Beyond The Sacred Mountains: New Chinese Ink Paintings

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

NEW YORK - Where is a spiritual home to a contemporary Chinese artist? Shuimo/Water Ink: Enchanted Landscapes, Sotheby’s upcoming selling exhibition in New York, invites sixteen artists to reinterpret the past and reimagine a new vision of landscapes with the simple elements of water and ink. The Chinese title Menghuan xianjing literally means “Dreamy Realm of the Immortals.”

Tai Xiangzhou, Mountain Peaks on a Clear Day, 2013 (detail).

China has a time-honored pictorial tradition of depicting the immortal world.  Sacred mountains, inspired by Daoist lore, lie at the center of such artistic expressions. According to Daoism, the fundamental purpose of its practice is to cultivate and obtain the Dao and become immortal, as a Zhenren (true human) does. Many scholars believe that the Chinese character for immortals, xian, in its different variations, is etymologically related to mountains. With their imposing peaks, mysterious caves and winding pilgrimage roads, mountains were the focal point of cult worships even before the formation of religious Daoism. As a space inhabited by the revered immortals and shrouded by mystical clouds, mountains remain the most important sacred home to Daoist temples and retreats, as well as the home to magical herbs and fungi that provide for healing and longevity. With time, sacred mountains have become the site for individual efforts to seek immortality, thereby functioning as an escape from time. As such, mountains are the ideal embodiment of mystical power and cosmic truth. 

Zeng Xiaojun, Yellow Mountain No. 1, 2014.

Tai Xiangzhou’s Mountain Peaks on a Clear Day (2013) is a hand scroll executed in the style of Li Tang, a pivotal painter whose work reflects the transition from the Northern Song style to the Southern Song style. Partially shrouded by mist and clouds, Tai’s monumental mountains bear the signature “ax-cut” brushstrokes perfected by Li, as exemplified by Li’s large hanging scroll Whispering Pines in the Mountains (National Palace Museum, Taipei) and are accompanied by a calligraphic transcription of Wenzi’s exegesis of Daoist patriarch Laozi’s teaching. It is interesting to compare Tai’s interpretation of the Li Tang style with his teacher Liu Dan’s Airy Mountains, Rushy Glens After Li Tang (2004), which is also included in the show. Tai’s Autumn Mountains, Myriad Miles (2013) evokes Northern Song master Fan Kuan’s Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, which is predicated on the Daoist principle of reclusion, with the vertical composition emphasizing the monumentality of nature. Tai’s expansive hand scroll becomes an illustration of the esoteric discussions expressed in the accompanying inscription, which reflect upon the boundaries of universe and the world in “The Question of Tang” from Liezi, another Daoist classic.

Hao Liang, The Tens of Thousands of Rocks Scroll, 2014 (detail).

Yellow Mountain, having long been the sacred site of Daoism as it was purportedly renamed after the Yellow Emperor who became immortal there, has been the magnet of an artistic tradition. Zeng Xiaojun’s Yellow Mountain No. 1 and Yellow Mountain No. 2 (2014) present a very different topography from the typical renditions of the same subject matter made famous by the Anhui School. Many painters associated with this artistic lineage, most notably Hongren, Zha Shibiao and Dai Benxiao, tended to reduce natural forms to bare and thin compositions with spatial ambiguities, avoiding ink tonality and textual density in favor of minimalist contour lines.  By contrast, Zeng’s depiction of Yellow Mountain is lush and sensuous, with highly textured brushwork and tonal variation. 

Wong Chung Yu, Holy Mountain No. 13, 2013.

Rocks and grottos of dramatic shapes, other important pictorial elements in Daoist imagery, feature prominently in Hao Liang’s The Tends of Thousands of Rocks Scroll (2013). He used red and blue colors sparingly to offset the black ink washes, which he applied with great variation to accentuate the clouds and mystic atmosphere. Yu Peng’s The Sky, Earth and Me (2013) depicts two Daoist practitioners meditating in different caves, against the backdrop of free-flowing trees, rocks, mountains and cranes.

Cai Xiaosong, Satellite No. 2, 2009.

In Holy Mountain No. 13 (2013), Wong Chung Yu combines classical brushwork with fine drawings of industrial structures with exposed interiors and staircases, accentuated by pale yellow and blue washes, to create a surreal landscape that does not seem to be inhabitable by human beings. Cai Xiaosong’s Satellite No. 2 (2009) introduces an element of modern extraterrestrial exploration in a moon-like surface that reflects the landscape of an ethereal mountain retreat. After all, a moon landscape is only a reflection of our imagination of the sacred mountains – in this world!


Shuimo / Water Ink: Enchanted Landscapes
A Selling Exhibition
Sotheby’s New York
March 14-28, 2014




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