Cai Guangbin’s Handmade Image of Urban Ink and Wash

By Li Xu

The fate of painting had been challenging ever since the invention of photography by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, the French painter and physicist, in 1830’s. At the same time, some people even foretold that painting would disappear because the realistic style seemed to lose its significance as photogarphy replaced painting’s function of record. Of course, those predictors had passed away without the chance to see how prosperous painting market is today. But it is undoubted that the realistic style painting with record function should still play a dominant role in publishing houses, museums and art galleries and the history of modern painting and culture would be rewrote if there were no photography.


As time passed by, the history has witnessed photography becoming a kind of assisted tool of producing images and a basic visual resource that help painter’s creation a lot instead of performing as painting’s enemy. There are two kinds of representative phenomena in the ascendant trend of contemporary art. On the one hand, a great deal of artists give up painting and indulge in photography and video works. On the other hand, lots of painting works, especially those conceptual paintings, present a common tendency that they depict the visual world in a way quite similar to video and photography.


Cai Guangbin was born in Heilongjiang Province of China in 1963. In 1988, after his graduation from China Academy of Art at Hangzhou, he returned to Harbin and began with his professional painting and teaching career in a university there. In 2001, he emigrated to Shanghai. The special life experience that he gained from south and north culture have impact on his unusual inner heart. While his ink and wash works which reflect his deep thoughts are full of wisdom. For many years, Cai Guangbin tried to keep a suitable distance with orthodox visual language of traditional Chinese painting through carrying out some ink and wash experiments. He has been exploring new results on tone, light and shadow and composition etc. in unconventional ways while keeping the independent identity of painting. In his painting, the influence from machine-made visual images such as photography, movie and TV becomes stronger and stronger. The style of his works also represents a kind of urban attribute.


In 2001, Cai Guangbin settled down in Shanghai. He was so impressed by new life in crowded buildings that he initiated his brand new Window Series. They are assembled by separate square cells in which there are similar but blurry faces. These faces, however, arouse a sense of crisis that we lack of individuality as well as typical psychology of contemporary urbanites such as monotony, routine, oppression and isolation. With his seminal works Window Series, Cai Guangbin embarked on his experiments of black and white “Handmade Image” which is inspired by machine-made visual images and developed from experimental ink and wash to conceptual painting. Although he does not depict those technical visual images directly, these images that exist everywhere in urban life have impact on him subconsciously. Nowadays, urbanites rely on medias so much that we get our visual experiences almost entirely through technical ways. We meet secondhand images via lens or screen everyday. Cai Guangbin is quite sensitive to such experiences and his ink and wash works show us exactly such a strange reality.


I coin the phrase “handmade image” to describe those paintings that creat images that are similar to technical images. The conceptual ink and wash iamges made by Cai Guangbin reflect his calm mental attitude as well as extraordinary and delicate painting methods. In his works, he attempts to decrease the traiditonal elements such as brushstroke and ink as possible as he can and adopts black and white tone that look like photo to form a transient narrative space. Owing to a special means of mounting that he mounts traditional Chinese paper on canvas, the canvas and paper, handwork and modern technical images build a meaningful art world. When photo paper like effect evokes the audiences’ association of modern technique, the painting strokes which are floating on images casue confusing psychological tension. A kind of oriental wisdom in Cai Guangbin’s work not only irons out the contradiction between classics and modern art concept, but also breaks up the hedges between contemporary art and ink and wash which uses typical traditional medium and material.


Will all handwork be devoured by modern machine-made techniques oneday? Or will all modern machine-made techniques be assimilated by handworks? These problems seem to be nothing and useless when we meet with “handmade images ” that created by Cai Guangbin.


August 6, 2007, Shanghai



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