To kick back with one of China’s greatest oil painters – as I did before his exhibition at Kwai Fung Hin Gallery in Central – is to observe a true bon vivant in action. Septuagenarian Ai Xuan is a grand-daddy co-founder of the Chinese realist painting school that emerged in the 1980s. But before even approaching conversation about his own work he’s bursting with excitement about his daughter, and wants to let me know how well she’s done with some of her art lately.
At 15 and in secondary school in New York, Allissa Ai recently won two open competitions – her raven-haired, fresh-faced father smiles as he scrolls through his phone’s photo gallery, stopping when he finds her work. Allissa, it turns out, is a dab hand in pastel drawing (from sketches made on subway journeys) and black-and-white photography (some arrestingly dramatic shots taken during a voluntary teaching trip in Uganda have been exhibited across the US).
Talking about his daughter naturally prompts Ai Xuan to discuss his family and his life in Beijing – his villas, his wife’s drawing collection that features Picasso, Klimt and a few other notables. He’s not necessarily bragging, simply talking openly about family investments. Besides his daughter, artistic flair is evident elsewhere in the family – his half-brother is one of the world’s biggest-name living artists (albeit in exile from mainland China): Ai Weiwei. Not a topic he initiates discussion on, as they’re not in touch so often.
Although the exhibition Soul Is Like Wind; Life Is Like Snow: Recent Works of Ai Xuan focuses on the artist’s three-plus decades’ fascination with the rural folk of Tibet and the ethnically related neighbouring mountainous provinces of China, it presents something quite new for Ai: ink paintings. Several figurative inks hang alongside his larger scale oils; Ai’s recent return to the medium that was and still is the backbone of some of the most reputed art schools in the PRC is something he’s been privately experimenting with since 2008. It’s been a re-learning process for him, getting to grips with techniques, mark-making and a resulting style that’s a little removed from the traditional washes, lines and dots.
“My style took some time to find with ink – about three or four years,” he admits. “I hadn’t touched it since the early 1980s. In the beginning I didn’t know how to approach it. So I just experimented, threw a lot away and after some time was satisfied; it was something I wasn’t sure I’d ever exhibit. But eventually I thought, why not?”
This is hard to imagine, looking at pieces like Autumn Wind at Deserted Land, a 2014 work that buzzes with mostly monochrome brushstrokes broken with a few highlights of colour, applied to both moistened and dry paper: an adult male and a girl are depicted on horseback trotting across barren scrubland. Ai’s hallmark air of bleakness, traditionally clothed subjects and engaging facial features – weathered adults, particularly the men, and exaggeratedly large eyes on youthful faces – that his oils are known for are all present.
The difference is that the intense detail of the oil on canvas translates to abbreviated or suggested elements in his ink painting to prevent any possible muddiness from overworking the ink and instead allowing the transparency of the paper to shine through. In fact, in some of Ai’s inks the brevity of line and paper-filling are in even further contrast to the oils, particularly in portraits such as 2013’s Warm Winter in Anqu Village Deserted Land, in which a girl in a thick coat stands in front of her dog and nothing else. In the exhibition, such minimalist inks that Ai paints sit interestingly alongside heavily worked oils such as last year’s Thunder from Afar, showing a sheepskin-wrapped mother and young son gazing beyond the
limits of the canvas beneath a darkening sky.
While some experimenting with the medium continues, Ai’s subject has remained constant since he went to Sichuan province in 1973 during a period of military service, when he was assigned to the PLA art team specifically to produce propaganda paintings, after graduating from Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts preparatory school. Being posted in the mountainous regions of Sichuan and bordering areas, including Tibet, he soon came across the nomadic indigenous communities that inspired his first personal series of paintings in 1982.
Two years later, he went back to art school, this time the Beijing Fine Arts Academy.
“Most people there preferred ink painting,” he recalls. “Only a dozen of us insisted on using oil paint. The greatest ink painters at that time were in our school. And I learned a lot by simply watching artists at work there.”
And then destiny intervened – allowing Ai the chance for some worldly fine-art experiences. “At that time we knew almost nothing about oil painting outside of China,” Ai remembers. “By chance, a foreign businessman came to China to buy petrol and ended up buying a bunch of oil paintings. He had a passion for art and liked our work so much that he took us to America, and we were in the first Chinese oil-painting exhibition in New York [in 1987, at Harkness House on Manhattan’s Upper East Side]. He was the elder brother of the boss of Playboy, Hugh Hefner.”
Ai and three others from Beijing spent a year in the US as visiting scholars at the University of Oklahoma. “But life was so dull there,” he says with a smile, “that we went back to New York to spend more time in the museums.”
As a realist painter with the PLA and continuing in the same vein afterwards, was Ai excited by modern and contemporary art he saw in the US or afterwards, or was he ever tempted to try other styles or work? “No,” he says, “and I did not ‘stick to realism’ – I just like it. For example, nowadays everybody loves eating hamburgers or KFC, but I still prefer rice. Nobody asks me why I never get fed up with it. I just like it.”
Of the classic oil painters, he still loves Rembrandt, Velàzquez and Vermeer. “Even after about 100 years of Chinese oil-painting history, we still cannot compete with them,” he says. “We hope that one day we can – it’s a Chinese dream.” As for Chinese artists, Ai does have great admiration for figure and landscape ink legend Fu Baoshi and ink landscape master Li Keran. “They have spirit and soul as well as great painting technique,” he reasons, adding that this is what he hopes to capture in his own way too.
The demand for Ai’s paintings is such that they’re commonly sold at auction, rather than in galleries. Although they command high prices, his collaboration with painter He Duoling in 1984, The Third Generation, set a record when it was sold at Poly Auction in Beijing in 2010, going for 28.75 million yuan. “Prices for art in the first 10 years of the 21st century doubled – and in some cases trebled – internationally,” he says. “Some artists were lucky.”
Ai reckons it’s much harder to become a realist painter today, because “most people right now believe that a painting that looks like a photo is not a good painting. But photos are photos – a painting should have its own characteristics. Everyone can take photos with a mobile phone.”
At the Kwai Fung Hin exhibition, reference photos of the models that inspired the figures in the paintings are hung alongside several works. This serves to show that Ai is in fact not painting exact likenesses of specific subjects nor their exact clothing or postures. He’s using them as starting points from which to create his compositions of single or multiple figures in a landscape.
I ask the artist if he gets tired of people asking him about his half-brother, Ai Weiwei. He smiles and says it’s no problem. “His concepts are completely different from mine. I like rice but he likes all kinds of food.” I wonder if they have discussions about art, or if they’re in touch much. “Last time I saw him in Beijing he was with his son and I asked him his son’s name and he said it’s Ai Lau. In Chinese ‘lau’ means ‘old’ and everyone called our father this name out of respect – but he’s used it for the boy’s actual name. The way Ai Weiwei thinks is very different,” he says with a chuckle. “I think some of his works are really good – for example, the coal piece with a lot of holes in it [Honeycomb Coal, a bronze sculpture] – and I really like his ceramic sunflower-seeds installation.”
So does Ai Xuan think it’s an artist’s duty to reflect social situations around them? His works show the hardship of the Tibetan people in maintaining their lives in harsh conditions with few comforts – and Ai Weiwei often reflects social situations in his work, I suggest. “No, that’s not my point of painting. I seldom think about this when I paint.” He points to a wall in the gallery and says, “My focus is really just about people in a harsh environment, and the uncertainty of their future. Other than that I am not trying to express anything else.”
It’s Ai’s mission to continue painting works depicting Tibet and Tibetans, as he still gets inspiration from his decades visiting the region – or, as he puts it, “I will just continue to eat my rice”. Would he ever be tempted to try abstraction, a sculpture or something else completely different? “It’s possible. Everything is possible – maybe I will just quit rice … ” he says, tailing off as he is consumed by his own laughter.