Chinese art: past, future and thumbtacks

Nash Gallery exhibit explores transition from the traditional to the modern

Erin Adler

It doesn’t get much more contemporary than silver thumbtacks.

Along with literally keeping a number of works from falling off the wall, the thumbtacks -pushed tautly into the corners of elegant watercolors – illustrate the contrast between traditional technique and the influence of modernity.

The contrast can also be read as what happens when East meets West, though in Pat Hui’s collection at the Nash Gallery, the two seem to meld together into something unique, rather than competing for attention.

Hui’s collection is comprised entirely of contemporary pieces, beginning in 1973. Of course, the long history of Chinese painting methods and philosophy is evident in every work. What varies is the extent to which individual artists have embraced contemporary influences (namely abstract art and expressionism, Hui said) and how successful or seamless the transition between the two worlds appears.

In one of the earliest works featured in the exhibit, Autumn Sentiment, contemporary master Wucius Wong seems to compare traditional and modern through layering of organic and geometric shapes, using bold shades of gold.

Other Wong works feel more traditional. In “Landscape,” the silk canvas and simple, refined use of white space feel classically Chinese. “Boundless Thoughts, I-IV” uses light and shadow in a way rarely seen in contemporary art.

Many pieces in the exhibit feature elements of traditional Chinese painting well-known to Western eyes – poetry (via meticulously rendered characters) integrated into paintings, painstaking levels of detail and an emphasis on the natural world.

But the exhibit demonstrates clearly that these elements can also feel quite contemporary, despite their age.

In Liao Shiou-ping’s still life of vegetables, for instance, attention to detail and precise use of watercolors make the piece appear to be a print, while quirky details – such as the pepper’s shadow taking on the tones of a rainbow – mark the piece as contemporary.

In Yip Hoi’s “Mourning the Ancient Warfield,” the characters of Chinese calligraphy appear to be hundreds of soldiers in rank and file, or hundreds of graves. The brown, grocery-bag-quality canvas and the selective use of orange and gold convey intense emotion, even if one cannot read the poem the characters comprise.

Similarly, Yu Sai Kin’s works, “Landscape” and “Untitled #6” among them, use movement and color to evoke feeling. The pieces seem to leap forward, unwilling to be contained by canvas boundaries.

These works, wherever they fit on the spectrum of ancient-to-traditional, make bridging a 3,500-year chasm seem simple.

There are other pieces that show this process to be slightly more awkward and rife with growing pains, such as Kan Tai-keung’s piece entitled “Abstract.” In the mixed-media painting, a giant blue circle dominates over the organic browns in the background. Two smaller red and orange dots appear within the blue one, rendered in fluorescent colors reminiscent of children’s tempera paint.

Despite these more frustrating entries, beauty can be found in every piece shown in the exhibit. The collection is majestic in its scope and acts as a commentary on transitional design and technique in Chinese art – thumbtacks and all.