Beauties in ink in the spotlight

Two solo exhibitions that spotlight ink masters Wu Guanzhong and Chua Ek Kay have raised the presence of ink works in the National Gallery Singapore, where ink paintings are otherwise mostly tucked away in a tight corridor of the permanent DBS Singapore Gallery.

The show featuring works by renowned Chinese artist Wu marks the occasion of his "daughters" settling into their marital homes in Singapore. He referred to his paintings as "daughters" and sought to find good homes for them - public institutions where they could be appreciated by the people.

In 2008, after hearing from his son, Keyu, a Singapore citizen, that the National Gallery Singapore would be set up, the artist donated 63 ink paintings, 48 oil paintings and two calligraphy works to the country.

The $66-million gift, the biggest to a Singapore museum, would have a permanent presence in the art institution, in a gallery dedicated to the artist.

His family later donated another 14 works to Singapore.

Last month, the Wu Guanzhong Gallery in the newly opened museum was inaugurated by the exhibition Beauty Beyond Form. It features 72 works - 50 works on loan from private collections and museums in China and 22 works from the National Gallery.

The decision to include Wu's works from other major Chinese museums points to the National Gallery's ambition to be a platform for international exchange and collaboration. For the audience, this means a chance to see works from separate public collections hung together.

Importantly, the selection shows his innovative and dexterous handling of influences from Western oil painting and Chinese ink painting, and his dynamic treatment of concrete and abstract forms in art.

Wu (1919-2010) was well versed in both ink and oil painting from his studies at the former Hangzhou National College of Art and the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but he was drawn to the intense colours of oil paint early in his career.

Mountain Flowers (1972) shows Wu's sensitivity to colour and rhythmic composition, qualities that would later become hallmarks of his work regardless of medium.

A clump of wild flowers, rendered in quick, expressive strokes, is set against an earthy background speckled with vividly coloured dots. The rainbow confetti in hues such as teal, deep blue and vermilion provides a contrast to the whitish petals and intensifies the beauty of the humble scene. The work was made while he was sent to labour in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

By the mid-1970s, he would take up ink painting again, enticed by its versatility, nuances and expressiveness.

These traits are borne out in the ink and colour painting White Haired Flowers (2003) where the spiritual essence of abstract white blooms is evoked through contrast with the dense, inky background and lyrical dabs of fuchsia, green, vermilion and yellow. The result: an organic melding of oil and ink aesthetics in the painting, which conveys a sense of equanimity.

The mercurial relationship between figuration and abstraction in his body of work is also manifest in ink paintings and drawings in the show.

The drawing Fachengkou In Suburbs Of Beijing (1974) shows a landscape dominated by craggy mountains. Up close, the delicate web of pen lines flattens into an abstract pattern. The drawing of a stone forest, which is part of the set of Yunnan Travel Sketches (1978), similarly uses quick traces of lines and curves to evoke rocky outcrops and plants.

These lines and curves find resonance in the sweep of colour- flecked mountains that dominate the ink and colour painting River Of No Return (1984). The work bears both the formalist influence of Western oil painting, as seen in the emphasis on colour, line and composition, and the xieyi, or freely expressive style of Chinese ink painting.

His idea of formal beauty in fact is, as he singled out, embodied by the ink and colour painting Two Swallows (1981), which renders a typical Jiangnan water village house with an economy of lines; bold, sweeping brushstrokes delineate the roof and doors leaving the unfilled space on the paper as walls. Despite the emphasis on geometric form, narrative content remains essential and a tree and two swallows in the painting bring life to the work.

The importance of the painting is flagged out by its display in the gallery. It hangs on a wall inside a custom enclosure that appears to be inspired by the geometric forms of a water village house.

Otherwise, the ink and oil paintings mostly hang on opposite walls in the gallery. This binary presentation brings to mind Wu's saying about oil paint and ink as "two blades of the same pair of scissors used to cut the pattern for a whole new suit".

A pair of scissors, however, is effective only when its blades come together, which leaves one wondering if the exhibition would have had more bite if it juxtaposed the oil and ink works to highlight the organic way by which he sought "to nationalise oil painting and to modernise Chinese painting".

This pursuit of artistic innovation is also seen in the exhibition, After The Rain, a look at the two decade- long practice of Singapore artist Chua Ek Kay.

The exhibition commemorates the donation of 38 of his works by his family in 2010, although the donated works are not included in this show (the ink and colour painting Yellow Door 1 & 2 (1992) however, hangs in the permanent DBS Singapore Gallery). Instead, the exhibition features about 50 works from the national collection as well as loans from private collectors and other institutions.

Chua (1947-2008) learnt tradi- tional Chinese painting in Singapore under ink artist Fan Chang Tien, and studied Western art at the Lasalle College of the Arts, University of Tasmania and University of Western Sydney, Australia.

His bicultural background in art led him to "search for a cultural archway that meets between the East and West", and allowed him to create "without any of the restrictions of the East or the West, unfettered by abstraction or realism".

The opening section of the exhibition makes this point by displaying a range of his works in different styles. This includes the abstract ink and colour painting Portrait Of A Woman (1993) and the expressive hand-coloured pressed paper pulp work, A Summer Encounter (2002).

Also part of this group are two large ink paintings from his water village series, After The Rain (2004) and Roof And Flowers In Red (2004), which depict scenes of Jiangnan, China.

The paintings mark a crucial moment when the water village houses appeared to him through the rain to resemble a landscape painting. In seeing the familiar with fresh eyes, he found a new visual vocabulary to describe the view, rendering the water town as an atmospheric, ink-soaked vista.

This ability to recast the ordinary in new light is what makes his Singapore street scenes stand out. In choosing to depict Singapore's urban jungle of old shophouses and alleyways rather than the lush mountains and scenic foot paths of the Chinese countryside, he revises the visual idiom of Chinese ink landscapes.

And the suite of 15 street scene paintings in the exhibition shows how he persistently renewed the genre over two decades, from the fairly representational Hoardings Around CHIJ (1986) to the almost abstract Catholic High School Old Campus Grounds (3) (2005), where ink is used primarily to depict shadows and negative space rather than portray positive space.

Yet it is perhaps his series on the lotus that is the most evocative. He often paints them as a cluster, as if they were growing in a pond, and as he returns to the subject over the years, the form of the plant, still faintly discernible in works such as An Intimate Space Of Stillness (undated, c.1995), gradually gives way to soulfulness.

In First Light Lotus Pond (2007), translucent daubs of white, feathery strokes of ink and filmy patches of lichen green and yellow fill the frame with the murmur and perfume of dawn. Don't be surprised if you find yourself falling into the pond; just don't forget to exhale.

This article was first published on December 15, 2015.
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