Courtyard of the Soul
Wang Tingxin blends her roots in classical Chinese painting with an immersion in contemporary western tradition to create works of striking beauty. An exhibition of her paintings has just opened at Halcyon Gallery in London
Wang Tingxin’s art is remarkable. And for many reasons. Firstly, her distinctive style is a clear yet bold marriage between classical Chinese landscape painting and French impressionism. Also, her technical choices — of pigments, colors and paper — combine to give her art an almost three-dimensional quality that means the works can change quite drastically when viewed from one side or another. But most unusually, Tingxin paints, almost impossibly, on black paper.
“Yes it is hard, but I can be quite stubborn,” says the Hong Kong-born artist, with a typically self-deprecating smile. She is talking before the opening night of her exhibition, Courtyard of the Soul, at the Halcyon Gallery in central London’s Mayfair district. It is her first commercial show: although she has been painting all her adult life, she has never sold her art before. “I become so connected to my work,” she says, with another wide smile. “Very emotionally connected. I just don’t want to let them go.”
Halcyon has built a strong and growing global reputation as an audacious gallery that is passionate about art — especially public art — and its own artists. It has become known as a specialist in both pop art and impressionism, and recent Halcyon exhibitions have included Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan. But such rarefied surroundings do not seem to faze Tingxin, who is showing anything but first-night nerves.
“I’ve always tried to do things in my own way,” she says. “And for me, when I first put paint on a surface, it gives me the feeling of creation. I have always experimented, with different paper and different colors, and so I thought, ‘why do most artists paint on light backgrounds?’ In my perception, the inception of the world would have been dark. Light was created afterwards. So I thought, why not try to emulate that. Why not try to paint on black surfaces?”
It wasn’t enough that it was working, or that it I was enjoying it. It had to be good. It doesn’t mean anything unless it is good
Tingxin works with a traditional rice paper called Xuan that has been used in China for millennia, for both fine art and calligraphy. To obtain a black variant of Xuan, she worked for months with an artisanal paper factory in eastern Anhui province. That was just the start of her creative odyssey.
“I often use Chinese pigments that are similar to western watercolors, which means they are transparent in nature. So it’s very hard to make these colors show up on a black surface.” She experimented lots to find the right medium, learning to really enjoy the process, but it was slow and challenging.
“I learnt techniques that worked but for me, it wasn’t enough that it was working, or that it I was enjoying it,” she says. “It had to be good. It doesn’t mean anything unless it is good.”
Tingxin’s work predominantly features water lilies and lily ponds — “Water lilies grow from mud into such beauty,” she explains — and it is, according to Halcyon Gallery’s president, Paul Green, better than good.
“It is astonishing,” says Green emphatically.
“It is a big decision for the gallery to take an artist on,” he says. “But what was especially interesting to me [about Tingxin’s work] was the mix between east and west, the use of the paper, the brushes and the inks, and how such a young artist was using her historical knowledge to create something so contemporary. These are rare qualities that are difficult to find.”
The mix in Tingxin’s work, of east with west and Chinese classicism with French impressionism, is immediately apparent. It provides a fundamental part of her character and is, she says, what guides her creative compass.
“In my teen years I studied in Canada and was lucky enough to study western art there too. In western culture, you are encouraged to create your own style and confidently express your views. My upbringing, my family, was very traditional Hong Kong Chinese. There are a lot of boundaries.”
These cultural differences taught her a lot, she says. About herself, the world, and about creativity.
“In the west, you are asked you to jump out of the box, encouraged to think your own ideas and these are things that I really appreciated. But when I returned to Hong Kong — more than 20 years ago now — I wanted to understand my own origins better.
The traditional classical Chinese painters … for me, they are the real originators of creating a feeling.”
“I started studying Chinese painting and calligraphy and the philosophy behind them, and also learnt to appreciate that. And so these techniques and skills became very complimentary to what I had learnt before in the west.”
She says both have played a seminal influence. “I so admire the French impressionists’ use of color. How they use it to make a feeling, a time. How they can create morning, afternoon or evening. But the traditional classical Chinese painters, also, in terms of making an atmosphere, really knew how to make a mood. For me, they are the real originators of creating a feeling.”
Tingxin says she strives to keep learning from both. “Creating art is a journey. No artist ever really stops learning new things.”
If the popularity of her work with art buyers on Courtyard of the Soul’s opening night is any guide, Wang Tingxin’s artistic journey may well turn out to be a very famous one.
Wang Tingxin, Courtyard of the Soul. Until 26th March, 2017.
Halcyon Gallery, 144-146 New Bond Street, London, W1S 2PF