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January 12, 2019

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Brushing away West’s ink-wash stereotype

THROUGH hazy moonlight, starry skies, misty dawns and poignant twilight, ink-wash artist Lu Chuntao creates images brimming with a sense of mystery and illusion.

Frankly speaking, it is a difficult mission for Chinese contemporary ink-wash paintings to “go outside of the country,” as whether the technique or concept is hard for the Westerners to understand.

Traditional Chinese ink-wash paintings, usually in plain perspective, largely focus on the subtle shadows of ink with a unique ambience wafted over the rice-paper, which is often considered as “literati spirit.”

However traditional Chinese ink-wash paintings are not easily accepted by many Westerners who are more accustomed to three-dimensional art. For them, Western art has already morphed into modern, post-modern and contemporary art styles. It seems that the bird, flower or landscapes, which often appear in traditional Chinese ink-wash paintings, are a bit stereotyped.

Perhaps that’s why Lu Chuntao wants to unveil a different facet of ink-wash paintings.

In the past decade Lu has traveled all over the world and his solo-exhibitions have been widely held in the United States, including New York, Washington, San Francisco, where his paintings have been favorably received by the local public.

A seminar, “Mind and Vision — the Expression and the Spread of Chinese Contemporary Art through Lu Chuntao’s artworks,” was recently held by Shanghai Literary Critics Association.

“I want to pursue striking visual effects,” Lu said. “It is easier said than done. But it’s inevitable if we really want to be different from our predecessors.”

Retaining the spirit of ink-wash paintings while taking the form can be difficult because of the absence of vivid colors, layers and textures in the ancient genre.

“What I paint is not that important. The key is to infuse the flowers and birds with verve and spirit as well as form, sentiment and taste all at the same time,” Lu explained.

His skillful use of “substituting ink for color” is completely at home with the theoretical conceptions of modern abstract expression.

Brave breakthrough

Chen Xiang, vice director of Shanghai Chinese Academy of Painting, said: “Lu conjured up an oriental scene in his work, shying away any play of symbols or superficial explanation. He has made a brave breakthrough.”

Born in 1965 on Shanghai’s Chongming Island, Lu is currently vice principal of Shanghai Calligraphy and Painting Institute.

Besides a strong traditional painting background typical of many local artists, Lu was engaged in advertisements, design and porcelain, which might account for something fresh in his work.

Zhu Feng, chairman at the Shanghai Film Critics Association, is concerned about the light and shadow effect of Lu’s works.

“I am surprised at the light and shadow visual effect under his brushstrokes, which could be rarely found in the works of his peers,” Zhu said.

He also said as a movie director, he was quite sensitive toward light and shadow.

“In my eyes, light and shadow is a first priority in a movie. For example, no matter how terrible the performing of the actors or the story could be, a perfect quality of the light and shadow in a movie would certainly level up the recognition from the audience towards the narration itself,” Zhu said, “I also noted that the artist referred to the close-up technique that prevailed in photography and filming in his work,” Zhu said.

Lu’s experience in different areas helped him broaden his interpretation toward ink-wash paintings. In fact, he applies abrupt geometric shapes and big blocks of color to separate a subject from its surroundings — a challenge to traditional aesthetic tastes.

His paintings reflect a sensibility that has opened to a wider natural world, an environment far broader than a limited private space.

“Lu is a very clever artist. He once painted traditional ink-wash paintings in the early days of his life,” said Zhang Lixing, vice chairman at the Shanghai Literary Critics Association.

“However, it is too difficult to make a breakthrough inside the scope of traditional ink-wash painting. So, he chooses another path. He maintains the poetic oriental flavor in his works, while at the same time, he utterly throws away the shackles of tradition.

“It seems that Lu is revealing an oriental story under the guise of a Western art language. Perhaps this is one good example of how to promote Chinese contemporary art to the West.”

His words are echoed by Huang Yining, a local literary translator.

“There is a prevailing saying among Chinese literature that it is hard to promote Chinese literature to the outside world due to the lack of veteran translators,” Huang said. “But as an industry insider, it is not the critical factor.

“We are not short of good translators, but a group of professional agents and staff familiar in the area. I am not sure whether this is also the problem with Chinese contemporary ink-wash art. I am more interested in the possibility of how big a spiritual world that Lu’s painting can contain.”

And Lu gave his answer, “I feel that I am writing a short poem narrating a soliloquy deep from my heart when I paint, as if I have discovered a musical rhythm that beats among these still points, lines and planes.”


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