Chinese contemporary ink paintings: a guide to the artists you should know

Specialist Carmen Shek Cerne introduces eight artists who have rewritten the rules of classical tradition, sometimes subtly, often dramatically — illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Liu Kuo-Sung, Dusk, 1965

Liu Kuo-Sung (Liu Guosong, b. 1932), Dusk, 1965. 58.3 x 86.3 cm (23 x 34 in). Sold for HK$327,600 on 31 May 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Liu Kuo-Sung (b. 1932)

The Taipei-based artist Liu Kuo-Sung is widely regarded as the one of the forerunners of the contemporary ink art movement. Through the use of vibrant colours and new techniques, he revolutionised landscape paintings at a time when many of his contemporaries employed only ink and rice paper to reflect the classical tradition.

Liu Kuo-Sung (Liu Guosong, b. 1932), The Red Land, 1970. 40.5 x 145 cm (16 x 57⅛ in). Sold for HK$882,000 on 31 May 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

‘The artist first visited Tibet in the 1980s, and during the summer of 2000 he embarked on a journey to reach Everest Base Camp. It led to a breakthrough in his depiction of snow-capped mountains,’ explains Carmen Shek Cerne, head of Chinese Paintings in Hong Kong.

Liu Kuo-Sung began to create his ‘Tibetan Suite’ series with an experimental use of materials. ‘The process involves peeling strands of fibre from a specially-made textured paper to outline mountains in white,’ says our specialist. ‘Through repeated painting, creasing and peeling of paper, Liu creates atmospheric ‘‘portraits” of snowy mountains, their topography shown through crisscrossing white lines set against the dark, expansive backdrop of a Tibetan sky.’

Liu Dan (b. 1953)

Although Liu Dan studied Confucian classics and calligraphy at an early age, and later attended the Jiangsu Traditional Chinese Painting Institute where he studied under artist Ya Ming, it was only after moving to the United States in 1981 that he began to associate his art with classical Chinese painting. It was there that he found new opportunities to learn from museum collections of classical paintings. In the US he also developed an interest in Mediterranean antiquity, as well as the history of Medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Liu Dan (b. 1953), Impression of the Qianlong Emperor’s Private Garden in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink on paper. 17¾ x 65⅛ in (45 x 165.5 cm). Sold for HK$882,000 on 31 May 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

'Meticulously rendered with a sense of hyperrealism, Liu Dan’s work ‘deploys intricate layers of ink that suggests both light and dark. His technique resonates with drawings by European Renaissance artists and Old Masters,’ says Cerne. ‘The result is an image both true to Chinese and European tradition, and yet spectacularly novel and contemporary.’

Li Huayi (b. 1948)

In 1982 Li Huayi moved from China to San Francisco and enrolled at the Academy of Art University, where he became acquainted with European art.

His experimental, intricate landscapes blend new and old European style, while also recalling monumental Northern Song paintings in spirit. Li has since returned to China, travelling to scenic, historic and cultural sites including Mount Huang and Dunhuang, which have remained a lasting inspiration in his later work.

Li Huayi (b. 1948), Snowy Landscape, 2001. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 54⅜ x 27 in (138 x 68.5 cm). Sold for HK$2,016,000 on 31 May 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Beginning with splashes of ink on paper to create a formation of mountains and cliffs (a technique often associated with Zhang Daqian), Li Huayi then meticulously adds photo-realistic details of jagged rocks and looming pines using a fine brush. An interest in Buddhist philosophy propels Li Huayi to seek such motifs in nature. Sometimes the shape of cliffs resembles the profile of a Bodhidharma.

Xu Lei (b. 1963)

Xu Lei participated in China’s radical ’85 New Wave movement and his work was exhibited in the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition in Beijing in 1989. A master manipulator of the seen and the unseen, Xu Lei is known for his implausible dreamscapes washed in hues of blue.

Xu Lei (b. 1963), Departing Horse, 1997. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 30⅝ x 22 in (78 x 56 cm). Sold for HK$1,062,500 on 25 November 2019 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Departing Horse, painted in 1997, depicts a white steed whose rump is marked with a blue-and-white floral pattern such as those found on Ming and Qing porcelain.

Xu Bing (b. 1955)

Xu Bing was born in Chongqing, and lives between Beijing and the USA. His career has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of contemporary ink art.

After he relocated to the US in 1991, he developed a new system of writing, called Square Word Calligraphy. It is a hybrid writing system that reflects his sense of disorientation at living in this new linguistic environment, where he spoke little English.

Xu Bing (b. 1955), New English Calligraphy — Zen Poetry III, 2014. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink on paper. 53⅞ x 27½ in (137 x 70 cm). Sold for HK$1,000,000 on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Xu built this new script into his work, and created a guide which taught the reader how to write their own Square Word Calligraphy.

Xu used the script as a tool to deepen cross-cultural understandings, and to prompt reflection on the interplay between language, culture and identity.

Wang Tiande (b. 1960)

Shanghai-based artist Wang Tiande creates conceptual, experimental works in a daring mixed-media style.

The story goes that one day Wang accidentally flicked the ash from his lit cigarette on to rice paper, and became mesmerised by how it burnt, creating shapes by chance.

Inspired, Wang began transforming his landscape paintings — often accompanied by calligraphy — by directly burning paper painted with copies of classical Chinese paintings with a cigarette or incense,’ the specialist explains. ‘The spontaneous deconstruction of classical paintings, both in terms of the visual and the conceptual, is now crucial to Wang’s artistic practise.

Wang Tiande (b. 1960), Tranquil Vista, 2015. Ink and mixed media on paper. 84 x 35¼ in (213.5 x 89.5 cm). Sold for CNY 576,000 on 21 September 2019 at Christie’s in Shanghai

According to the artist, his works are paintings composed of two overlapping layers: the bottom, landscape and calligraphy depicted with traditional ink and brush, while the top is bast [fibre] paper burnt with incense. Generated solely by the overlapping of the layers through this conceptual act, the added dimension of landscape and calligraphy can create a boundless space of imagination for the viewer.

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Wang Dongling (b. 1945)

Although he is now internationally renowned for combining calligraphy with performance and installation art, Wang Dongling initially received a traditional training by apprenticing with the calligrapher Lin Sanzhi. ‘The brush has become an extension of my body,’ he once claimed. ‘Calligraphy has been my calling, my life, and my aspiration.’

Wang Dongling (b. 1945), Chaos Script Calligraphy-Gong Zizhen ‘Rise’, 2016. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink on paper. 37¾ x 70⅛ in (96 x 178 cm). Sold for HK$300,000 on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

An artist as well as an advocate for contemporary calligraphy, Wang turns the art of writing from a flat form into an expressive performance.

Lui Shou Kwan (1919-1975)

A native of Guangzhou, Lui Shou Kwan moved to Hong Kong in 1948 and worked for the Hong Kong and Yaumatei Ferry Company as an inspector while also painting, teaching and writing.

Lui Shou Kwan became a pioneer of the New Ink Movement in Hong Kong during the 1960s. In early 2019 — the centenary of his birth — an exhibition of the artist’s work was held at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Lui Shou Kwan (1919-1975), Zen, 1970. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 151 x 82 cm (59½ x 32¼ in). Sold for HK$478,800 on 31 May 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

In the late 1960s and 70s, during the last decade of his life, Lui reached the peak of his career with the creation of a series of abstract Zen paintings. They represent a universal theme, the lotus, which symbolises eternity, purity and the Buddhist rank of ‘Awakened One’. His particular ‘wet’ style of painting, as seen above, is fervently energetic, expressing the artist’s emotion at its most complex.

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