YAO YUAN, Revealing the Light Within, 2013, Chinese ink and color on paper, 173 × 92.5 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

Beyond the Jade Terrace

Alisan Fine Arts
China Hong Kong

“Beyond the Jade Terrace,” recently held at Alisan Fine Arts in Hong Kong, took its name from a sixth-century Chinese love poem anthology entitled New Songs From a Jade Terrace. “Jade Terrace” denotes the luxurious palace apartments that upper-class Chinese women were confined to at the time, and, as described in the poems, it was a place set apart for them to indulge in aesthetic pleasures. Since then, the term “Jade Terrace” has come to represent communities of female artists and the distinct ideals of beauty that characterize them. With that in mind, “Beyond the Jade Terrace” as a contemporary exhibition set out to carry on and re-appropriate the female artistic tradition in China. The exhibition presented four female Chinese artists with their own interpretation and approach to the concept of the “Jade Terrace.”

Incidentally, it must be noted that this group comprised a spectrum of artists, and that the exhibition encouraged viewers to have a progressive perspective. On the ostensibly “conservative” end were Yao Yuan’s works, Revealing the Light Within (2013) and A Crane under the Moonlight (2014). Yao blends painting and writing in literati fashion; in these works she mixes calligraphy with symbolic subjects of pure blossoms (denoting endurance) and the crane (signifying longevity), respectively, inserting Buddhist text in the case of the latter. Her large-scale paintings not only command thorough visual appreciation but subsequently invite meditation. This seems to be the working of her picturesque yet realistic backgrounds, as in the distant mountains in the clouds, anchored by the imagined and enlarged subjects often situated in the center of her paintings. And by putting her seal on her works, the Jiangnan native claims her heritage and connection to the literati landscape painting, a realm largely exclusive to educated men throughout China’s history.

ZHANG YIRONG, Butterfly, 2014, Chinese ink on paper, 120 × 143 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

CHU CHU, The Flower Adornment Sutra, 2014, ink and color on paper, 49 × 49 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

Moving onto the next wall in the gallery, one encountered exquisite large-scale renditions of butterflies by Zhang Yirong (Butterflies 2014-7 and 2014-8, both 2014). Her attention to detail, which ranges all the way from the abdomen to the edge of the butterfly wings is certainly mesmerizing; more important, however, is her “analytical” attention, wherein Zhang elevates a common, natural object into that of beauty. Within her paintings, the viewer recognizes repeating patterns that very pleasantly resemble floral patterns or scenes of landscape. Critically, it is the sheer size of the painting that guides one to discover aesthetic patterns in the otherwise negligible wings of a butterfly.

Turning to the more “inventive” end, Chu Chu presented a more creative rendition of literati painting. Looking at Flower Adornment Sutra (2014), one recognizes the classical elements of plants in a vase as a reference to the “Four Gentlemen”—the orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum and plum blossom, which were staple motifs of Chinese ink painting—but liberated from their traditional forms. The plants are treated with bold, fluent strokes, while numerous Chinese characters float in the background. The meditative, didactic sutra has certainly become fluid and attractive under the work of Chu. The artist introduces emotional and sensuous aspects into the truth-seeking practice of meditation, which is often seen as something as elusive as the floating scripture in the background.

WANG MENGSHA, East Wind Breaks I, 2014, ink and color on paper, 75 × 142 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

On the last wall were works by the youngest member of the group, Wang Mengsha. The 32-year-old artist’s works strike instantly as playful and unanchored by any conventions. A seemingly grand narrative of two figures on a mountain is interrupted by prints of floral patterns and a Taoist symbol (East Wind Breaks I, 2014), while a group of coy women, portrayed with pale faces and thin features, like those in nihonga, are punctured with random insertions of butterfly silhouettes (East Wind Breaks II, 2014). Meanwhile, a lush euphoria is presented in Dream Catcher (2014), in which carefree indulgence is depicted through a cloud of fluorescent-colored trees, birds, flower and a vase. A commitment to aestheticism is attested by the artist, who claims, “My art has no purpose, but my heart and mind will continue to envisage fantasies that are all my own.”

The four walls of art that ranged from earnest reenactment of tradition to playful re-imagination was perhaps the embodiment of a contemporary “Jade Garden” in itself—in which its members were in a complementary dialogue with one another. The exhibition, with such a concise narrative and an appealingly large scale, made the viewing experience a rewarding one. 

Beyond the Jade Terrace” at Alisan Fine Arts was on view from September 27–November 8, 2014.