Hall of Supreme Harmony, 2010, Ink on paper, 191 x 250 cm

Zhang Quan is in constant pursuit of the possibility of agreement among ink painting, its contemporary context, and everyday experience. He is one in a long line of artists to pursue this path of reinventing the ink context. The theme of this solo exhibition is “Infinity in Mist”—a phrase that captures the mood and content of the exhibition and also sheds light upon the unfettered state of the artist himself as he confronts the Chinese ink painting tradition. In the gallery, the audience witnesses time and distance as expressed by concrete images. This expression depends on movements tenuous and vague; starting out gently with monotonous brushstrokes, he layers horizontal strokes of night-black ink on top of one another. The result is a beautiful, gray tone brimming with air and light—a similar effect to that of sketching. With this practice he conceals the cultural dimension of ink work, its more traditional meaning associated with rice paper and brushstroke fetishism.

When ink is your creative medium, it is difficult to circumvent the question of how to approach the local painting tradition. The problem exists both at the technical level (whether or not to preserve calligraphic and ink techniques), and at the level of spiritual heritage—whether or not to continue to cultivate a certain artistic conception. These two trends have diverged, and Zhang Quan has taken the latter direction; his horizontal brushstrokes, based on the Chinese character for “one,” invoke a simultaneous addition and subtraction, guided by the traditional ink philosophy and technique that he mastered as a student of the craft. He lays the “ones” down one by one. The images they form are simple and disciplined; this is an anti-traditional mode of expression and a technical rhythm that reduces brush and ink to their purest form. In contrasting tones of black, the seemingly infinite repetition of “ones” serves as a reminder of the mountain of work that has gone into his product, and also of the passing of time. This degree of detail— down to each trivial, mechanically ordered unit of movement—is a test of patience. In the face of powerful monotony, the creative act becomes an ascetic exercise. For the audience, the oversized works’ inevitable effect is a kind of vertigo, and an ensuing query into the meaning of Zhang’s artistic behavior. Zhang Quan’s expressive approach is one both of extreme restraint and of compelling force, and the crux of the question lies in this very conversion: from power to effect.

The works in the exhibition span over the past three years, with the earliest exhibited works coming from 2007. The heavier emotion and nostalgic sentiment that pervade the earlier works are a betrayal of something considerably personalized; they embody Zhang Quan’s use of ink for self-writing. This is the case with Bayi Swimming Pool; it would be better to call the work a moment spent dwelling on older times than to call it a rendering of scenery. The five “Water” paintings are staggering in volume and in workload; the laboriously wrought nuance and air of tranquility conveyed by the paintings in their entirety are both well-matched and dignified. More recent works enter into a dialectical discussion regarding the representational, graphic possibilities of traditional ink painting.

When we place it back into the present contemporary Chinese painting context, this quality exhibition—basking in the rich contemporary atmosphere of Caochangdi— reveals its quiet, and even silent moments. The exhibition theme directly quotes Song dynasty Han Zhuo’s “Six Infinities,” thus pre-fixing a sort of contextual framework for the evaluation of painting, even if the corresponding referent is in fact absent. This sense of dislocation is similar to the kind that exists in the usual awkward moment during which a Chinese artist must confront the largely Western-derived assessment rubric for contemporary art. Zhang Xiyuan