critics say he fuses a new technique and content.

"Glass is an ordinary object, transparent yet also functioning as a separation for different spaces - it's quite profound," He says.

There's a lot of fish symbolism in Oriental philosophy - it can mean abundance and wealth, and suggest that one person can never fully understand the interior world of another.

"Don't ask me too many questions," he replied an interview request email from Shanghai Daily. "Write it down."

Many children who stutter are teased by other children, but He indicates he wasn't bothered too much growing up in Beijing.

"I only know that I was smarter than most of them," he writes, in answer to a question about whether the stutter affected his art.

He Xi

"Although I talk less in life, I express more in my artworks. For me, it is a blessing. Genius painters such as Bada Shanren (1625-1705), Li Keran (1907-1989) and Cheng Shifa (1921-2007) all stammered - the only difference is that my stammer is more severe."

He's passion for art was spontaneous and his formal training was limited. As a child he painted spontaneously, with a natural gift. He was enchanted by beautiful postage stamps and started to imitate them.

"I was so fascinated by painting that I spent nearly all my petty cash on ink, rice paper and brushes," he says.

The innovative "carving" on rice paper helped make his name.

"I never treat painting as an experiment, nor do I deliberately try to innovate," He says. "For me, painting is a simple and joyful process. I am always in a good and peaceful mood when I pick up my brush."

He spends more time considering his painting in advance than actually painting.

"I prefer to think out every detail carefully before," he says. "In the view of many people, I am silent most of the time, but my mind never stops running."