Duet: A Tan Ping Retrospective
Yuz Museum Shanghai
June 15th, 2019 – September 22nd, 2019
Yuz Museum will present “Duet”, a solo exhibition of Tan Ping curated by the renowned art historian and critic Wu Hung, on June 15th, 2019. Set in the present, the exhibition is a retrospective anthology of the 35 years of the artist’s creative career. Over 40 paintings, prints, videos and on-site paintings that constitute the exhibition provide a review of the artist’s upbringing, life and mental progress as well as an observation on his artistic evolvement via the experience and perspective of an individual life.
+40m，a 40-meter long white line left by a single chisel-stroke extends the length of the 55-meter exhibition space in Yuz Museum to its opposite, an overlapping “timeline” constituted of five sets and thirty-three works deviates away from linear narrative and bears witness to Tan Ping’s experiments with media and language. Unlike familiar retrospectives, “Duet” does not stick to a chronological order, but applies the artist’s thinking and working method to approach the cogitation upon language and reality. As one of China’s significant contemporary artists, Tan Ping’s development has always been contextualized in the happening and progressing of Chinese contemporary art. The timeline of his uninterrupted exploration of the two main media printmaking and painting, quite coincidentally presents a diploid crossover with the track of zeitgeist.
The exhibition begins with his first woodcut printing We are Chairman Mao’s Red Guards (1974) and the first watercolor Untitled (1972) depicting landscape in his hometown Chengde, before he entered the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA), Beijing. In 1980, Tan Ping was enrolled in the Printmaking Department of CAFA, and upon graduation in 1984 went on to become a teacher at CAFA. During the formal training in the Academy, he had showed an inclination towards inner expression, and was inherently alarmed by grand narratives, being deeply aware of the correlation between artistic creation and subjectivity. Between 1984 and 1989, he experimented with simplifying the “object”, extracting more subjective interpretations. Works such as acrylic paintings on wood The Great Wall (1987) and etching Vision (1987) showed a perplexed urban consciousness and explored the determinacy and indeterminacy of time. In 1989 he studied in Berlin University of the Arts. During five years of overseas studies, he became more aware of the differences between the East and the West as well as the clash of cultures, thus began a more conscientious effort in search of his own identity. In his oil painting Balance (1993) and multiple etchings Untitled (1990-1992), he had begun experimenting with “monotype” in printmaking, to engage the process more randomly and openly. Until around 1996, he had gone through an intense period of conceptual exploration of the printmaking process. The works he did during this period can be seen as both completed and open-ended.
Tan Ping returned to China in June 1994 after he received a Master’s degree and a Meisterschule degree in Germany. In 1995, he was assigned the task to build the design major of CAFA from scratch as a young lecturer, and deeply involved in founding the curriculum of the School of Design, encompassing fields from graphic design to architectural and environmental design, with a special emphasis on creativity and thought training. Inspired by teaching and the diverse curriculum, he diverted more energy to the experiments with different materials and media, showing a more personal touch with textures and the interplay between media. In 2004, the illness of his father triggered a renewed sensibility on the theme of life. In works like Beauty (2008) and Birth (2008) on show, organic cells became the objects in this period, the images of which would reoccur and evolve over time. From 2005 to 2008, the theme transcended depicting “concrete cells” from the very beginning to a profound cogitation about identity, wounds and life, and consciously imbedded personal experience into broad social, historical and cultural contexts. The social responsibility on his shoulders was no longer separate from the language the artist adopted. Expanded roles prompted him to engage more ardently with the social implication of art. Ever since 2008, he has delved further into color fields, time and body awareness, thus resulted in the Covering series (2008-2018), and progressed into the more recent “on-site painting” series (2016-2019). These works reveal on the one hand, a conscious rebellion in formal language under the broad current of Reform and Opening-up; on the other, an evasion from the period’s ideological frenzy. While gaining insights from conceptual art, the artist clings to the value of personal instincts and the presence of life. Not only in formal pursuit does he persist in moving from center toward margins and blankness, conceptually he also keeps placing art in a broader, wider spatiotemporal setting.
Speaking about the traits in Tan Ping’s art, the curator Wu Hung comments that “30 years of artistic experimentation by Tan Ping along, a path filled with deepening interplay of line and color, form and melody, action and cogitation, gradual accumulation and sudden enlightenment. Along this path, an uninterrupted ‘duet’ between oil paintings and woodcut prints has exerted a crucial role. ” The sets of works presented on this show intertwine and juxtapose the two media which he alternates between. Through observing this sustained and in-depth dual engagement, we will be able to track the vivid personality and distinctive logic in Tan Ping’s quest.
The most prominent yet succinct work in the exhibition may be the woodcut printing +40m. Taking a simple, almost primitive approach to woodcut, the artist executed the piece at a stretch: he carved a single line with a round-tipped chisel, which took him six hours of intent effort. The moment when the chisel touched the boards, it was like a scalpel cutting into elastic skin. He moved the chisel slowly and unremittingly, treating the chisel as an ink brush and immersing himself in this special “moment”. In the straight gallery passageway, viewers will go along with the artist, in mind and body, from this end to the distant other end. They will feel the “presence” of life in this special setting. The other works that speak more about his latest conceptual development is the “on-site paintings” in Gallery II. Since 2014, Tan Ping has geared more towards the merge of space, time, action and presence in exhibitions, thus “on-site painting” became increasingly important for him. The artist brought unfinished pieces from his studio, which he installed at particular spots, choreographing the scene with the artist’s own body movements, then letting the lines and color blocks from the paintings proliferate onto the surrounding wall-space. The painted surface and the white wall were knit together and made to interpenetrate. Spatial proportions were considered, but also allowing for the deliberate offset of plans. The effacement of margins becomes a core issue in the artist’s formal and conceptual explorations.
The exhibition concludes with a video based on Tan Ping’s work CHI CHU from 2014 to 2015, a series of charcoal drawings done by Tan Ping at odd times during work fragmentary intervals. He made a point of finishing each drawing within two minutes. These works recorded moments of subtle changes in the artist’s mind. There is no predetermined orientation: the line extends freely, and the brush roams until it encounters with the inner being of the artist. Such a procedure is latent with a degree of indeterminacy that can spark limitless vitality and creativity on the part of the artist.
In the video, the rasping sounds of charcoal being applied on paper resonate with sound of the chisel sinking into the wood in +40m in Gallery I, echoing the theme “Duet”. An ensemble weaving prints and paintings, crossing an epic time with a personal quest, through it we can both “see and hear” the grand concert composed by Tan Ping’s notes in art and life. The interplay between media, the encounter and clash between individual and time, the intertwining and reverberation between individuality and universality, all endow Tan Ping’s visual expression with both a sense of certainty and indeterminacy, while offering a unique sample of broad formal experiment and conceptual exploration in contemporary art.