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Energy in the Brush: Contemporary Chinese Ink Paintings at Cantor

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Liu Guosong 劉國松 (China, b. 1932), Zen Dream, 1966. Ink and light color on paper.  (Photo: Courtesy of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang)

What do you think of when you think of traditional Chinese ink painting? To start with, ink on paper and silk. Then, century upon century of graceful, languid calligraphy and dreamy landscapes and meditative profiles of nature. It’s an ancient practice that goes back millennia and features a great deal of visual consistency, given the fact many Chinese painters learned their craft by copying earlier masters.

That is not this. 墨境 Ink Worlds, a new exhibition opening at the Cantor Arts Center May 23rd, explores the work of two dozen contemporary artists. While they’re classically trained, modern Chinese ink art, from the 1960s through the present, heads in splashy, dynamic new directions.

“I think when people hear ink, they think that they’re going to see the same kind of image over and over. What the show offers is all of this variation using a single medium,” says Susan Dackerman, director of the Cantor Arts Center.

No one piece is like the other. Some are lyrical. Others aggressive. A lot of the paintings are abstract. A number do call back to traditional Chinese landscapes and calligraphy but Dackerman promises you won’t mistake them for anything other than modern.

What most do have in common is they come from the home collection of Jerry Yang, former CEO of Yahoo, and his wife Akiko Yamazaki.


“There is a certain way that you have to put energy into the brush,” Yamazaki says. “That is something that is quite unique about ink paintings — and I hope people can feel that.”

Irene Chou 周綠雲 (China, 1924–2011), Untitled, 1995. Ink and color on paper.
Irene Chou 周綠雲 (China, 1924–2011), Untitled, 1995. Ink and color on paper. (Photo: Courtesy of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang)

It’s fair to say you can feel it. The ink metaphorically explodes off the walls in the gallery, reflecting passion, but also, precision and craft, according to Curatorial Fellow for Asian Art Ellen Huang, who co-curated Ink Worlds.

“It’s painting in the most broad and expanded sense,” she explains. “Ink is beyond just what’s on the paper, but some active agent that seems to burst from the artwork and into people’s perceptions and experiences of life.”

This is the first and, so far, only show of Yang and Yamazaki’s ink art collection, but it’s not their first show. Yamazaki chairs the Asian Art Commission and Asian Art Foundation and Yang’s collection of Ming Dynasty calligraphy showed in San Francisco six years ago before traveling to the Met in New York. 

Qin Feng 秦風 (China, b. 1961), Desire Scenery No. 1, 2007. Ink on paper.
Qin Feng 秦風 (China, b. 1961), Desire Scenery No. 1, 2007. Ink on paper. (Photo: Courtesy of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang)

Yang started collecting art to connect to his Chinese heritage, but he finds the dynamism of living artists exciting. “Part of it is it’s a reflection of what’s happened in Asia, and more particularly, China over the last 30 years. There’s been an explosion of both tradition and innovation in art, and it’s still evolving,” he says.

Something else that appealed to the couple, as both are Stanford alumni: Stanford students got to help choose what works to show, under the guidance of Huang and Asian Art Professor Richard Vinograd. “To me, it’s their storytelling that brings this thing alive,” Yang says.

“We’re a university museum,” Huang says, noting there’s an existential need to use each exhibition as a hands-on learning opportunity for students. There are also a number of educational events attached to the exhibition, including a performative demonstration by artist Qin Feng and a conversation between artist Li Huayi and Michael Knight, consulting curator of the Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Collection.

Zheng Chongbin 鄭重賓 (China, b. 1961), Chimeric Landscape, 2015. Multi-media installation.
Zheng Chongbin 鄭重賓 (China, b. 1961), Chimeric Landscape, 2015. Multi-media installation. (Photo: Courtesy of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang)

Yang and Yamazaki have established themselves as pillars of the Asian art community in the Bay Area, but Yang says he feels part of a growing trend. He counts a number of art collectors among his friends, even if they may not be shouting about it to the public. “We’re starting to see more and more Silicon Valley entrepreneurs contributing more into the world of art,” Yang says. “It’s definitely on the rise.”

I ask the Silicon Valley veteran if he’s worried artificial intelligence will soon make Chinese artists obsolete, but Yang is optimistic about the future of human talent. “I think these guys’ jobs are safe from AI, for awhile.”

 For awhile…? 

墨境 Ink Worlds: Contemporary Chinese Painting from the Collection of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang runs May 23, 2018 – September 3, 2018 at the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford campus. For more information, click here

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