“The way Hao Liang’s work has developed over time bears similarities to the classic Chinese novel ‘Journey to the West’. Starting off from China, he travels westwards, encountering various phenomena from the legends of the Western Regions... At some point in this journey, he [...] enters the realms of literary imagination. In his imagination, people can undergo dramatic transformations, morph into butterflies and be reborn over and over again.”
“Who can tell who the withered bones lying amidst the green grass belonged go?”
Richly symbolic and immaculately executed, An Anecdote from the Grove is an exemplary work from Hao Liang’s widely celebrated corpus of figurative paintings that is undergoing widespread critical attention. Focusing on the human body as a site to explore human’s metaphysical sense of being, the series is characterised by the artist’s idiosyncratic iconography, signature palette of muted yet translucent tones, and most importantly his supreme mastery over the traditional Chinese ink medium and seamless integration of the aesthetic, cultural and literary traditions of the East and the West. The composition of the present piece is reminiscent of Giotto’s St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, a fresco in the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Italy; while the title Linjian Ji recalls the literary classic Linjian Lu (Tales from the [Chan] Grove) – a compilation of over three hundred anecdotal writings on Chan Buddhist practice written by the monk Huihong from the Song Dynasty. Replete with Eastern and Western symbolism, the distinguished work forges an extraordinary synthesis of the ancient and contemporary East and West into a singular cohesive whole.
Born in 1983, the 36-year-old Hao was recently honoured in the 57th 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’s flawlessly executed silk portraits, handscrolls and landscape paintings are a remarkable fusion of techniques, traditions and themes that bring the ancient technique of ink wash painting into the 21st century. Shunning contemporary mediums, the artist prepares his own traditional glue-based mineral colours by grinding them in traditional bowls. While his dark muted tones evoke the ambiance of Song Dynasty paintings, closer inspection of Hao Liang’s works reveal a sumptuous richness in colour and virtuosic manipulation of gradient, light and depth – one that evokes the very best of Renaissance chiaroscuro. There is a sublime quality of translucency that invites the eye to delve into an archaeology of layers within the painting; the artist achieves this through numerous thin washes of glue and mineral-based pigment laid on top of detailed sketches. Through his elaborate technique and methodology, Hao Liang at once celebrates and revamps the age-old tradition of ink painting.
Hao Liang’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). His early interest in historical resources and historical painting techniques was broadened and enhanced owing to the influence of his teacher and mentor Xu Lei, whose ink paintings are heavily informed by Western semiotics as well as art movements such as Surrealism; it was at Xu Lei’s encouragement that Hao Liang embarked on a career as an artist. For Hao Liang, innovation can only happen after a painter has mastered legacies from the past, and his 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.).
Mining references from the East and West, Hao Liang 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 visual lexicon that conflates both time and space. As curator Kao Chien-hui observes: “The way Hao Liang’s work has developed over time bears similarities to the classic Chinese novel ‘Journey to the West’. Starting off from China, he travels westwards, encountering various phenomena from the legends of the Western Regions… At some point in this journey, he [...] enters the realms of literary imagination. In his imagination, people can undergo dramatic transformations, morph into butterflies and be reborn over and over again”. Particularly prevalent and iconic for Hao Liang is the theme of mortality and death – often faintly but distinctly discernible beneath the robes of his cloaked pilgrims are outlines of their skeletons. The human body rendered half flesh half skeleton is metaphorical of the natural life cycle; in accordance with the Daoist philosophical approach of man and nature as one, when a living being dies and sheds its physical surface, it returns to nature in an ongoing process of flow and reincarnation. Combined with the visual effect of translucency achieved through Hao Liang’s assiduous application of layered ink wash, the present work powerfully evokes a poignant sense of life’s fleeting temporality and transcendence. A masterful contemporary manifestation of literati painting, the present work exemplifies the epitome of Hao Liang’s deeply informed and accomplished and oeuvre.