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The Hunter and the Transformations of Hell

The Hunter and the Transformations of Hell
signed in Chinese (lower left)
ink and colour on silk
230 x 147 cm. (90 1/2 x 57 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2011
Private Collection, Asia
My Humble House Art Gallery, Nest Image – Hao Liang Solo Exhibition, Taipei, Taiwan, 2011 (illustrated, pp. 93-95, 97).
New Directions – Hao Liang: Illusory Ink in LEAP, Anhui, China, February 2012 (illustrated, p. 48).
People's Fine Arts Publishing House, Hue Art in the Contemporary Era - The 9th National Exhibition of Chinese Hue Art Paintings, Beijing, China, 2013 (illustrated, pp. 137-138).
My Humble House Art Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan, Nest Image – Hao Liang Solo Exhibition, 2011.
National Art Museum of China, Beijing, China, Hue Art in the Contemporary Era - The 9th National Exhibition of Chinese Hue Art Paintings, 19-26 December 2013.

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Lot Essay

At first glance, Hao Liang’s paintings appear traditional in style. Executed in inks and glue-based pigment on silk, The Hunter and the Transformations of Hell (Lot 36) depicts three figures dressed in flowing robes, surrounded by twisting branches and trees. But as the eyes adjust and details come into focus, the contemporaneity of Hao’s work becomes clear. Hao Liang’s The Hunter is a masterful exploration of translucency and ambiguity, both in his use of medium and in his expression of concept. Hao Liang demonstrates the continued relevance of traditional ink painting techniques, while skillfully exploring complex themes of life and death.

Born in 1983, Hao Liang belongs to a post-80s generation of young Chinese artists who have recently gained increasing attention on an international scale. Born in Chengdu, Sichuan, Hao was exposed to the visual arts from an early age through his grandfather, who was a famous movie director. Hao then went on to study Chinese ink painting at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute.

The subject of the skeleton is a recurring theme in Hao Liang’s work, and many of his early paintings from a similar period explore the subject of bones as a metaphor for both life and death. Skeletons first appear in Chinese paintings as early as the 13th century, the most famous example of which is Li Song’s The Skeletons’ Illusory Performance . A skeleton wearing a translucent cap and robes dangles a skeletal marionette before fascinated children, just as the robed skeletal figure in The Hunters seems to interact with his human-looking companions. Luo Pin’s Ghost Amusement scroll – directly inspired by the anatomical drawings of Vesalius - also explores the subject of the human skeleton in a whimsical way. All of these works explore the imagined intersection between the living and death, highlighting our fascination with the grotesque and the subject of the afterlife. Hao has professed his own interest in using grotesque images as a way to engage the imagination, and this he lures viewers in with his detailed depiction of both the central skull-headed figure, and the winged skeleton at his feet.

The Hunter is a masterful study of the translucent qualities of Chinese ink, and the work explores the ambiguity of being able to simultaneously see different layers at once. Examining his work, there is a moment of shock and surprise when once discovers that the skeletons of each figure can be faintly seen beneath their clothing, and on the skull-headed figure’s visage, we can see a ghostly sketch of eyes and facial features. Hao achieves this by first creating a detailed sketch of the work, delineating the skeletons within each figure, and then by using numerous thin washes of an animal glue and mineral-based pigment while working. The result is a painting dominated by its transparency and translucency, where the closer we look the more we are able to see.

Fascinated by history, Hao Liang frequently incorporates numerous references to both Chinese and Western masterpieces from a variety of periods in his own paintings. Besides historical depictions of skeletons and demon figures, the format of The Hunter references depictions of luohan, Buddhist saint-figures who are often painted surrounded by natural surroundings such as rocks or trees. The graceful lines that define the three figures’ robes echo the style of Wu Daozi, while the wings of the skeleton rising from the ground appear inspired by Renaissance depictions of angels, such as the one painted by Leonardo Da Vinci in his Annunciation. Even the horse – hidden behind the three figures – shares the wide eyes and flaring nostrils of Han Gan’s Night Shining White painted in the 8th century.

Hao has acknowledged the influence of diverse styles on his work, stating in an interview, “When I need stimulation, I can go back to early sources, such as miniature painting. […] Ceramics, woodcarving, Japanese painting, Flanders painting and fresco have also influenced me.” His personal Instagram account is filled with images of details taken from works by Lucien Freud, Georges La Tour, Song dynasty landscape paintings and medieval altarpieces, suggesting the expansive breadth of the imagery that inspires him on a day-to-day basis. Yet Hao Liang’s skill lies in his ability to seamlessly fuse so many different elements and sources of inspiration to create a cohesive whole. Hao partially achieves this with practice, repeating borrowed forms until they become his own, and also in his choice of medium as he integrates different elements with his cohesive painting technique.

Hao Liang paints using traditional glue-based mineral colours, which he grinds and prepares in traditional bowls, eschewing the more accessible and vibrant mediums of acrylic and gouache. The artist’s decision to work with dark tones and muted colours mimics and evokes historical Song Dynasty paintings, which emphasized simple tones. Yet there is a subtle richness of colour in all of Hao’s paintings, and a sensitivity to light that stems from study of Renaissance chiaroscuro. In The Hunter, the lightest area of the composition is at the base of the work surrounding the winged skeleton, drawing our attention and arguably making it the focal point of the work. The feathered wings have been painted with careful gradients of red and blue pigment, giving the work a dimensionality that would not be possible with ink alone.

Yet, who are these figures depicted in the work, and why have they gathered in a dark forest on a winter’s night? Hao provides clues, but ultimately leaves the viewer to decide for himself. According to Hao, “In traditional painting, interaction between figures is often represented in an abstract way, and thus the painting is not an illusionistic representation, but the presentation of a ritualized narrative.” The moment that Hao depicts may not a real moment, but may instead be a symbolic relationship; perhaps the three figures represent three aspects of a single person, or a soul at the moment it encounters death. In this regard, The Hunter resembles Li Song’s painting, in that both works present us with enigmatic scenes that contain no conclusive answers.

The Hunter and the Transformations of Hell is a study of permeability and translucency. The boundaries between life and death are not so much blurred, as they are depicted as overlapping. Life and death are presented as one and the same, just as we are all simultaneously bone, flesh, form, and spirit, the composite parts simply rendered visible in Hao’s work.

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