Lacquer artist experiments with techniques and art forms to explore gray areas of life
Chinese lacquer, along with Chinese ink wash painting, is among the few homegrown art forms that were relatively untouched or influenced by an external source. In fact, some of the archaeological discoveries of lacquerware point to extreme creativity, aesthetics and exquisite craftsmanship by Chinese artisans dating back centuries.
Starting from the red lacquer wood bowls, Chinese lacquer art developed rapidly during the Warring States period (475-221 BC) and the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Several techniques gradually evolved after the 10th century, such as engraved gold (qiangjin), filled-in (tianqi) and carved lacquer (diaoqi). The art of inlaying lacquer with mother-of-pearl thrived during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). In the 16th century, the painting of lacquer was revived but it was rarely used on carved lacquer.
It wasn't until the early 1980s that lacquer painting, once a secondary subject, deviated from decorative art to emerge as an independent genre in contemporary art. Breaking away from decorative practices, modern lacquer painters began to think up new strategies – and discover new materials – in their works to express an idea or concepts that reflected modern times.
Among them was Yin Chengzhong.
After graduating from the China Academy of Art in 1982, Yin returned to his hometown Ji'an in east China's Jiangxi Province to teach art in school. The town was an important base for lacquer art during the Song Dynasty and he started researching and experimenting with lacquer painting.
He found natural lacquer had many advantages, lasting longer without flaking or chipping. It remained fresh for years without changing color associated with varnish, polyurethane or shellac. Besides, lacquer is a bit thinner than oil products, penetrating deeper, thus providing a durable seal that protects the composition of other craft materials from the inside out.
Yin drew from his early experience in oil painting to control the colors and shapes. His works are not limited to the meticulous portrayal of objects, nor are they in harsh and contrasting colors, but they are good at abstracting simple shapes and direct forms of the subjects. He also tends to borrow techniques from other art forms, such as ink wash, woodcut and printmaking.
Using a palette of soothing cool colors, Yin's works changed the general paradigm of hitherto lacquered objects in black or red and enticed viewers to explore the gray area of life – the moment when the real and the art intersect and mingle into one.
The "Quiet Poyang Lake" is depicted in gray and blue with the wings of a giant white crane spread out like an overhanging roof. Under its wings, younger cranes are bathing and resting. The "Bamboo Forest" is created from a squat position. Once black, the bamboo shoots are a stark contrast to the strong and upright growth of the culms, which are dark glossy green. In "Looking at Each Other," the painter removes the messy onion leaves around the giant onion bulbs. Its light and fluffy creamy-white balls are featured through a magnifying lens.
Yin came to Shanghai in the 1990s and shifted his focus on investigating the historical relics of the Hexi Corridor, which was an important route linking China and the West for more than 2,000 years.
His "Dunhuang Impression," "The Fleeting Years Series" and "The Entropy Series" lament the lost glory and embody the rough and simple aesthetics in China's remote northwest. Ruined walls and deserted cities were a feature of his paintings.
He followed the principles of roughness, simplicity and mellowness as he experimented on lacquer painting materials. Wood chips were first dyed, solidified and then crushed into small particles or powder. With lacquer, they were repeatedly brushed onto the surface of the board to form a mixture made of particles of different dimensions or densities, which not only reflected the weathering of stone relics but also rhymed with the moody and mysterious shades of the lacquer.
The world is meaningless; it is human behavior that gives it meaning. Thought has no shape, but people who are engaged in visual art always want to make their thoughts and feelings perceivable through the use of images.
After 2000, Yin experimented with abstract expressionism that can be seen in his paintings like "Story of Things" and "Mystery of Existence." Drawing inspiration from Chinese calligraphy, he conducted a series of experiments on lacquer strokes with a certain degree of flexibility in various combinations, especially in works like "Landscape of the Past" and "Spirits of China."
A sharp eye can spot the agility of the cursive script, the tension between the lines of the running script, and the volatility of the official script in turning a circle into a square, or an arc into a straight line. He uses layers of lacquer, one over the other, to thicken up or thin down the medium to obtain a quality and gesture that conveys the experience, feeling and conviction of the painter at the moment of painting. Viewers can feel the peace of mind and inner calm in his subtractive brushstrokes, and are inspired by the abstract composition of the painting.
Yin believes writing should include engraving, scratching, carving, rubbing, and marking with all available tools and materials. Due to the unique viscosity of lacquer, lacquer writing has a three-dimensional and sculptural feel if combined with auxiliary materials such as hemp, wood, and crushed tiles. In particular, the "slow motion" in lacquer writing allows each stroke to go through a more microscopic aesthetic mechanism. When all kinds of media are integrated, displayed and reorganized – the final results are often unpredictable beauty and accidental surprises.
Looking back on his 40-year career, Yin's trajectory is a process of abstraction. He gradually moved from painting birds, flowers and bamboos – motifs associated with the traditions of Chinese literati painting, to dunes, caves and ruins in China's hinterland. Now, there are only strokes of calligraphy. He has made a conscious effort to shift his attention from the beauty of the mundane to the expression of historical and cultural consciousness.
He deliberately avoids using traditional craft materials such as gold, silver and mother-of-pearl. Instead, he tries wastes, such as eggshells, slag from coal mining, crushed tiles, sawdust and the like, with lacquer on canvas, wood panel and even aluminum board. His transformation redefined the art of lacquer by making it relevant to modern aesthetic sensibilities.
It was inevitable that Yin would eventually delve into calligraphy in his later works. Chinese calligraphy had influenced several contemporary artists, especially after World War II.
American painter Franz Kline (1910-62), who was associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s, created compositions that were calculated and distinct from other artists of his generation.
The Belgian-born poet Henri Michaux (1899-1984) traveled extensively in Asia in the 1930s and confessed that he came to China not to seek exoticism but to find a new language.
Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74) and Robert Motherwell (1915-91) all looked up to ancient cultures for expression and creative freedom.
Yin seems to be taking the same road. In a studio littered with crushed waste tiles and lacquer panels of various writing forms, Yin makes poetic connections between Chinese lacquer craft and reality. Through his abstract images and in-depth colors, Yin has created a realm of art for Michaux and the likes – a contemporary response to spirituality that travels through time and space.