From minerals to canvas: Artist brings ancient painting to life

Wang Jie
After years of efforts, mineral-color painting finally comes into the public spotlight through a joint exhibition titled "The Power of the Rock" at Shanghai's APS Museum of L+Mall.
Wang Jie
From minerals to canvas: Artist brings ancient painting to life

Different types of rock powder

From minerals to canvas: Artist brings ancient painting to life

Miao Tong holds a copy of part of the murals of Cave 14 he created at Kizilgahr Grottoes.

Mineral-color painting, for even art lovers, sounds a bit alien. When Miao Tong went for his further studies in Japan in the 1990s, he had little idea about it.

Perhaps at that time, even Miao didn't realize that he would dive into this particular art genre for the following three decades.

"The more I approach it, the more I am drawn (to it)," said the artist with a smile.

In fact, "mineral-color art" is an ancient but ever-evolving type of painting.

It is created using main materials like rock powder, colored soil and sand. The source of "mineral-color art" can be traced back to the 3rd-century murals of Kucha Grottoes in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Yet after the Song (960-1271) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, Chinese painting began to be dominated by ink and wash. Mineral-color art gradually faded away.

"It was during the Sui (AD 581-618) and Tang (AD 618-907) dynasties that Japan sent envoys to study in China. They loved mineral-color art and took the art form back to their country, resulting in today's Japanese painting," Miao revealed.

From minerals to canvas: Artist brings ancient painting to life

On-site scene

Born in 1968 in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, Miao went to Japan in 1994 and learned Japanese painting. After obtaining his postgraduate degree from Kyoto City University of Arts, he returned in 2003.

In fact, Miao's predecessors who also went to study in Japan were conquered by the art form's rich materials and techniques. As a result, they decided to revive and expand this traditional art form, renaming it "mineral-color art" in the 1990s.

"It is not a substitute for Japanese painting, but rather a Chinese interpretation of materials and techniques that are different from it," Miao explained.

In his eyes, it is a contemporary rebirth of the ancient Kucha and Dunhuang murals, with unique aesthetic significance and profound cultural value.

"For no reason, I just love the expression, even though nearly no one had heard of mineral-color painting at the time when I was back in Shanghai in 2003," he said.

Silently Miao stays in this small art world, ignoring the outside hustle and bustle.

The greatest joy for the artist is finding the "right earth" in his work apart from the existing mineral pigments.

"Every year I go to Wuyi Mountain where the danxia land form is located," he noted. "I often stay there for half a month. You can't imagine how beautiful the earth is there. It is incredibly naturally hued from red, green, yellow to purple – the perfect gifts given by nature."

But this soil can only be applied to his work after a series of processes, including washing, filtering, sun-drying and mixing with a certain glue. According to the artist, one piece of mineral-color painting might take several weeks to several months.

In 2017, Miao opened a mineral-color painting studio at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts.

From minerals to canvas: Artist brings ancient painting to life

"Thick Soil II" by Miao Tong, linen, colored soil, animal glue

From minerals to canvas: Artist brings ancient painting to life

"Rebirth" by Sun Bo, mineral color

Six years later, mineral-color painting has finally come into the public spotlight through a joint exhibition titled "The Power of the Rock," currently underway at APSMUSEUM of L+Mall in Shanghai through June 16.

Curated by Miao, the exhibition has invited 25 outstanding Chinese and Japanese artists who have long been active in the field of "mineral-color art" creation, research and technique.

Miao's work titled "Thick Soil II" at the exhibition impresses the viewers.

The intricately designed tableau, plus the sophisticated layers of earth, conjures up a familiar yet sacred land – against the blue sky, under the dazzling sun, the heart from the scorching sun wrapped around the body, around the old foreign city, is seemingly filled with the smell of earth.

From minerals to canvas: Artist brings ancient painting to life

Miao Tong is busy at work.

Q: What does earth mean to you?

A: In my eyes, human beings are part of the earth, dust to dust. In fact, every living creature is nurtured by earth. It is the origin of life.

Q: How does Japanese culture influence your work?

A: Not too obvious to tell, but it should have a subliminal influence on me and my work. In fact, I quite like Japanese culture – clean, safe, orderly and free as an artist.

Q: It is said that this exhibition might later travel to a temple in Kyoto this autumn. Is it true?

A: Yes, it is on the plan. I think it is meaningful to have such an exchange exhibition between China and Japan, an invisible dialogue between Chinese and Japanese artists.

Q: You said that there are many possibilities in mineral-color painting. What do you mean?

A: We try to expand the scope of mineral-color painting, not to be shackled by its materials. Various craftsmanship or techniques can be fused into the work. Its outlook should not be stereotyped. I suggest a closer inspection of the works created by Li Yujun at the show. At first sight, one might just find the creamy and milky hues of the sandstone and earth. Yet, the young artist adopts a series of hard hand labor in making a cluster of layers with subtlety.

Q: Please use three words to describe the status of mineral-color painting?

A: Slow-paced, insistent, like a bulldozer.

Exhibition info:

Date: Through June 16

Venue: APSMUSEUM of L+Mall

Address: 3/F, 899 Pudong Rd S.
浦东南路899号3楼

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