I’m equally interested in modern and contemporary art. For me, restructuring the literati creative system is critical for the present. I do it through my own thinking and fantasies so that I can traverse across the past and present.
In my study of traditional ink and wash paintings, my view of time and space staggers and jumps. When I read the artistic theories of Dong Qichang, the Ming dynasty scholar and painter, I suddenly think of [Wassily] Kandinsky. When I travel in nature, I see the details of ancient Chinese paintings, flashing before me like a film montage by [Sergei] Eisenstein.
Replete with allusions to both Eastern and Western literary and cultural traditions, Shell is by the artist's own admission one of the best examples of his oeuvre - a painting that he is "extremely satisfied with" and which was chosen as a highlight piece in his debut solo exhibition in China, Hao Liang: Secluded and Infinite Places, in 2014 in Beijing. An extremely accomplished work, Shell exemplifies Hao Liang’s extraordinary practice that is currently undergoing widespread critical attention. Born in 1983, the 35-year-old Hao was recently honoured in last year’s Venice Biennale’s central exhibition and is one of the youngest yet most important contemporary artists in China working in the medium of traditional ink wash painting. Having spent extended years studying, researching and reproducing Chinese classical paintings, Hao acquired an archaeology of knowledge concerning historical and literary works and is well versed in ancient motifs, symbolism and poetic traditions. In his works, Hao effortlessly weaves together narratives as well as details and symbols of traditional Chinese works with twentieth-century art theory, forging a wholly unique oeuvre that conflates both time and space; his flawlessly executed silk portraits, handscrolls and landscape paintings are a remarkable fusion of techniques and themes that bring the ancient technique of ink wash painting into the 21st century.
Hao was born in Chengdu in Sichuan and enrolled in the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 2002. There, he majored in Chinese painting and pursued a master’s degree in the same Institute in 2007. At the encouragement of teacher and mentor Xu Lei, Hao embarked on a career as an artist. Living and working in a studio on the outskirts of Beijing, Hao’s art is firmly rooted in tradition; for the artist, innovation can only happen after a painter has mastered legacies from the past. The artist’s assiduousness is formidable and his process laborious; while a student, he “spent years dedicated to copying, researching and assimilating everything he could find out about Chinese painting, going well beyond the parameters of instruction of the [Academy]” (Barbara Pollack, “How Contemporary is Contemporary Ink? Hao Liang & Gagosian Answered” in COBOSOCIAL, 6 June 2018). Hao’s efforts are apparent for the world to see; as Barbara Pollack observes: “[Hao] has mastered not only the sensitive application of ink but the multiple perspectives that reside simultaneously in many scroll paintings. Going still further, he seeks to instil in the modern viewer the sublime sensations that masterpieces of Chinese painting are capable of evoking” (Ibid.).
Knowledge of the history of painting, the Chinese classics as well as symbolic iconography from both the East and West is fundamental towards the understanding the subtlety of Hao’s innovations. The present work Shell, inspired by the ancient Ming dynasty painting Erlang and His Soldiers Driving Out Animal Spirits, is also powerfully reminiscent of St. Jerome in the Wilderness (c. 1480) by Leonardo da Vinci. In the figure’s hand is the titular “shell” which inescapably resembles a human heart; the old man’s outstretched arm lifts it carefully, reverently, as if to ward off the spirits of the night. Peering out of the mist behind the figure are gnarly branches that resemble two pairs of antlers of two deer – a powerful symbol in Chinese culture and the beautiful subject of numerous myths and legends. One of the most potent symbolisms of the deer is light, auspiciousness and regeneration; seen in this way, Shell can be interpreted as an interpretation on man’s existential balance between their light and darkness; yin and yang; life and rebirth; and internal and external worlds. In this context, the title Shell thus refers to the external vehicle that carries our heart or our soul throughout the cycles of time. Regardless of one’s level of familiarity with the myriad of nuances in Hao’s works, Shell potently demonstrates Hao’s intimidating emphasis on technique – in particular that in his figure paintings, which integrate Song academic painting and Renaissance elements into a mesmerizing synthesis of East and West portraiture.