Friday, July 3rd, 2009

Ink Paintings by Qigu Jiang: Figures at The Koehnline Museum

May 7 – June 18, 2009
1600 E. Golf Road
Des Plaines, IL 60061

Qigu Jiang Figure A 2008. Ink on rice paper, 16 x 12 feet. Courtesy Koehnline Museum.
Qigu Jiang Figure A 2008. Ink on rice paper, 16 x 12 feet. Courtesy Koehnline Museum.

The large ink brush paintings of Qigu Jiang have a monumental presence.  Expansive sheets of unframed rice paper are directly hung on the wall of the museum.  This method of hanging allows the artist’s marks to have maximum effect with minimal distraction and lends both serenity and focus to an atmosphere of silent reverence.  Jiang’s sensitive use of line and gesture, whether describing delicate flowing contours or jarring masses, underscores his impressive mastery of the ancient Chinese ink brush tradition in a modern expressionist mode.

His paintings depict figures in various states of action or resignation, at once  traumatic and sensual.  His main protagonists are male bodies with faceless heads that are sometimes obscured by puddles of black ink or splashed in red.  They grip their heads in pain, sometimes curled and collapsed or falling, while others stride forward with aggressive anger and purpose.  The figure is in constant conflict with the abstract marks that impede or attack him. Bold strokes act like imprisoning walls, depressive clouds furiously stain heads, and giant splatters define the trajectory of explosions. The breathing of the rice paper surface with the various densities and textures of line and brush stroke tell their own abstract drama.  Delicate line work describing hands and muscles are attacked by bolder forms that could have been drawn with a broom, expressing vulnerability, violence, and pathos.   Jiang’s figures seem trapped in an inescapable existential conflict like the tragic ancient Greek figure of Orestes besieged by the Furies.  Yet the artist has achieved his escape from fate through the articulate grace and power of his line.  Time and again his brush stroke transmits revelatory moments that point to direct emotional truth.

installation shot of the exhibition under review
installation shot of the exhibition under review

The most impressive of these traumatic male figures is a 16 foot high mural size ink painting entitled Figure A. Viewed from above, a gargantuan giant grips the massive cranium of his head in his large and sensitive hands.  Here, for once, Jiang has graced his figure with a downward looking face and closed eyes, as though the giant is attempting to meditatively find inner peace from outer turmoil.   This truly massive figure bears a heavy tragic symbolism which lies somewhere between the inner contemplation of the Buddha and Edvard Munch’s expressionist painting The Scream.

In a separate series of intimate works inspired by Renaissance sculptures of the male nude, most which are no larger than 8 by 7 inches, Jiang displays his shorthand mastery of ink brush technique.  A single flowing gesture describes the muscular contour of a torso and abstract calligraphic marks become the elegant curve of a spine.  A few female figures are also included.  The body defines a state of desire and rejuvenation that express sincere joy in movement.  These small works become an oasis of untroubled elegance standing in dialectical opposition to the artist’s large traumatized figures.

True to his tradition, simplicity and directness become essence:  the brush cannot lie.  Jiang’s work is philosophy in motion embodying the irreducible core of spontaneous instinct that lies at the heart of the Chinese ink brush painting tradition where art and life have merged.  Essence of line and essence of modern truth are his constant themes.  His work is proof that emotion freed by the ancient tradition of the orient continues to nourish human needs and stands in distinct opposition to the intellectual strains of contemporary art.   On the periphery of the art world there are artists who are running in the opposite direction from postmodern influence, refusing to sacrifice the core of feeling, sometimes traumatically painful feeling, that reflects the truth of lived experience.  Qigu Jiang is one of them.