Ren Zhitian: The Essence of Experimentation

Though often described as an ink wash painter, Ren Zhitian continuously pushes the boundaries of the revered traditional art.

Ink wash painting (or shui mo hua ???) first came to prominence in China more than a thousand years ago, during the Tang dynasty. It would be interesting to hear what the historical masters of the art form would have to say about Ren Zhitian's work. In all likelihood, they would not recognize many similarities with their methods and meanings, so far has Ren taken the medium from its traditional application.

His 'ink' is actually made from car exhaust derivative, which he uses to paint on silk. According to Ren, the combination of traditional surface and not-so-traditional coating symbolizes the contribution of mankind's innovation from the dawn of the agricultural age through to today. "Silk was mankind's greatest contribution to refined elegance throughout the agricultural age, so much so that its production became an almost spiritual pursuit," he says. "While the car is a product of the civilization we live in today, cars sustain our modern way of life, but the pollution from car exhaust has caused serious ecological problems that we have to face up to."

Beyond the meanings intrinsic to his materials, Ren's methods are also layered, both literally and figuratively. Rather than depicting figures or calligraphy, as in previous works, his latest pieces almost resemble wallpaper at first glance, patterns superimposed onto the silk and repeated over and over. Photographs don't really do justice to the way the textures and lighting plays with the patterns; in person, though, they seemingly keep offering up new elements and fresh perspectives, depending on the viewer's gaze.

"I do not even draw anything. It's an extremely boring and repetitive work ... I even do not want to call it a painting. It's the same as the style we live in today, it's very consistent, elegant, rational," Ren says of the creative process behind his highly original work.

This is the third time Martin Kemble, Director of Art Labor 2.0, will be exhibiting Ren's work, and though the previous shows have been a success, he's not sure how people will respond to this latest presentation of the artist's work. "Ren is constantly pushing things forward, let's say "on behalf of Chinese ink painting". It's not always so easy for people to accept the new mode, though they are exceptional ink works on silk of a clever ink painting style," he says.

According to Kemble, Ren's work is significant because he is one of the only Chinese artists doing something completely different in the realm of "neo-calligraphy and industrial ink wash". Over the years of watching Ren's work develop, the gallerist says a growing authority is evident. "His newer works are an interesting reworking of more traditional concepts, with peaceful and contemplative elements," Kemble says. "There is more performance and more of the artist himself in the work, something that is natural over time as he becomes more confident."

Ren agrees that these later works lack some of the aggression inherent in earlier pieces, and describes his present practice to be less about conveying the extraordinary; rather, sharpening his focus on the ordinary. "My recent concern is how to give more creative freedom to everyday life," he says. "I am very interested in using an allegorical language to create art. I hope to make my art into a pure form of intuitive thinking."

He describes his process as experimental and evolving, with the inspiration of the moment dictating the form the artist's creative output will take. Art, it would seem, is a language that comes naturally to Ren: "When you have been touched, or when you find what you want to say, you express it in whatever form of language comes out," he explains. "It's not pre-prepared; no one can teach you a fixed language. As an artist you must find a unique and individual language, so experimentation is inevitable."

Ren Zhitian: Elegant & Empty opens Saturday 19 February at Art Labor 2.0. For further details, check out their website here

Casey Hall

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