Qu Leilei: Echoes shines a spotlight on Chinese contemporary ink art

By Martin Macdonald

Echoes features new and recent works by UK-based Chinese contemporary ink artist, Qu Leilei. His practice skilfully brings together traditional Chinese ink art techniques and Western sensibility, and Leilei often infuses his paintings with a photorealistic quality. The exhibition is held from 29 January - 9 March 2019 at the new London premises of Hong-Kong contemporary art gallery, 3812.

Traditionally, shuimo (ink and water) art has never solely been about reproducing a subject, it also captures its spirit. This exhibition fulfils the brief and goes a step further as it covers an array of styles and themes, some more ‘contemporary’ than others.

Upon entering the gallery’s small foyer, you face a beautifully lit yet narrow staircase, an awkward space as the stairs going up appear to lead nowhere. Thankfully, the same cannot be said about the art itself.

Figure 2, Qu Leilei, ink on paper

Ink nudes on off-white paper adorn the walls to your left. At first glance, they can come across as traditional examples of Chinese art. They are, after all, ink on unfurled paper scrolls. Despite the fact that the depictions of nude women do not necessarily give away the works’ Chinese identity, red ink calligraphy points to East Asia. 

Figure 3, Qu Leilei, ink on paper

On closer inspection it becomes clear that they are no ordinary shuimo paintings.  They possess a Schiele-esque quality – a certain roughness and fluidity that draws the viewer in. In some way, they share something in common with a few of Tracey Emin’s scratchy-line nudes from her A Fortnight of Tears exhibition at White Cube yet lack her pathos.

Back on the ground floor, in a room behind the late Victorian building’s large timber-framed window, several large-scale photorealistic paintings vie for your attention. These monochromatic works depict hands imbued with emotions and soul. 

Hope Remains in Our Own Hands, Qu Leilei, ink on paper, 92cm x 170cm, 2018

Hope remains in Our Own Hands features male hands. Light and shadow add to the work’s peaceful energy and the subject has clearly experienced life’s highs and lows; these hands have a backstory. Vulnerable yet hopeful, they seem like a bird about to take flight. 

Unity, Qu Leilei, ink on paper, 92cm x 170cm, 2018

Unity focuses on two hands holding onto each other’s wrists as if embracing. These hands appear to belong to a couple who share a strong bond - love rather than lust.

Invincible (detail), Qu Leilei, ink on paper, 92cm x 170cm, 2015

Invincible is an altogether different work. Quite hidden towards the back of the room, it depicts armed warriors marching on. One of the figures looks like an actual human being - a ‘pumped-up’, euphoric, modern soldier - unlike the stoic terracotta warriors of the past that surround him. Although this work appears out of place as it clearly clashes with the other paintings on display, it is nevertheless engaging, and more in line with what the West tends to expect from Chinese contemporary art: powerful, thought-provoking and somewhat daring.

Standing Figure, Qu Leilei, ink on paper, 172cm x 90cm, 2016

Once on the lower ground floor, life-size nudes take shape. These paintings are altogether different than the ones above. These curvaceous, idealised bodies look like photography from afar. It is only up close that you notice the ink marks. These nudes exude serenity, strength and beauty.

Qu Leilei is clearly a master ink artist and the intimacy of his works is both powerful and appealing. Nevertheless, it would be good to see more of his edgier works in future exhibitions. A bit of tension is never a bad thing!