From the 19th century, artists across the Western world began to break away from the representational style that had characterised art since the Renaissance. For these new ‘Abstract’ artists (including the Impressionists, Expressionists and later, Fauves), the objective representation of reality was not nearly as important — or valuable — as the experience of seeing and painting itself.
In the 20th century, pure abstractionists went one step further, producing works based on patterns of form, colour and line that made no visual reference to the real world whatsoever — their departure from the material world leading to associations with spirituality.
Though these movements shook the Western art establishment, they echo an idea that, in China, had been common since ancient times — that of Yixiang, or idea-representation. To philosophers, Yi is abstract, inward and emotional; Xiang, representational and objective. An artist painting a bamboo, for example, could borrow its Xiang (outward appearance) to express his Yi (idea).
Though each country has its own unique culture and art history, it is possible to read elements of Yi and Xiang in works from China, Japan and Korea — the tension between subjective experience and objective representation challenging notions of what exactly ‘reality’ is, and how an artist shows it. Here, we look at the work of three artists offered in our forthcoming Asian Contemporary Art sales in Hong Kong.
Zhang Eli: Blurring boundaries
Zhang Enli, Tree in Winter 2, 2008. Oil on canvas. 250 x 200 cm. (98 3/8 x 78 3/4 in.). Estimate: HKD1,400,000-2,000,000 ($179,500-256,400). This work is offered in the Asian Contemporary Art Day Sale on 29 November at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Zeng Fanzhi, Watermelon (detail shown top), 1996. Oil on canvas. 99.4 x 80 cm. (39 1/8 x 31 1/2 in.). Estimate: HKD1,200,000-1,800,000 ($153,800-230,800). This work is offered in the Asian Contemporary Art Day Sale on 29 November at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Born in Jilin, China, in 1965, Zhang Eli has stated, ‘I deal with reality in order to express something that goes beyond reality’. Produced in thin washes of oil paint, the artist’s still lifes and landscapes present a stylised version of real life, the bold black lines displaying elements of calligraphy or relief carving.
Other works, such as those by Tomoya Tsukamoto, tip into the realms of abstraction, merely suggesting natural forms. In Zeng Fanzhi’s, the artist’s sense of the fruit’s texture and colour becomes as important as the depiction of the fruit itself.
Yoshitomo Nara: A contemporary Cézanne
Yoshitomo Nara, Sleepless Night (in the White Room), 1999. Acrylic on canvas. 120 x 110 cm. (47 1/4 x 43 1/4 in.). Estimate: HKD10,000,000-15,000,000 ($1,282,100-1,923,100). This work is offered in the Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 28 November at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Cézanne’s post-Impressionist works had a pivotal influence on the development of 20th century art, with both Matisse and Picasso said to have called the artist ‘the father of us all’. Cézanne’s works explored the possibility of reducing naturally occurring forms to their geometric essentials, the artist seeking to ‘treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere and the cone’.
Though working a century apart from the artist, and in an entirely different location, Yoshitomo Nara’s works display a similar concern with simple, geometric forms, reducing the human body to a series of shapes that are nevertheless highly expressive.
In sculpture, Wang Keping’s forms show a similarly reductive approach to figuration, with works by Cui Jie, Hou Yong and Jiangzhi employing architectural lines that reduce the artists’ subject to its most essential structural components. The same is true of the rational geometric aesthetic of works by Wang Xiaosong and Jun Won Kun.
Yayoi Kusama: Queen of the infinite dot
Yayoi Kusama, Aqua Net, 1987. Acrylic on canvas. 45.5 x 38 cm. (17 7/8 x 15 in.). Estimate: HKD1,500,000-2,000,000 ($192,300-256,400). This work is offered in the Asian Contemporary Art Day Sale on 29 November at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Li Shurui, Polar Lights No. 10, 2010. Acrylic on canvas. 239.5 x 180 cm. (94 1/4 x 70 7/8 in.). Estimate: HKD200,000-300,000 ($25,600-38,500). This work is offered in the Asian Contemporary Art Day Sale on 29 November at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Crowned the most popular artist in the world according to a survey of museum attendance conducted by The Art Newspaper, Yayoi Kusama’s most well known works see an idea expressed as a series of apparently endless dots. Now 86 years old, the artist first began producing polka dots when she was just 10, the figure coming to be associated with an obsessive character and a desire to escape psychological trauma.
For Chun Kwang Young, the triangle becomes an endlessly repeated motif, whilst Ding Yi has been using the cross symbol in his work for over 20 years. Works by Tatsuo Miyajima use LED sequences of numbers whilst works from Li Shurui use geometric spots of light.
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