A Perspective on Contemporary Chinese Ink Painting in Taiwan

A Perspective of Contemporary Chinese Ink Painting
October 12 – December 15, 1996

This exhibition of contemporary Chinese ink painting features the works of ten artists from Taiwan. It serves as a complement to the Taipei National Palace Museum exhibition scheduled to open October 14 at the Asian Art Museum (which features only the past glory of Chinese art). Contemporary Chinese Ink Painting from Taiwan will be an exciting and unique opportunity for the audience to have access to some of the best Chinese ink paintings being created in Taiwan nowadays. The assembly of the ten artists is in fact a rare occasion (one cannot see all these artists and their works together even in Taiwan).

The ten artists were born within the eventful decade of the 1940’s and belong to what is known as zhong sheng (middle-age category) group of artists in Taiwan. They are well established and prominent artists, and their works are exhibited worldwide. Although greatly varied in style, their paintings represent the main trends in contemporary Chinese ink painting. They are: Chou Chen, Yen Shen-jer, Li I-hung, Wang You-jun, Chiang Ming-shyan, Lo Chen-hsien, Wang Lan-hsiung, Lo Ching, Su Fung-nan, and Yuan Chin-taa.

The development of Chinese painting in Taiwan is closely associated with the political events and economic changes that swept through the country in the course of the 20th century. The early part of the century was a period of Japanese dominance. With students returning from Japan or learning from Japanese teachers at home, art in Taiwan was heavily under the influence of the Japanese educational system. But as World War II ended, European and American artistic styles gained greater influence. Many artists embraced western concepts, standards, techniques, and media to revolutionize Chinese art in Taiwan.

After the government of the Republic of China relocated itself from the mainland to the island of Taiwan, traditional styles and themes were again emphasized. Chinese ink painting, enjoying official approval, continued to flourish in Taiwan. There were few notable breakthroughs or innovations until the establishment of new art movements such as the wuyue (Fifth Month) and dongfang (Eastern) Associations who criticized traditional Chinese painting for stagnancy and advocated changes through the infusion of new ideas and idiomatic revisions.

When the United States recognized the People’s Republic of China and severed its diplomatic ties with Taiwan in the 1970’s, artists re-evaluated their American influence. There was a resurgence of nationalistic sentiments; artists and intellectuals searched their heritage for inspirations. These nationalistic sentiments fueled an appreciation of folk art and culture. Western influence, however, still exerted great influence in the art scene because of its global dominance. It had the support of the younger generation of independent artists who saw western art as the salvation of Chinese art.

In the 1980’s and 90’s, artists had become more critical of artistic trends or schools, foreign or homegrown. No longer do they follow without questioning or debating the values put forth by a certain art movement. The economic progress made by Taiwan in the last few decades opened the country to a wealth of information. With the influx of new ideas, artists are now trying out different technical experimentations, especially techniques that break away from the traditional vocabulary. These new experiments have given birth to some of the most interesting Chinese ink paintings in Taiwan, samples of which can be seen in this exhibition.

Chinese ink painting refers constantly to the past. The challenge for artists is to call up these references with a contemporary spirit and vocabulary. The artists in the present exhibition demonstrate strong continuity of traditional styles. Their paintings, unlike western or western-influenced contemporary art, are neither totally abstract nor realistic. They borrow elements from traditional Chinese painting but use them to suit their own aesthetic goals. As in the case of Lo Ch’ing, he transforms bird’s-eye-view, traditional landscapes into aerial-view cityscapes. His flat and dense compositions recall the Yuan dynasty master Wang Meng (ca. 1308-1385), yet the tightly packed buildings and dwellings evoke claustrophobic feelings of contemporary city life.

Wang Lan-hsiung and Yen Shen-jer choose and paint subjects from nature and daily life. The viewer can relate readily to the familiar themes. The artists combine dark ink and rich, vivid colors to depict the surrounding landscape. Some images reveal intimate sections of a greater landscape and others reveal either a high foreground or a high horizon line. They are a contrast to the paintings by Chou Chen, Lo Chen-hsien, Wang You-jun, and Su Fung-nan, which are a more direct reworking of traditional styles. These three artists create monumental landscapes that have a strong sense of three dimensionality and great control of ink and brushwork.

Li I-hung and Chiang Ming-shyan are quite experimental in their usage of color washes. Color is an important component in their paintings. Many times, strong color is used as a focal point for the composition. The ink and color washes reveal an affinity with western watercolor techniques. Li I-hung’s recent landscapes combine abstraction with traditional Chinese themes (such as a hermit on a mountain top or two scholars admiring a misty scenery) through bold washes of ink and color. Another innovative artist who adapts themes from traditional subject and reworks them into his own formal vocabulary is Yuan Chin-ta, who is also the youngest member in this group. His subjects range from figures to folk stories to studies of nudes, and are characterized by dark, heavy usage of ink.

Traditional Chinese painting is still strong in Taiwan. Artists are continuously developing different styles based on personal experience and sensibilities. Access to information and global communication help people in the art world to exchange ideas; this in turn has broadened the range of techniques and subject matters for artists to experiment. Chinese painting is being transformed and reinvigorated thanks to the creativity of artists like the ten in this exhibition.

We wish to thank the Information Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Francisco for the coordination they provided for this project. We are grateful to professor Chiang Ming-shyan for his assistance and the other nine artists for participating in this exhibition. Funding for this exhibition has been provided in part by the San Francisco Publicity and Advertising Fund’s Hotel Tax/Grants for the Arts Program, the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, and the Transamerica Foundation.