Chinese ink is one of the world’s oldest and richest modes of artistic expression. Applications of the medium have evolved drastically from the court maidens, portraits of officials, religious and mythological figures of the dynastic periods. While global demand for the practice faded from the contemporary art scene in the early 20th century, recent results from auction houses and major museum exhibitions speak to a major revival for the medium. Today, a variety of contemporary artists are challenging the Chinese Ink’s staid, traditional applications and increasingly using the technique in a kaleidoscope of modernist contexts. Chinese Ink is used to depict subjects that range across pop figures, peasants of the Revolution, complete abstractions and exaggerated erotica.
Artist’s Proof, which represents artists from Europe, North America, East and Southeast Asia, is at the forefront of the movement to reinvigorate enthusiasm for Chinese ink. Among these artists is Quek Kiat Sing, Jean Francois Debongnie, and Fred Bergercardi.
Quek’s figural ink paintings use graceful Xie-Yi ink painting to address subjects ranging from traditional flowers to ballerinas to calligraphy. Born in 1972, Quek first received a degree in Political Science from the National University of Singapore. She later pursued art and received a Distinction in Fine Art from the Curtin University of Technology, Perth Australia in 2000.
More recently, Quek took advantage of collaboration with Genée International Ballet Competition and NAC to look at figures in motion, in particular, young ballerina students from the Singapore Ballet Academy. To Quek, the energy of a body in movement harbors much more potential than usual figure drawing sessions with stationary nudes. The changing forms of the ballerinas, moving in synergy with great discipline to the rhythm, is expressed in her playful yet robust vignettes.
That Quek’s work evokes Degas is not accidental. In other series, Quek has translated classic French Impressionist compositions through her preferred medium. She relishes in how Impressionism, once regarded as crude and unfinished, could be further minimized by Chinese impressionistic ink strokes. Quek likens the process to re-arranging a piece of classical music by infusing an Asian twist. The series appropriately entitled Arrangement Fantastique.
A self-taught artist, Jean-Francois Debongnie (Belgian, b. 1968) first came to Asia in 1989 and after traveling in Thailand and Malaysia decided to make Singapore his home. Debongnie fell in love with Eastern cultural and aesthetic traditions. Working exclusively in water-based acrylic and Chinese ink; his paintings have explored visual representations of navigation between the West where he was born and the East he called home for over two decades.
Debongnie’s canvases are the beneficiaries of a rich heritage of history transplanted into the modern world where they thrive. His canvases seamlessly straddle seemingly disparate elements—old and new; organic and synthetic; vibrant ochre, blue, and red against muted shades of gray and black. Debongnie’s harmonizing touch gives his works their enduring beauty, allowing him to paint traditional botanical scenes with time-honored materials in a contemporary style.
Debongnie’s canvases typically consist of a background constructed out of seven to ten layers of acrylic paint in varying shades, which he tops with impasto flower heads suspended atop delicate Chinese ink stems. The stems—mesmerizing, winding, and ethereal—are an ideal contrast with the solid texture and color of the flower heads they support. Debongnie understands each flower as both an iconographic floral signature that expresses essential qualities rather than a precise botanical representation and as one character in the landscape, he invites the viewer to explore. This ability to move between the undeniably solid and the whimsically effervescent as well as the individual and the greater world evokes the comfortable dualism that is always at play in Debongnie’s works.
Fred Bergercardi is a Chinese ink painter whose mesmerizing, atmospheric canvases update the medium for the twenty-first century. Bergercardi is currently a professor at the National University of Singapore. He received his Ph.D. in Biology in 1995. In 2009, Bergercardi earned a certificate in Chinese Ink painting at the prestigious Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and since then has continued to explore the medium of Xie Yi ink painting under master artist Lim Kay Hiong.
Bergercardi' passion for Chinese ink painting is ignited by the medium’s rich history and relevance throughout human history. Chinese ink painting is one of the few mediums of art that has maintained its aesthetic integrity over more than a thousand years. Bergercardi’s work pushes the dialogue between water, ink, and paper to the reach new potential of representation while maintaining awareness of the medium’s relevance in both distant and modern art historical trends.
Bergercardi’s most recent series is preoccupied with the process of memory. He uses his brush to mediate internal mental landscapes of swirling emotions that rush and pool in the crevices of the mind. The works—alternately profound and playful, but always otherworldly—give the viewer the perspective of an intrepid diver plumbing the depths of an ancient ocean. Bergercardi’s brush creates organic swirls and billows that alternately bring to mind smoke, water, fire, and wind. His works recall the importance of memory in a rapidly evolving world where we may wake one day to find ourselves divining the future by the dim light of our remembered past.
The art of these highly talented visual artists illustrate contemporary art in varying styles and application of Chinese Ink, provide a realistic portrayal of our modern realities and offer glimpses into a rich and diverse history of artistic exploration.