Huang Rui, 1976, 2016, diptych, oil on canvas, each panel 59 × 59".

Huang Rui, 1976, 2016, diptych, oil on canvas, each panel 59 × 59".

Huang Rui

Galerie Zürcher | Paris

Huang Rui, 1976, 2016, diptych, oil on canvas, each panel 59 × 59".

Huang Rui’s pictorial abstraction is rooted in Chinese tradition, as this exhibition made clear. The architecture of old Beijing is the first model for his work—its courtyards and hutongs (narrow alleys), the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, the gardens of Suzhou and the cave temples of Dunhuang. The artist included three works from his “Space Structures” series, begun in 1984, in which he represents the urban plan of the city’s historic quarters. The transition from architecture to painting is visible in earthy colors that recall the fortifications of the Imperial City, and these pictorial cartographies uncover the organization of the urban grid, present but imperceptible to those who traverse the city.

The hexagrams of the ancient Chinese divinatory text I Ching (Book of Changes) provide a second model for Huang; six horizontal lines, joined or broken, are methodically arranged on the canvas and often outlined in black. These linguistic signs, like fragmented messages or sequences of Morse code, suggest an overriding order or logic, implying that the complexity of the world might be understood and reduced to a combination of a few graphic strokes.

In the early 1980s, the artist obtained a Taiwanese copy of Lao Tzu’s Daodejing (The Way of the Dao); the Daoist cosmology offers yet a third model for his practice. The alternation and interdependence of yin and yang, white and black, solid and void, generate a visual equilibrium as well as a dualism, also manifested in his tendency to work in diptych format. There are references to recent but unspecified political events, such as the black and white square monochromes overwritten, respectively, in Roman characters, in the work Black Smoke White Mask, 2014.

While engaging and reworking Chinese tradition, Huang also reappropriates Western modernism (Neo-Plasticism, Constructivism, cool abstraction) and the tradition of the monochrome, from Robert Ryman’s white to Yves Klein’s pink (see Four Pink, 2007). He likewise borrows Cézanne’s famous reduction of nature to cylinders, spheres, and cones (he saw the French artist’s work in China in 1978), which he interprets both through cubism and through visual models specific to the Book of Changes. Similarly, Huang reclaims the Chinese tradition of canvas as writing surface, grasping the scission between the calligraphic aspect of Chinese ideograms and the ideological significance they often convey, just as he gleans the suspension between private writing and advertising slogans in the letters of the Roman alphabet.

In his most recent paintings (Viewing, Nearing, both 2016), however, the translatability between word and image is called into question, gauged according to a camouflage aesthetic; here, writing is clearly visible at the center of the canvas, but it is applied to monochrome backgrounds of the same color. The best example was the diptych 1976, 2016, one of the largest works in the show and part of an ongoing series. Broad brushstrokes break the geometric grid of the hexagrams—which are created using a stenciling technique—introducing an expressive fluidity while obscuring a message on the surface. In fact, the two panels, seen side by side from a distance, revealed the date 1976 in Arabic numerals. This is the year of Mao Tse-tung’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution. But it also marks the beginning of Huang’s career as an artist and poet (in 1979 he would found Today, an independent underground literary magazine, and cofound the Stars group, of which Ai Weiwei was also a member), as well as a watershed moment in Chinese visual art.

It is not surprising that the artist plans to create a diptych based on 1989, the year of the events of Tiananmen Square, when, influenced by the Japanese avant-garde, he became interested in performance and installation. The painting 1976 was accompanied by In Search of Trigrams, 2016, a ritualistic performance in which the artist-shaman and other performers slowly walked in a circle. Their masks, like Huang’s most recent paintings, bore the characters of the Book of Changes that correspond to the four elements. Like the ticking of a clock outside time, the clink of little bells evoked—or perhaps attempted to exorcise—the memory of the past.

Riccardo Venturi

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.