Huang Rui: Ways of Abstraction in Beijing
Author: Rachel Martin
Chinese artist Huang Rui will have the largest solo exhibition of his works in recent years at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. Known for his social and cultural commentary in his artworks and activism, Huang Rui has been a leader in Chinese contemporary art since the 1970s.
Like many of the youth in China born in the 1950s, Huang had to stop his formal education in the Cultural Revolutions (1966-76) and work in the countryside. China faced a liberal cultural climate at the end of this decade of political turmoil and Huang himself became involved with a group of young artists who created works unsanctioned and outside of state outlets. During this time, he co-founded the Stars group with Ai Weiwei, Ma Desheng, and Wang Keping. This collective was hugely important in Chinese contemporary art circles, pushing an avant-garde scene throughout the 1970s and 80s. In the 1980s, Huang relocated to Japan.
Huang’s own work has followed a series of changes throughout his career in large part due to the political atmosphere of China. This exhibition underlines these factors, using Huang’s own words and history to lead us through his oeuvre. The exhibition is structured by five series —“Early Abstraction,” “Space,” “Space Structure,” “Experiments with Ink,” and “Installation Works”— and works on view include his latest paintings created in 2021 in the “Heaven, Earth, Man” series, and exhibited for the first time, the oil paintings of the 2020 “Inside-out Dao” series.
Prior to discussing the abstract works of Huang’s portfolio for which the exhibition is named, we must understand the early concepts that shaped his career: the first entrance of Western art in China was not until the late 1970s, exposing the artist to Cézanne and van Gogh among other European modernists. This would have a major impact on Huang and his contemporaries.
Cézanne in particular was a primary influence for Huang, leading him to Cubism as well.
His early paintings show this influence, and Huang speaks about how important Cubism and the Modernists were to his learning and experimenting in his early career. He sees the cultivation of contemporary art as a recreation of the past, through an arduous journey of paying attention to how the art world has gotten to where it is today. These are featured in the “Early Abstraction” section and not only foreshadow the artist’s later shift towards a focus on the abstract, but also offer a vision of social transformations in China at the time. After Cézanne’s artworks left China, Huang recalls using memory to continue to explore artistic expression.
It is then that Huang Rui began to experiment with abstraction, and painted perhaps his most well known work Infinite Space in 1979. The next two sections of the exhibition are based around the artist’s further diving into abstraction through the 1980s. The “Space Structure” series examines the interaction between architectural form and spiritual space in his courtyard house of Beijing.
After moving to Japan in 1984, where he would live for the next fifteen years, Huang Rui began to explore the connections between materials, content, and brushwork in painting, as inspired by the design philosophy of an old Japanese rice warehouse, resulting in the “Space” series. While in Japan, Huang Rui also made a series of “experiments with ink”. These were influenced by Gutai and avant-garde calligraphy, and continued earlier studies of calligraphy he had undertaken in China when access to oil paints was limited.
The “Inside-out Dao” series draws from concepts integral to Huang Rui’s ways of abstraction in connection to the Chinese word “dao”, a term from Taoism which depicts truth without direct representation or expression.The layers of meaning in “dao” denote the artist’s painterly methods, from abstraction to his political positions which he has held since the beginning of his career. The eight trigrams of the Book of Changes, which represent transition and change,are at the core of Huang’s works. The most recent series of Huang Rui’s works, Heaven, Earth, Man, brings together further classical philosophical Chinese texts and oil paint on canvas.
The final section of this exhibition takes on an experimental approach to abstraction through installation works. These also explore Taoism but also urban ecology in the midst of a global pandemic, and a study of space through sculptural experimentations. All of these expand on
previous works by the artist, leading to an excellent culmination of his oeuvre. This exhibition is clearly well planned, well considered, and well rounded in terms of the artist’s career.
For this exhibition, UCCA will also release an eponymous catalogue of essays by curator and critic Pi Li and Columbia University professor John Rajchman, a conversation between Philip Tinari and Huang Rui, as well as reproductions of all the exhibited works, rare archival photographs, and sketches from throughout his career. The catalogue is designed by He Hao and published by Zhejiang Photography Press.
You can find more information about the exhibition at the following link:
Where: UCCA Center for Contemporary Art Beijing 798 Art District
No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District 100015 Beijing
When: September 25 - December 19, 2021 Monday–Sunday 10am–7pm
Tickets: For UCCA Beijing, please purchase tickets on UCCA’s official WeChat account or visit the museum’s front desk, where cash and credit cards are accepted. (The website does not currently support international ticket sales)