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Tactile ink paintings - 'Brush, Ink, Light, Shadow'
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Qu Leilei uses purely Chinese materials to produce extraordinary, tactile, some might say "Western" ink paintings. He says he "exploits Western perspective, anatomy, light and shadow."

American art historian and critic Bernard Berenson once famously declared that one of the essential elements in painting was what he called "tactile values."

By contrast with the Renaissance arts, which he so much admired, Berenson felt that Oriental painting lacked that quality and as a result, as he put it, "the arts of the Orient soon weary."

But what would he have thought of the work of Chinese artist Qu Leilei?

Qu's solo show "Brush, Ink, Light, Shadow" is running at Leda Fletcher Gallery on Moganshan Road, featuring his latest ink paintings with lots of innovation.

It seems, generally, that painters are seen, not heard. However, Qu gave an excellent bilingual conference, in English and Chinese, to explain the meaning of his works and share with viewers his experience of art.

His paintings - human faces, figures and hands - are executed with purely Chinese materials, such as bamboo brushes, Chinese ink and rice paper. But the light and shadow are very different from those in traditional works.

What would Berenson say if he saw Qu's work? Most probably he would say they are not Chinese, merely an attempt to imitate Western art.

But were he alive today - Berenson passed away in 1959 - he might see things differently. Chinese art has undergone profound changes in recent decades, as Chinese artists have taken from Western art what they needed for their own purposes.

"I just feel traditional skills are not enough," says Qu. "It's not enough for me to express the spirit of the people in my pictures. When I saw the sparkling eyes in the shadow under their eyebrows, I decided to exploit Western perspective, anatomy and light and shadow to express their spirit."

This process is not new. It began in the early 20th century, when artists of the Lingnan School heard about Western art in Japan and attempted to adapt their own tradition to take account of new forms and technique.

The human hand is one of the most difficult subjects to paint, but not only does Qu draw hands beautifully, but he also makes them a powerful image expressing thoughts, feelings, humanity and love.

While some of the most successful modern Chinese artists keep on repeating themselves, Qu moves on to explore other areas. From his first naive works in the 1979 and 1980 Beijing exhibitions "Stars," in which he was one of the youngest members, he has progressed to develop one theme after another.

This has culminated (so far) in the splendid paintings in the "Hands" series, and the striking large-scale portraits "Everyone's Life Is an Epic," which combines brilliant brush and ink techniques with sympathetic insight into the character of the subject.

Qu also paints nudes, a subject that has scarcely a place in the Chinese traditional repertoire.

In any case, the battle over the nude, which late master Liu Haisu fought in the early 20th century, has long been won, and even top state leaders in the 1950s defended drawing the nude as essential training for the figure painter.

So it is not the subject of Qu's nude paintings that is revolutionary, but that he shows how the Chinese medium of brush and ink, which is traditionally a linear art, can produce those "tactile values" that Berenson thought to be at the heart of all good art - or at least of the art that he admired.

Nothing is absolute. Art moves on, and Qu will move on too, but it is good to pause at this exhibition, to see how far he has come.

"Some people suggest that I paint more 'popular' subjects," says Qu, "such as combinations of nude women together with famous places like Tian'anmen Square.

"If I sit down, I can think of tens of that kind of idea in a second - it's so shallow. I won't do that, though I'm always told I could earn a lot of money by doing this," he adds.

Date: through November 20, 10am-6pm

Address: Room 107, Bldg 7, 50 Moganshan Rd

Tel: 6266-7958

(Shanghai Daily November 1, 2007)

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