Past forgotten in race for recognition

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 November, 2004, 12:00am

A co-founder of the successful BizArt gallery and consultancy, a painter whose works are in the Shanghai Museum of Art's permanent collection, and a Shanghai University art history professor, Huang Yuanqing is one of the more influential members of China's art scene.

He uses the ongoing Shanghai Biennial - which has more trendy video, digital and installation art than paintings and sculptures - as an example of where the mainland's cultural scene is going. 'On opening night, we were watching the hands of the clock go around,' he says, referring to artist Xu Zhen's manipulation of the Shanghai Museum of Art's old clock tower, which made the hands go around at breakneck speed while the chimes went off frantically with each condensed 'hour'. 'Everyone else interpreted the art-piece as one that symbolised how far Shanghai has come, and how quickly it has progressed. I felt it was a symbol of how fast the art scene has changed - maybe too fast for its own good.

'It's good to have new things; but not all art can be flashy and fashionable,' says Huang. 'Maybe some young artists just want instant fame. But I think art should have a sense of history, some sense of background. It has to be able to relate to a people's culture.'

Huang, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, first studied engineering at school. It was only later in life that he returned to university for a second degree in art, going back to his childhood love of calligraphy and painting. 'The first time art touched me was when I studied calligraphy as a child. To draw it, you must move the brush slowly across the paper, since Chinese rice paper is very fragile. But when you look at it, there is speed and movement and power,' he says.

'The second time [art touched me] was in university, when I was studying electrical engineering. I saw one picture that moved me. Only later did I learn that it was by a foreign man named Van Gogh. It was hard to see modern art at that time, maybe only if you went to the library and looked at the small pictures inside old art catalogues.'

Huang's abstract, colourful works are now created with western media and no longer feature identifiable Chinese characters. They, however, still possess Chinese calligraphy's freedom of movement and fine flowing lines. It's obvious that this art form is still close to Huang's heart when he takes my notebook and writes his name in four different styles: in pre-Qing dynasty pictograms, in the Han dynasty's curvy characters, in the T'ang dynasty's strong geometric strokes, and in contemporary Chinese's loose casual cursive.

Like most scholars, he looks down on simplified characters. 'It's the politics,' he says. 'To change a written language that abruptly is to disturb a tradition. Young people today don't understand old books.'

One of Huang's ironies is that he's a contemporary painter working in pure abstraction, yet he is one of traditional art's great defenders. 'At Shanghai University, I teach history - western art history, Chinese calligraphy - not new artistic techniques,' he says. 'I took my students to the Shanghai History Museum, to see our national treasures. And then I took them to the Shanghai Museum of Art to see the Biennial. They all said they liked the Biennial, but not the natural treasures so much, and that worries me.'

Huang does not blame his students entirely. 'The problem is that traditional culture disappeared for some time, and now it's very hard to find good traditional works in Chinese museums or auctions,' he says, referring to the Cultural Revolution. 'Now there are many fakes. So the young people don't see what's authentic and good.'

For a while, Huang returned to his roots, finding his own style in Chinese ink on paper, before progressing to the heavier media of acrylic and oil on canvas. He uses bright, deep hues against white backgrounds. and creates rich textures by piling the paint up in heavy layers, and then scraping the colours off again with a knife.

The works in Huang's current Hong Kong solo show are from 2003 and 2004, and all feature an unusual shape, much like a bean. These are playful , lovely paintings featuring bold bright beans and quiet shadowy beans, beans rising towards the heavens and others falling towards earth.

'A bean? Some people think it's a foot, a tooth, maybe a bean, but I can't explain its meaning,' says Huang. 'Art shouldn't be too obvious, or explain too much. I've used many shapes and lines through the years. Now I want to study this one, but I am sure it will change again.'

Huang's works are untitled, and he refuses to divulge anything about what they might symbolise. 'I want to create an image that's simple and pure.'

Huang Yuanqing's Facade Facade. Brasserie on the 8th, Conrad hotel, Admiralty. Inquiries: A&A Phoenix art consulting 2559 5141, Ends Feb 9, 2005