China Black: Wang Keping & Zao Wouki

Aktis Gallery presents an exhibition of Zao Wou-Ki (1921-2013) and Wang Keping (b.1949) for Asian Art in London 2016. The exhibition ‘CHINA BLACK’ is dedicated to two of the most influential Chinese émigré artists of the 20th century.

Aktis gallery showcases a group of 16 sculptures by the contemporary sculptor Wang Keping alongside a selection of 10 Chinese ink paintings by the renowned Zao Wou-Ki. Both artists left their native homeland for Paris in the 20th century, gaining recognition by the European art world as well as continuing to build their reputation in China.

They are also well recognised by art historians such as Michael Sullivan who thought “Wang Keping’s instinctive feeling for sculptural form is so powerful that his figures seem almost to burst through their skin, enlived by his optimism”, and described Zao Wou-ki’s contribution as “the Abstract Expressionist element in his own tradition” in his critically acclaimed book Art and Artists of Twentieth-century China.

The group of sculptures showing at the exhibition features the highlight of Wang Keping’s most recent works on his profound search for the essential elements in life, from the human body with his stylised sculptures of couples, men and voluptuous women, as well as figures from the animal kingdom, all created using abstract forms determined by the wood itself. “What concerns me most is the shape of the wood; the cracks and bumps on the wood can give me inspiration,” he said.

For each sculpture, Wang Keping exerts his total artist control on the artworks, from the initial collection of the wood, to the carving, firing, burnishing and glazing of each piece. He said ‘black is the most stubborn colour – black is extreme; black is pure.’ After firing and burnishing the artwork with fire, the natural grain of the wood will emerge and become unbreakable.

His sculpture art practice has been remarkably consistent for over 35 years. He said ‘the most important - yet difficult - thing is to make a piece of work that represents your own unique style. To make an excellent small piece of work is not easy. As for large pieces, I have made a few. Sometimes it does not take long to make a large piece, as they do not require lots of detail. The difficulty is not about whether a piece is small or large in size; it is about making something that is unprecedented, style that has not been seen. That’s the most difficult thing.”

Wang Keping was born in 1949 in Beijing in an artistic family to a writer father and an actress mother. As a founding member of The Stars (Xing Xing), often called the first avant-garde contemporary art movement in China, he moved to Paris and has lived there since 1984. His work has been exhibited widely around the world, including in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Musee Cernuschi and Musee Zadkine in France; in the Ashmolean Museum in the UK, in the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland; in the Brooklyn Museum in the US; and in the National Art Museum of China, He Xiangning Art Museum and Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. He was awarded Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2015.

The gallery was interested to present Wang Keping’s work. I was then invited to take part to the project design and implementation, being in charge of the coordination with the artist.

Wang Keping on China Black

“The ancient tradition of Chinese ink painting is deeply profound, and yet as dark as an endless abyss. Zao Wou-Ki is the first person to find the way out of it.”
“I have never been part of the traditional establishment, but always an outsider on the fringes of both Chinese and Western art traditions and movements, like a lonely walker at night.”
“The black ink rooted in the essence of Chinese culture, the black of the ink on paper, the black of the wood sculpture – where the three meet in an all embracing realm is the realm of China Black.”
“Black is the most stubborn colour – black is extreme; black is pure.”