Yang Jiechang, Soy Sauce Drawing 1, 1988, soy sauce, paper, 14 3/4 × 12 1/8". From the series “Soy Sauce Drawings,” 1988.

Yang Jiechang, Soy Sauce Drawing 1, 1988, soy sauce, paper, 14 3/4 × 12 1/8". From the series “Soy Sauce Drawings,” 1988.

Yang Jiechang

Yang Jiechang, Soy Sauce Drawing 1, 1988, soy sauce, paper, 14 3/4 × 12 1/8". From the series “Soy Sauce Drawings,” 1988.

The show “Earth Roots” proved the continued power of the monochromatic density and crusty strata of black ink as a metaphorical primordial stew that continues to nourish experimental art in China. Here, forty-six instantiations, of Yang Jiechang’s famed series,“One Hundred Layers of Ink,” 1989–99, were featured alongside a selection of the artist’s works from the previous decade. The exhibition’s narrative pivoted on the 1989 Centre Pompidou exhibition “Magiciens de la terre” (Magicians of the World), in which Yang participated as one of three artists from China. The curators noted that Yang, by that point, had already anticipated many artistic strategies that would come to characterize 1990s Chinese art: repeated action, intentional inarticulacy as a critical strategy, and monumentality. Yet in this restaging of the historic evolution of his seminal series, his work revealed another, perhaps more far-reaching, intellectual contribution to the evolution of contemporary Chinese art: the embrace of contradiction, or “wrongness,” as the artist describes it.

Concealed behind the fabled simplicity of ink on ink were intricacies of process and materials that could only be parsed while standing before the actual works, rather than reproductions. In “One Hundred Layers of Ink,” each painting’s surface is built up from layers of encrusted ink on warped natural-fiber paper, sometimes stabilized by gauze, then mounted on black or white canvas. Different opacities of black form a background field, while a central image, rendered in still more accumulations of ink, becomes defined by myriad textures and patterns, sometimes in high gloss. Light refractions at different angles prove that the works—far from being made of mere ink—are created from composite media. Although they look somewhat prosaic in reproduction, in three dimensions their intrinsic paradox is revealed: The black surfaces reflect white light. The effect allows the works to individuate themselves and to betray wisps of figuration. In A Feudal Vassal’s Jade Memorial Tablet, 1989–90, which depicts an ancient monumental stele on a white field, dust that had accumulated in the cracks of the parched black surface adds an aspect of literalness to its subject.

Works predating the “Layers” series hint at the evolution of Yang’s processes and attitudes toward materiality. His gestural brush traces evidenced in two series, “Untitled,” 1983 and 1987, eventually yielded to an interest in testing the limits of the materials themselves, as well as the metaphysical implications he tethered to them. The impossibility of controlling layered ink, the unpredictability of paper buckling under weight, and the highly varied surfaces that resulted from ink mixed with alum, piss, or dirt, all reflected philosophical aspects of creation, as he saw it. The evolution of Yang’s materials and process also echoed his life circumstances, as did the scale of his works. He adopted the practice of layering ink and reusing paper as a poor artist in Guangzhou; then, after 1989, he embraced an enormity of scale when an unlimited budget afforded him his first monumentally sized canvases. But the connection between his artistic choices and his daily experiences is best evidenced in “Soy Sauce Drawings,”1988, for which he painted the titular condiment on the reverse side of perforated dot-matrix-printer pages from a Heidelberg,Germany–based sinologist’s studio. Perhaps it was only the artist’s lack of access to proper ink that inspired his choice of stain, but maybe he felt homesick, or was just mocking his own outsider status. Presented in public for the first time, the brown pools have by now congealed into dark salt crystals that shimmer like ink under the gallery lights. 

Trained in classical calligraphy and studied in Taoism, Yang clearly draws strength from his inclinations toward reflective self-cultivation. He has remained singularly committed to native materials at a time when Chinese artists have prolifically absorbed “outside” artistic movements. He corrupted the forms and processes of ink on xuan paper, thus widening the margins to accommodate avant-garde attitudes within the restraints of traditional materials. Although he places himself at the end of a long line of scholar-artists, the materials-based expression of his contrarian attitude has earned him a starring role in the history of China’s avant-garde. 

Lee Ambrozy