Used in traditional calligraphy and literati paintings, and equally prominent in the contemporary era, ink is synonymous with Chinese art. As the medium grows in popularity in the West, writer Benny Li talks about their second lives as artists who use ink in unexpected ways.
How does your writing relate to your art?
Writing is a direct way of letting the world know who you are: I show my personality, knowledge and perspectives literally through my own words. Painting is similar: it’s another medium that presents who I am. Together, writing and painting enrich my creative narrative. With word, I’m limited to communicating without visual images, a condition I’ve always viewed more as a welcome challenge than a constraint. But through painting, I’m able to realise abstract feelings and fantastical ideas that are simply incomplete when told through words. My body of work on traditional Shanghainese dishes is my storytelling through both. I paint the dishes exactly as I remember them, then express my memories of smelling one on a street corner and wolfing down another with my family through calligraphy that I write next to the image of the dish.
Is ink your favourite medium to paint with?
It’s right at the top, but what I love about painting is using different materials to create the exact effect I want in each piece. Ink is what I predominantly used when I first started painting. I briefly learned traditional Chinese techniques as a child and they stuck with me. As I develop my own styles, I started to experiment by adding bits of crayon and water-based pigments into my art. That said, using ink will always be a joy, because the rhythm and flow of ink painting naturally forge a sense of infinite freedom.
From where do you draw inspiration for your paintings?
In the beginning, I studied the works of Chinese masters, the traditional subjects of landscapes, portraits, flowers, animals and insects. But it didn’t take long before I wanted to feature other things – details and characters I want to come alive on my canvas. I began drawing inspiration from my life; I paint based on my mood, on what I see and learn that day, on my imagination.
What are your favourite recent themes?
Euphoric joy. The past few years have been challenging for everyone in all ways imaginable; I want my art to be an escape for my audience from their daily worries and stress, even for just a moment. I’ve always been captivated by Matisse’s Fauvist masterpieces, so recently I’ve been filling every corner of my works with big ranges of bright colours, with characters like lazy cats and curious parrots hidden within the vibrant hues.
Even when the theme of my work is heavy, I try to present it in a humorous and light-hearted way. Like my piece depicting a circus; a disdain for performance companies profiting through animal cruelty led to a reverse in roles between the performers and their animals. I show a circus where human clowns jump through a flaming hoop while a lion stands watch with a whip. I like to contrast innocent and fun imagery with slightly warped perspectives.