The lacquer artist experiments with techniques and art forms to explore the gray areas of life


Chinese lacquer, as well as Chinese ink wash painting, are among the few local art forms that have been relatively untouched or influenced by an external source. In fact, some of the lacquerware archaeological finds show extreme creativity, aesthetics and exquisite craftsmanship of Chinese craftsmen dating back centuries.

From red lacquer wooden bowls, Chinese lacquer art developed rapidly during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and the Han Dynasty (206 BC). -C.-220 AD). Several techniques gradually evolved after the 10th century, such as engraved gold (qiangjin), completed (tianqi) and sculpted lacquer (diaoqi). The art of lacquer inlay with mother-of-pearl flourished during the Song dynasty (960-1279). In the 16th century, lacquer painting was revived, but it was rarely used on carved lacquer.

It was not until the early 1980s that lacquer painting, once a secondary subject, moved away from decorative art to emerge as an independent genre in contemporary art. Breaking with decorative practices, modern lacquer painters began to imagine new strategies – and to discover new materials – in their works to express an idea or concepts reflecting modern times.

Among them was Yin Chengzhong.

Ti Gong

Yin Chengzhong at work in his studio

After graduating from the China Academy of Arts in 1982, Yin returned to his hometown of Ji’an in eastern China’s Jiangxi province to teach art at the school. The city was an important base for lacquer art during the Song Dynasty, and it began to research and experiment with lacquer painting.

He discovered that natural hairspray had many benefits, it lasted longer without chipping or flaking. It stayed fresh for years without changing color associated with varnish, polyurethane or shellac. Additionally, lacquer is a little thinner than petroleum products, penetrating deeper, providing a durable seal that protects the composition from other craft materials from the inside out.

Yin was inspired by his first experience of oil painting to control colors and shapes. His works are not limited to the meticulous representation of objects, nor in harsh and contrasting colors, but they are good at abstracting simple forms and direct shapes from the subjects. He also tended to borrow techniques from other art forms, such as ink wash, woodcut, and printmaking.

Using a soothing cool color palette, Yin’s works changed the general paradigm of objects hitherto lacquered in black or red and inspired viewers to explore the gray zone of life – the moment when reality and art intersect and mingle.

The lacquer artist experiments with techniques and art forms to explore the gray areas of life

Ti Gong

“Quiet Poyang Lake”, synthetic lacquer, eggshell and other materials, 1984

The lacquer artist experiments with techniques and art forms to explore the gray areas of life

Ti Gong

“Dunhuang Impression”, synthetic lacquer, sawdust and other materials, 1985

The “calm lake of Poyang” is depicted in gray and blue with the wings of a giant whooping crane spread out like an overhanging roof. Under its wings, young cranes bathe and rest. The “bamboo forest” is created from a squatting position. When black, the bamboo shoots contrast sharply with the strong, upright growth of the culms, which are a glossy dark green. In “Looking at Each Other”, the painter removes the messy onion leaves around the giant onion bulbs. Its light and fluffy creamy white balls are presented through a magnifying glass.

Yin came to Shanghai in the 1990s and focused on investigating historical relics in the Hexi Corridor, which was an important route connecting China and the West for over 2,000 years.

His “Dunhuang Impression”, “The Fleeting Years Series” and “The Entropy Series” lament lost glory and embody the raw and simple aesthetic of China’s remote northwest. Ruined walls and deserted cities were a feature of his paintings.

He followed the principles of roughness, simplicity and smoothness when experimenting with lacquer paint materials. The wood chips were first dyed, solidified and then ground into small particles or powder. With lacquer, they were repeatedly brushed over the surface of the panel to form a mixture consisting of particles of different dimensions or densities, which not only reflected the weathering of the stone relics, but also rhymed with the dark shades and mysteries of lacquer.

The world has no meaning; it is human behavior that gives it meaning. Thought has no form, but people engaged in the visual arts always want to make their thoughts and feelings perceptible through the use of images.

After 2000, Yin experimented with abstract expressionism which can be seen in his paintings like “Story of Things” and “Mystery of Existence”. Drawing inspiration from Chinese calligraphy, he conducted a series of experiments with lacquer strokes with flexibility in various combinations, notably in works like “Landscape of the Past” and “Spirits of China”.

The lacquer artist experiments with techniques and art forms to explore the gray areas of life

Ti Gong

“Hai”, for the Chinese character 海, meaning “The Sea”, Chinese lacquer, crushed tile and hemp, 2018

A keen eye can spot the agility of cursive script, the tension between the lines of running script, and the volatility of official script by turning a circle into a square or an arc into a straight line. He uses layers of lacquer, one on top of the other, to thicken or thin the medium in order to obtain a quality and a gesture which translate the experience, the feeling and the conviction of the painter at the time of painting. Viewers can feel peace of mind and inner calm in his subtractive brushstrokes and are inspired by the painting’s abstract composition.

Yin believes that writing should include engraving, scratching, carving, rubbing, and marking with all available tools and materials. Due to lacquer’s unique viscosity, lacquer writing has a three-dimensional, sculptural feel if combined with auxiliary materials such as hemp, wood, and ground tiles. In particular, the “slow motion” of the lacquered writing allows each stroke to pass through a more microscopic aesthetic mechanism. When all sorts of media are integrated, displayed and rearranged, the end results are often unpredictable beauty and accidental surprises.

Looking back on her 40-year career, Yin’s trajectory is a process of abstraction. He gradually moved from painting birds, flowers and bamboo – motifs associated with the painting traditions of Chinese scholars – to the dunes, caves and ruins of the Chinese hinterland. Now there are only calligraphy strokes. He made a conscious effort to shift his focus from the beauty of the mundane to the expression of historical and cultural awareness.

He deliberately avoids using traditional craft materials such as gold, silver and mother-of-pearl. Instead, he tries scraps, such as eggshells, coal mine slag, crushed tiles, sawdust, etc., with lacquer on canvas, wood panels and even aluminum panels. His transformation redefined lacquer art, making it relevant to modern aesthetic sensibilities.

The lacquer artist experiments with techniques and art forms to explore the gray areas of life

Ti Gong

Scratch pens, brushes and tubes of lacquer

The lacquer artist experiments with techniques and art forms to explore the gray areas of life

Ti Gong

A shelf of colorful pigments made from waste, from refined particles to fruity pebbles.

It was inevitable that Yin would eventually delve into calligraphy in his later works. Chinese calligraphy has influenced several contemporary artists, especially after the Second World War.

The American painter Franz Kline (1910-1962), associated with the abstract expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s, created compositions calculated and distinct from other artists of his generation.

The Belgian-born poet Henri Michaux (1899-1984) traveled extensively in Asia in the 1930s and confessed that he had come to China not to seek exoticism but to find a new language.

Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74) and Robert Motherwell (1915-91) all admired ancient cultures for expression and creative freedom.

Yin seems to be going down the same path. In a workshop littered with crushed scrap tiles and lacquer panels of various forms of writing, Yin makes poetic connections between Chinese lacquer craftsmanship and reality. Through his abstract images and deep colors, Yin has created an artistic domain for Michaux and his ilk – a contemporary response to spirituality that travels through time and space.


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