Onward from Concepts: Redrawing the Boundaries of Fine Inkbrush Painting
  Resource:Artron.net   2012-07-06 10:38:10  

“Fine Inkbrush painting” treated as an idea is something of a burden. Due to its emphasis on technique, viewers are liable to miss its meaning as “painting”—a passageway to the world of seeing. When “fine inkbrush painting” is taken to suggest something fastidious or rigorous, seeing will be centered on formal beauty. Questions of how images are produced or how cognition is manifested will be put to the side. This leads to “fine inkbrush” being taken as a “tradition” that is far from the present moment. But the question is, is it really as traditional as we imagine it to be? The answer is in the negative. Perhaps you will be taken aback—isn’t its pairing with “free-brush painting” a time-honored contrast? But facts are not as neatly logical as we imagine. The juxtaposition of “fine inkbrush” and “free-brush” painting was conceived in the early 20th Century to counter the impact of Western realism: “In the study of Chinese painting up to the Southern Song, the use of fine inkbrush prevailed. From the Xuanhe Reign (1119-1125) onward, there was a gradual shift to free-brush painting which leaves behind externals and reaches for the spirit. This was truly a leap to a more elevated quest in painting, and this did not only happen in painting. In poetry and prose-writing there was also such a realm of attainment. At the zenith it can only be known by participative intent and cannot be transmitted by words. Nowadays people see the fine skill of Western oil painting, so they look down on Chinese painting. This is due to distorted, biased views.”[1] That being so, in order to show that Chinese painting likewise had “fine skills” of representation, and to erase those distorted biased views, “fine inkbrush painting” was conceived to stand in clear contrast to “free-brush painting.” In documents on Chinese painting prior to this, there is no evidence of such a distinction being drawn.

I bring up this topic not to judge the correctness or incorrectness of our predecessors, nor is it my purpose to reflect on the original intent or historical will that gave rise to the “fine inkbrush” genre. In the traditional study of Chinese painting, criteria for types of painting were based on subject matter such as landscapes, human figures, equestrian and bird-flower types. There were also levels of artistic energy such as competent, marvelous, wondrous and sublime grade. As for how this originated, Chinese people used to view painting as a connection with spirit or an avenue for achieving insight: the important thing was whether or not the picture could give people such an experience. So whether the means of portrayal was finely skilled or not—whether it was spontaneous and free-form or not—did not affect its being sublime or having “wondrous potency.” However, this mode of subjective portrayal suffered impact in the early 20th Century from Western realism based on evolutionary thinking, thus confronting Chinese painting with the issue of precise depiction. This was the aesthetic scheme of naturalism— assuming the world’s objective reality, a painting on a flat plane could represent that reality by illusory means. Thereupon the goal of painting underwent a shift. Traditional contemplative perusal or “viewing the energy” in a painting was no longer recognized as a “sublime” approach. On the contrary, it was dismissed as a defect, due to what Jin Cheng called “distorted, biased views.” In order to correct such views, it was necessary to find genetic elements for representing nature in traditional art. Method naturally became the focus of attention, because only the objectivity of method could correct subjectifying perusal. Viewed from a certain angle, the division of Chinese painting into fine inkbrush painting and free-brush painting was a product of the impact from Western scientism’s mode of seeing. This surface change of terminology was due to an imposed shift in the experience of perusal—using objectivity of portrayal to validate one’s subjective, intuitive grasp of the picture’s effects.

It was just such logic that caused “fine inkbrush painting” to possess, at its very inception, a strong component of Western genes, rather than just being our “tradition.” It needs to be made clear that I am not pointing this out in order to advocate a “nationalism” that purges exotic genes and returns to tradition. On the contrary, what I stand against is the notion that “fine inkbrush painting” is a tradition that brooks no change. Clearly our cultural circumstances today constitute a state in which various components of civilization are mingled and kneaded together. Efforts to purify our cultural bloodline are impractical acts of self-diminishment. This is especially true in the field of fine inkbrush painting: at the very inception of this concept it came along with imposed features of bastardization. Precisely because the experience of perusal had been bastardized and altered, certain criteria for judgment that came with fine inkbrush painting could achieve interpretive legitimacy: Is it a good likeness; is it accurate; is it detailed? Precisely because of bastardization, emergence of the “fine inkbrush art” concept provide an alternate possibility for the aesthetic experience of Chinese painting—it activated tradition’s power of utterance. This caused 20th Century Chinese painting to change markedly in its ability to depict nature precisely. However, the “activating potential” of any new concept always tends to become closed because new norms are generated. A cultural indication of this can be seen in self-defined genre boundaries. Today’s “fine inkbrush art” is in the process of defining itself by thematic treatments, representation, iconic image-making and other such approaches. It is defining itself formally by outlining-plus-filling in and by “three sizings, nine wettings”; it is even defining itself by materials like mineral pigment and thick pigment. It is increasingly becoming a self-enclosed, distinctly bounded conception of painting. Thus it also claims equivalence to “tradition” while excluding other possibilities. What is easily overlooked is that this idea of itself as “tradition” was engendered precisely due to breakdown of tradition. In this respect, the concept of “fine inkbrush painting” certainly does not possess a stable foundation to represent tradition. It is a concept which emerged amid temporal flux and helped to change traditional painting’s mode of utterance. That being so, any bid to solidify the mode of seeing, the mode of creating or the genre boundaries of “fine inkbrush painting” goes against the concept’s original intent. That is to say, fine inkbrush painting should not be, and cannot possibly be, a closed genre of painting. With respect to the present moment, it must maintain its transformability, tempered by self-scrutiny, and thereby continually activate and expand its boundaries. Thus to speak of going onward from the concept of “fine inkbrush painting” is not to negate it. Rather, this is proposed to enliven the genre’s creative practice while redrawing its boundaries, to demonstrate the articulateness possessed by traditional resources in a new visual structure. Just like at the inception of “fine inkbrush painting,” when changes in experience of perusal activated traditional painting’s resources for precise depiction, going onward from the concept of “fine inkbrush painting” today has a kindred aim—to do away with lock-step, self-enclosed cultural stances, and to actualize our powers of artistic utterance and intervention with respect to the present moment.

In the works exhibited here we can see an array of brand new visual structures which continually dissolve and re-configure the boundaries of “fine inkbrush painting” as we know them, allowing novel modes of discourse. From the instrumental discourses of naturalism and aestheticism, with their predetermined logic, there is a shift towards new interplay of visual versus intentional or conceptual, opening up different aims of discourse. This effort without a doubt lets “tradition” become a path of new realization rather just a commemoration of classical sensibility. Thus a seemingly traditional painting genre comes to possess powers of intervention in the “here and now.” What is more, new works from within this creative circle, along with continued emergence of younger painters, show that the effort to redraw boundaries has entered an open-ended, ongoing phase. There is still a profusion of possibilities and futures, so this is not a closed, programmatic “school of painting.” This is a movement which has helped compatible explorations to maintain vitality while continuing to assess its own direction, which is an effort to break down restraints of accumulated experience, thus releasing the power of inkbrush painting to articulate realizations about present-day culture. In so doing it has become the most noteworthy contemporizing movement in the field of Chinese painting.

Of course this contemporizing movement within fine inkbrush painting is not the same as the conventional idea of “contemporary art.” It is not a quest for the “contemporary” in terms of Western art historical logic. Rather, it arises within the inherent logic and semantic structure of inkbrush painting—it restructures the articulations between cultural tradition and today’s existential, cultural experiences. Of course this assessment does not negate the contemporary art influence that such a movement may exert or the possibility of its intervention in contemporary art issues. Rather, this assessment is an inductive operation which yields meaning in theoretical terms. That is to say, we need to be aware that with respect to individuals, induction is path of generalization which leaves a great deal out. The set of problems faced by each individual has logic of its own, so there will surely be differences in mode of experience and outcome. There is a natural plurality of outcomes, with a richness that theory cannot encapsulate. For this reason we posit that “new fine inkbrush” moves “onward from concepts.” This is not a historicized value judgment on art style; rather it is based on the culturally activating function the movement possesses. Through changes in visual structure it seeks to give traditional resources a contemporary mode of discourse. At the same time, it becomes a cultural indicator disclosing the deep rifts which “tradition” is even now undergoing.

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