Illegible Ghosts: Zheng Shengtian and Wang Dongling at Chambers Fine Art
Guan Shan Gathering: Works by Zheng Shengtian and Wang Dongling at Chambers Fine Art
January 9 to February 22, 2014
522 West 19th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212-414-1169
This exhibition, itself a product of creative exchange, finds itself in timely dialogue with the Metropolitan Museum’s Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China. Whereas the Met exhibition unabashedly celebrates the ways in which classical Chinese art assimilated modernity and Western art, the show at Chambers suggests a more ambiguous, or conflicted, perspective of this phenomenon.
Guan Shan Gathering features works resulting from the collaboration in 2013 between curator, scholar, and artist Zheng Shengtian and Wang Dongling, the director of the China Academy of Art Modern Calligraphy Research Center, Zhejiang. Zheng asked Wang to inscribe, on two prepared canvases, text taken from the Preface on Landscape Painting by Zong Bing, one of the earliest writings expounding the philosophical concepts of classical landscape painting. One wall displays a video of Wang writing the text, showing the incompatibility of water-based ink and canvas prepared for oil paint. As Wang wrote each character, the surface repelled the ink, making the characters appear disintegrated. The two resulting canvases are displayed on a wall across from the video, showing compositions comprised of ghostly characters.
Guan Shan Gathering was inspired by a project that Zheng created in 2000, entitled Clement Greenberg: Modernist Painting, which is also included in the current exhibition. In it, Zheng’s wife Aikang wrote, again in ink on prepared canvas, a Chinese translation of Greenberg’s canonical essay. Canadian artist Hank Bull can be heard reciting the text in English in the background. As in Guan Shan Gathering, Chinese calligraphy fails to take hold on a surface intended for Western-style painting. In this instance, different from Guan Shan Gathering, the characters dissolve into illegibility. The resulting four canvases are displayed next to the video, showing compositions populated by sporadic black ink dots amidst gray lines.
Clement Greenberg: Modernist Painting is an intriguing visualization of what could happen when one attempts to combine ideas from two artistic traditions. Zheng explained that he chose Greenberg’s essay because it was one of the earliest texts on Western modern art that was translated into Chinese. Greenberg argued that painting needed to assert its “purity” to maintain its relevance and survival. Painting must focus on what was unique to the medium, instead of attempting to be something else, for instance, creating the illusion of three-dimensionality. Zheng’s choice of text is especially fortuitous, because the attempt to transcribe the text in another language, and in a medium combining aspects of Western and Chinese artistic traditions, resulted in works that failed to achieve the goals of either. On the one hand, they are not Chinese calligraphy because Greenberg’s text did not remain intact. On the other hand, the compositions look abstract only by accident and do not aim to assert the primacy of painting’s flat surface. Zheng stated in the exhibition’s catalogue essay that the project resembled “the experience of cultural exchange and misreading.” It is a brilliant reminder, in my opinion, of the complex issues raised by cultural hybridization.
The choice of Preface to Landscape Painting for Guan Shan Gathering simplifies the conceptual premise of the original model, because the text is not in translation, and the subject is itself landscape painting. But this means that the relationship between the content of the text, and the concept of the project, becomes unclear. Furthermore, befitting a true master of calligraphy, Wang Dongling’s spirit prevailed over the resistance of the prepared canvas. His writing remains legible, and the strokes forcefully convey his energy, despite their ghostly appearance. Good calligraphy, in other words, defeated more interesting conceptual intentions.
The exhibition also features a group of paintings by Wang Dongling that show the artist in dialogue with Western abstract art. The medium is traditional ink on paper in hanging scroll format. At first glance, the compositions of black lines on a white background recall Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic series from the 1950s and 1960s. However, Wang’s method of execution springs from a different conceptual platform. As the titles indicate, each composition is composed of two characters, but Wang has obscured them by overlapping what should be distinct strokes. What results are fields of black ink, whose edges breathe with the artist’s energy. Sometimes, one can discern a character within the composition. This method of composing is rooted in the classical tradition of calligraphy. In contrast, Motherwell created his compositions by outlining the shapes first, and then filling them in, a method born from the Western tradition of painting, despite their surface resemblance to Chinese calligraphy. Overall, Wang’s works show how the principles of classical tradition can evolve successfully in a new age.