in Reviews | 03 NOV 13
Featured in
Issue 12

Qiu Shihua

Galerie Urs Meile

in Reviews | 03 NOV 13

Qiu Shihua, New Works, 2013, exhibition view

At the mention of ‘contemporary Chinese painting’, many in the West think of stereotyped images of grotesquely overdrawn laughing Communist Party officials. Critics use the term ‘cynical realism’ to refer to a type of painting which, in the early 1990s, began to comment on a period of change in China by exaggerating the gestures of Socialist realist painting – creating works that enjoyed great commercial success on the global art market.

As a result of this myopic perception, Chinese painters working in conceptual, abstract and non-figurative styles have tended to remain unknown in the West. One exception is Qiu Shihua, born in 1940, who has been receiving increased attention in Europe, most recently in Germany with a retrospective at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (2012) and Museum Pfalzgalerie in Kaiserslautern (2012–13). In Lucerne, however, this was the seventh exhibition at Galerie Urs Meile with new works by the artist – eight on canvas (all Untitled, 2009–13) and four on paper, the oldest dating from 1980. The latter works reflect the development of Qiu’s style as it took shape over the course of the 1980s.

In the gallery’s main space, viewers faced a row of seemingly white, monochrome canvases. On closer inspection, a broad spectrum of lighter and darker shades of white emerged, some with a hint of blue or pink. Depending on viewpoint and lighting, the striking thickness of the paint and the dense texture of the pictures became visible. It seems to be near impossible to even approximately do justice to Qiu’s strangely anachronistic works in illustrations or reproductions – surely another reason why his work has taken so long to start reaching western audiences. Moreover, his pictures demand contemplation and concentration, and it takes a while before the ‘white fields’ reveal landscapes, groups of trees, or seascapes, with a strangely melancholic atmosphere. The eye has to literally scan these pictures which entirely lack any central perspective, and as such the blurry figurative landscape elements resist any kind of ‘overview’. As the wealth of detail gradually comes into view, there is no sense of well-being – the pictures seem to be caught in an atmospheric no-man’s-land, reflecting on emptiness.

Qiu’s work is situated within the tradition of Chinese landscape painting – more than twelve centuries older than its European counterpart. Whereas the traditional Western understanding of landscape frames a whole that offers itself to an individual viewer, the twin terms shan shui (mountain-water) – as Chinese landscape painting is also known – establish a field of dynamic relations. Correspondingly, Qiu’s painting opens up a fertile interplay of fullness and emptiness, of visibility and invisibility. But one could also point to a Western philosophical discourse such as that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for whom visibility and invisibility are not diametric opposites, as seeing can never be all-encompassing. Instead, as an always-unstable process, seeing constantly involves overlooking or not seeing. In the course of the 20th century, there was a current in art history marked by an ‘aesthetic of absence’ – the blue monochromes that Yves Klein began painting in the mid 1950s, Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings of the 1960s, Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings (1951), or Robert Ryman’s lifelong engagement with the colour white. Behind these approaches are recognizable strategies of withdrawal and a refusal to guarantee visibility. On the path to a global art history, it seems only logical to add Qiu Shihua to this canon.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell