The Art of Subtraction
Tina Keng Gallery, with its history of twenty-plus years, has been a pioneer in the promotion of the 20th-century Modern Chinese art. Seeking and presenting Chinese modern artists to the world is the focus of our prolonged endeavor. Among the crop of prominent artists we represent, including Zao Wou-Ki and Sanyu, George Chann – though an art world household name – did not receive his fair share of attention in the 21st century. In March of 2014, we held a solo exhibition for George Chann which was a great success. Not long after the solo exhibition, Christie held a special auction for Chann, where his works were sold at record-high prices in his auction history. To keep the momentum going, we would like to present him along with Zao Wou-Ki and two other artists, Wang Huaiqing and Xiaobai Su, in an exhibition titled The Art of Subtraction for Art Basel 2015, inviting visitors to dive into the creative process of these Chinese modern masters.
The idea of “The Art of Subtraction” comes from Eastern philosophy, which offers a subdued approach to exploring one’s surroundings, a way to visualize a spiritual experience by simplifying complexities. The art of subtraction is a manifestation of this idea. Through simplifying colors, lines, and dots, Zao Wou-Ki, George Chann, Wang Huaiqing, and Xiaobai Su allow viewers to enter the world of their imaginations.
Zao Wou-Ki (1921-2013) was the protagonist of the earliest Chinese success story in the West. The work we proposed is a very rare triptych painting which is approximately 200 x 525 cm from the 80s. Zao broke free from the confines of conventional painting during this stage. His aesthetic axis shifted from “assembly” to “disassembly,” where the visual composition was “devoid of center,” or the imagery occurred more in the periphery; the contexture of the painting thus became rich and dynamic with this visual contrast. He captured the space-time continuum, reaching a state of artistic freedom that allowed the artist to step over the threshold of abstraction.
George Chann (1913-1995), who moved to the United States at the age of 12, began painting in the 1940s, and soon established a distinct style in portrait paintings of the poor with strong humanitarian concerns. In the 1950s, Chann shifted his focus to abstraction, and developed his own interpretation of Abstract Expressionism through applying layers of Chinese characters and calligraphic rubbings onto a canvas, and started to rub, scratch, tear, and compress until they lost their original shapes to indefinable patterns. In the 1960s, Chann began to incorporate more colors and other mediums into his paintings, a creative endeavor that added aesthetic depths to his work. Being in the vanguard of early Chinese abstract art movement, Chann and Zao Wou-Ki both drew inspirations from ancient Chinese characters, the former embraced symbols of poetic whimsy while the latter explored the concept of serenity with fluid colors and diverse styles.
Wang Huaiqing (b. 1944) has always paid close attention to the dimensionality of space. Through the incorporation of Chinese cultural motifs and abstraction, Wang explores the spatial relationship between objects and their environment, with a signature aesthetic and powerful artistic voice. Over the past 30 years, Wang – one of the pioneers in Chinese contemporary art – has continued to focus on fundamental themes in art, humanity and structure, such as he seeks innovative means of expressions. The endless, manifold changes of texture in Wang’s choice of oils on the canvas, as well as his unique interpretation of Ming Dynasty furniture, characterize his body of work. His love of old structures, be it architecture or furniture, does not stem from objects themselves. His interest, in fact, lies deeper, in the social and cultural criticism, in the century-old Chinese history behind the object.
Over the past two decades, Wang Huaiqing has gained recognition with his paintings as a true Chinese artist who grew and matured from the soil of china. His art has evolved through a full process from concrete works to metaphorical imagery to abstraction, from three-dimensional spaces to flat surfaces and back to a treatment of space again. His latest series of sculptures, manifested not only the original state of a physical object, but created a highly significant “three-dimensionality,” a form that has not lost the charm of flatness.
Since 2012, Wang has started a series of work on the Chinese feudal society – from palaces to emperors – as a continuous reflection on vestiges of historical China. Inspired by a similar construct, Hand, his latest series, transforms his observations of century-old Eastern philosophies and religions into visual interpretations. Serving as a stand-in for historic figures and the state, each piece of Wang’s work, successfully converts the context of eastern tradition into a contemporary vocabulary.
Xiaobai Su (b. 1949) is known for his expressive artistic language of abstract symbolism. He attributes his aesthetic focus to the dichotomy in his education, as he first acquired knowledge, honed skills, and forged his personal artistic vision at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in China, and later rid himself of past schooling at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts in Germany. This act of addition and subtraction is ever so present in his work. Filling a piece of wood board with colored lacquer, and overlaying it with linen, Su produces a new art form. His work exudes an aura that is specifically Chinese, crafted with an intention loaded with nationalistic references. This creates an aesthetic contrast in his practice, which is characterized by an imperative to strip away connotations and meanings. Having abandoned figuration, Su turned to a visual vocabulary of simple shapes in formal arrangements. The earlier works of squares were followed by stacked rectangles, monolithic shapes, or broad horizontals. Seeking a pure means of expression, Su brings the focus of his practice back onto the work itself – on its essential constituents and materials – rendering a compelling artistic voice that echoes his pursuit of contemporary aesthetics.
Art Basel Hong Kong is a global platform for galleries to introduce artists to international collectors. Every year, art aficionados gather at the fair to take the pulse of the art world, seeing emerging and established artists and their works presented by renowned galleries. Armed with modern and contemporary masters such as Zao Wou-Ki and George Chann, Tina Keng Gallery believes that this will be an exciting opportunity to shed a new light on the dialogue between European and American abstract painting from an Oriental perspective. This will not only illuminate our gallery booth, but also highlight Art Basel HK in 2015.