Object of the Month: Looking up at the Configuration from Heaven

My name is Tao Wang and I am Pritzker Chair of Asian Art and curator of Chinese Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Three weeks ago, we opened an exhibition “Cosmoscapes: Ink Paintings by Tai Xaingzhou” that includes 13 works by the contemporary Chinese artist Tai Xiangzhou (b.1968). The exhibition runs until September 20, 2021.

One of the works is a large painting that consists of four panels (each 100 X 200 cm) painted in Chinese ink on silk, titled “Yang guan chui xiang” or “Looking up at the Configuration from Heaven”, which was completed in 2014 and is now in the Xiling collection. Its subject is cosmological flux—a depiction of celestial chaos, with asteroid-like rocks floating in vaporous mist against a dissolving background.  Despite the fact ink is the only pigment applied onto white silk, the painting gives an impression of multi-layers of shades, light and color.

In classical Chinese art, ink is perhaps the most important, sometimes the only pigment used for landscape painting. Chinese artists of course knew and applied various colored pigments in their creations from very early times, but from the Song dynasty onwards, i.e. the 11th- 12th centuries, the great masters such as Fan Kuan (c. 990-1030) and Guo Xi (c. 1020-1090) were renowned for their monumental but monochromic landscape paintings. Why? The answer seems to lie deep in their perception and understanding of nature and the universe, as well as being a conscious aesthetic choice. For them, the spirit of nature could only be comprehended in a muted obscurity and darkness, and, at the same time, achieved through a sophisticated use of ink. In his “The Secrets of Painting”, Guo Xi wrote: “In manipulating ink, sometimes you use light ink and sometimes dark, sometimes scorched, kept overnight or receding ink. At times you use ink made with soot scratched from the stove and at times ink mixed with blue in a diluted form.  If you build the ink tone up with six or seven layers of light ink, the color will be moist and rich, not harsh and dry…”

In the case of Tai and his art, we see that he has perfectly combined both the insights and the techniques of the Song masters.  In his paintings, whether on paper or silk, Tai has used complex techniques to fully exploit the simple materials, creating a rich mixture of light and shade. The dramatic effects, achieved by painstaking brushstrokes and ink wash, are based on his long study of the basic materials of Chinese painting -- paper, silk, and ink.  

“Chinese ink art is so foreign to many of our western art lovers.” as Michel Geodhuis, the leading western dealer in this field, has said. Indeed, while the European Impressionists made new breakthroughs in their exploration of brilliant pigments and illumination, renouncing black and brown, the Chinese landscape painter withdrew into a monochrome world in which multi-colors are implied by the artist’s subtle use of the ink, and sensed by the educated viewer. The painter saw his task as zhi bai shou hei, a phrase literally translated as “knowing white and guarding black”, but with the additional meaning of “knowing all but staying obscure”. Chinese ink painting thus offers us an alternative philosophical aesthetic of color, in which chromatic values are imagined rather than directly presented, and it is this tradition that Tai Xiangzhou has so brilliantly modernized.
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