In the Studio with Hao Liang

Words by

Xuan Fang

In the Studio with Hao Liang

Chinese ink painting is your art medium as well as your way of thinking. How did you come across it and eventually decide to take it as your medium?

I was born and raised in Chengdu, a city deeply rooted in traditional culture. At an early age when I began going  to art museums, I mostly came across Chinese paintings such as  traditional ink wash paintings on paper or on silk. These particular materials are slightly tinged and translucent, like a placid jade looming with a faint light: or as if thousands of years have been captured in a brief moment in time. I was instantly drawn to these characteristics. When I studied Chinese painting at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, I continuously found myself unconsciously imitating and applying these effects to my paintings. I continued to perfect  these skills for about two or three years after graduation.

I am rather interested in your choice of colours. Some of your works convey a sense of vagueness or an impression of “ambiguity”, which is even more prominent in this new series of works. I would like to hear how you chose the tones, and how you made use of them to convey various emotions.

My work over the past two years has focussed on the use of colour. The historical aesthetic of  Chinese painting does not accentuate colour. However, I believe that colour can have a strong expressive power in our current cultural context, especially in expressing emotions. As the use of ink in traditional Chinese paintings seek stability and unity, the emotion that ink carries is reflected on a linear scale. Yet, in real life, people’s states of mind vary. So do their emotions. There is an old saying of “assigning colour according to the type of object”, which means adding colour based on  the inherent colour of the object; be it blue or green, rather than paying attention to the relationship between colours. Nevertheless, in the past two years I began to realise that colour in Chinese paintings should echo its flow of energy. This inspired me to explore “colour rendering” in ink wash painting. After many attempts, I finally found a way to combine different colours and restore the harmony between ink and colour, resulting in an integral flow of colours. Following this logic, I put great emphasis on the sources of colour tones, which also have underlying implications. The primary  colour palettes in my new works are the autumn and night sky. The colours of the sky at night that I saw in autumn matched with the mood and theme that I wanted to express in the drawings.

What moods and themes have been used in your works? How did you collect, organise and transform these intangible ideas into tangible visual narratives?

The title of the exhibition is The Sad Zither, borrowed from a poem by Li Shangyin. He said “why should the sad zither have fifty strings?”——Some things are born like this with no specific reason, but who could ever grasp what happened in between? Reading this poem conjured up feelings about my personal and general circumstances in recent years. I felt helpless witnessing the ferocity and cruelty in life, so, I sought comfort in drawing. I wanted to record and express my emotional ups and downs over the years. Perhaps in this way I might be more relieved when I face plights in life.

You once said that this process of transformation is like “writing”. Did chance play a role in it?

The initial source of inspiration for a painting may appear by chance, and continual adjustments inspired by more fortuitous events are needed. For instance, when I was drawing the skyline, I made a cut on my hand. The blood on my hand reminded me of the skyline at sunset, so I made the horizon in the painting as a wound eventually.It is a rather wonderful experience, like adding layers to a piece of writing. I thought of Jia Dao’s “Push or Knock” for his poem. The poet kept pondering about the choice of a few words in his poem until it took its final form. The process of painting is also similar to this cyclic process. First the inspiration followed by more accurate brushstrokes were used to capture the feeling.

This cyclic process is also the result of your extensive research and observation. Your art creation has always undergone a long process of imitation supported by exhaustive research, but at the same time you never stop exploring and searching for new breakthroughs in terms of the techniques of using brush and ink, composition and artistic conception of traditional paintings. What is the ultimate effect you want to achieve?

In addition to my art training, I spend a lot of time reading books as part of my research. Indeed reading classical texts gives me the grounding to start with and by drawing and visualising  them my understanding towards the initial source deepens. My underlying idea of creating these works is to approach the tradition of “combining poetry and painting”, which means a painting is the embodiment of a poem. Each painting has its own “poetic meaning”. This is one of the motifs of Chinese painting. Although text and painting reciprocally interpret each other to an extent, I want to break this inherent referential relationship, so as to give them both certain flexibility and something out-of-the-box. Li Shangyin’s poem became my foothold because of its ambiguity. My paintings serve as the interpretation of his poems while attempting to break the general understanding of poetry and painting. For instance, “It's Heaven's will to pity green grass sweet”, in Chinese painting the grass is expressed by just a few brief strokes, which is not accurate ideographically; I wondered if we should compare our feelings for the grass to our love for an animal, such as an injured cat. I therefore modified the image of the grass from the perspective of mimicry. Stylisation and standardization have always been the principles of Chinese painting. It takes a great deal of effort and talent to make these breakthroughs and to achieve creative freedom.

The Sad Zither, Gagosian, London, 2023 © Hao Liang. Photo: Lucy Dawkins. Courtesy Gagosian

The complex dimension of time in your work brings out a sophisticated layer of aesthetics. From it we can see the origin of the history of Chinese painting and the features of contemporary people and objects. How do you value the past and present? Is it true that contemporaneity is what you are truly concerned about?

Classical culture has always been my source of inspiration. Yet, I intend to record the emotions of my contemporary people with my art in a more subtle way. The paintings, therefore, present a more complex time and space: it can be associated with the classics in terms of intrinsic logic and aesthetic structure, while the emotions of the painting can be captured and perceived by a contemporary audience. The ambiguity of my works serves to interpret my understanding towards transcendence that prevails at any time.

There are a lot of references to literature in your works. What kind of books do you read and what are your sources of inspiration?

My interests are really diverse. Apart from Chinese literature and classical texts, I also enjoy Western art and movies which have given me a lot of inspiration. I’m quite spontaneous. My interests change over time, so do my research interests. Sometimes I’m absorbed in a certain topic that prompted me to extensively research it. Some other times when I am touched by a scenery or overhearing some comments that echo my current situation, I’ll use them as source material for my art. Often then I would go back home and study poems and paintings of other great artists in order to understand their perspectives and how they depict a relevant situation. For example, when reading Homer and Dante, I may also glance at some chapters of The Classic of Poetry, then some narrative poems of Du Fu and Bai Juyi, intending to find some commonalities among them. I do not mean the literal similarity in terms of their form or content, but a kind of “ancient spirit” that echoes each other. The world between the mortals and the gods is translated through words which are able to be understood and perceived. Such understanding that transcends time and place is very helpful for my creation.

Are there any artists who have a major influence on you and your work?

Chinese artists such as Fan Kuan, Dong Qichang, Ding Yunpeng and an anonymous artist who created Hundred Flowers Scroll in the Song Dynasty; Western artists including Roger van Weyden, Seurat, Kandinsky, they have all had a great impact on me. What I admire the most is the sense of rhythm in their works which also resembles a musical composition. In fact, I seldom paint static objects as I am always analysing the relationship between movement and stillness. An image entails a story that hides the flow of time and the extension of space.

How do you spend your day in the studio?

I usually start working after noon for a few hours until four o’clock. I’ll take a break and continue until six. If I’m not occupied in the evening, I'll work for another couple of hours. My work schedule is highly disciplined. I don’t like to be interrupted in the middle of the day, as I have to be very  concentrated on my work. On Saturdays and Sundays, I shift my focus to researching the visual language of painting and do more exercises such as copying and imitation. I have the habit of drawing two paintings at the same time, one large-scale and the other smaller, with very different painting methods. I simultaneously switch between complexity and simplicity which mutually regulates the rhythm. My creative cycle is rather long. When a large-scale painting is 80% complete, I will mount it and hang it up on the wall to observe it for more than a month before officially completing it.

This will be your first solo exhibition in Europe. For this exhibition, what do you expect to hear from the audience?

I imagine that there are certain aesthetics or emotions that the viewers and I both share and reflect upon. A big solo exhibition as such is making me uneasy. Of course any opinion from the European audiences is welcomed. I am interested to know if their point of view will differ much from my thoughts. I am looking forward to letting the audience enjoy the visual experience. Painting is something to be enjoyed in person. The works become flat and simplified when they are viewed on computers or mobile phones. It hinders the viewer’s understanding towards the painting. To see the works in person one will be able to observe the different texture in the silk paintings. Because I have painted on silk for fifteen, sixteen years, I have grasped the subtle differences in the characteristics of each silk material. Not only do I pay attention to find the materials corresponding to the feelings that I want to express in each painting, I also emphasise the difference in the texture.

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