Charting New Territory with Contemporary Ink Art

With origins dating back millennia, ink painting and calligraphy have come to visually define the Chinese artistic tradition. Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center places them in a modern context with its new exhibition, 墨境 Ink Worlds: Contemporary Chinese Painting from the Collection of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang.

Dedicated Bay Area arts philanthropists and Stanford alumni Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang have been building a collection of Song dynasty ceramics and Ming dynasty calligraphy for almost two decades. Here, they present contemporary calligraphy and its representational counterpart, ink painting. The works on view – which range from Mi Wanzhong’s 1625 ink-on-paper drawing The Paradise Landscape of Yangshuo to Zheng Chongbin’s 2017 mixed-media work Merged with Variant Geometries – demonstrate the range of modern adaptations of the classical art forms, and emphasise the flourishing state of the practices today.

“In their pursuit of Chinese contemporary ink paintings, Jerry and Akiko have inspired a whole generation of artists,” says Mee-Seen Loong, Vice Chairman of Chinese Art and Asian Paintings at Sotheby’s. “Much like Balanchine’s classicism re-emerging in his own brilliant choreography, these artists are trained in traditional brushwork but are unconstrained in their interpretations and often take extraordinary and very beautiful leaps in their work.”


Calligraphy and ink painting are popular practices among China’s elite artists. Though they both consist of brushing ink over paper or silk, ink painting has historically depicted the natural world, such as flowers, bamboo stalks or landscapes, while calligraphic writing entails the meticulous copying of ancient and sacred texts. New approaches to ink, including in film – such as Xu Bing’s The Character of Characters, 2017, and Zheng Chongbin’s Chimeric Landscape, 2015, which surrounds the viewer with sound and projected calligraphy – continue to expand and modernise the medium.

“The two art forms are closely related. They employ overlapping, though not identical, techniques, and often share a common aesthetic,” says Arnold Chang, an artist and a classical paintings consultant for the collection. “Together, Jerry and Akiko have assembled a very personal collection of ink paintings by both well-known contemporary artists and relative unknowns,” he adds. Chang and photographer Michael Cherney’s collaborative work Landscape, 2017, will be on show in the exhibition.

For Ink Worlds, the Cantor Arts Center invited graduate students from Stanford’s department of art and art history to join the curatorial process, which is led by curatorial fellow for Asian art Ellen C. Huang. “Chinese painting has a history of over 2,000 years, and its contemporary instantiations are strikingly relevant as they draw upon rigorous training and profound awareness of the past, while expanding ink into adventurous and new territories,” say Huang and Susan Dackerman, the John and Jill Freidenrich Director at the Cantor, in a joint statement. “We hope to show these developments and innovations in an interpretive survey so that the public and academic community understand their particular visual features, their historical connections and their global impact.”


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