Building on the past: Profile of contemporary Chinese ink-wash painter Zhang Jin

by Jiayi Song

 yellow double square

At first glance, master Zhang Jin’s artwork appears to be abstractionism art or a piece of Western contemporary art. However, it is made in the style of traditional Chinese painting, which is based on thousands of years of Chinese traditional techniques and principles.

Zhang is well-known for his approach to contemporary Chinese traditional painting. Yikang Luo, the curator of Zhang Jin’s first exhibition in the U.S., said that the artist utilizes traditional Chinese art principles and has a deep understanding of the differences between Western and Chinese art.

In the current era of globalization, cultural interaction between the East and the West has become more frequent. However, problems such as cultural imperialism emerge due to the influence of globalization. Because of this, forming a unique national identity for art has become increasingly difficult. Regarding globalization, Zhang has said, “Contemporary ink-wash painting artists ought to follow a path that is uniquely their own,” and they should follow two guiding principles, which are as follows: First, that the contemporary ink-wash painting artists should seek to express contemporary Chinese experience and reality by drawing inspiration from both classical Chinese and Western sources. Secondly, that they should seek to incorporate Western learning into the framework of the Chinese intellectual tradition.

Although his ink-wash painting assumes a form similar to that of Western abstract art, Zhang said, “Ink-wash painting is not the mere combination of ink-wash techniques with ‘abstractionism.’” Abstractionism is a Western art concept, based on Western materialist philosophy. The “images” in ink-wash painting are “mental phenomena,” which are theoretically different from Western abstractionism. Describing “mental phenomena,” Zhang said, “The ink-wash artist must use his mind to observe these phenomena. He uses these phenomena, in turn, to express his intentions.” This is a noticeable difference between the two types of art.

Moreover, ink-wash painting is centered upon knowledge of the Dao; it stresses the human capacity to be enlightened and inspired within the context of the natural world. Zhang emphasized that traditional Chinese philosophy holds that yin and yang interact to create life; emptiness and substance interact to form images; and hardness and softness interact to form moral character.

The artist recalled the time when he first began to study ink-wash painting, and his master told him that, in ink-wash painting, what one paints is, first and foremost, relations, which determine images, not vice versa.

Zhang said, “Although I failed to understand this idea at the time, I gradually became aware that such relations are philosophical.” That is to say, ink creates contrasting, yet unified, relations between emptiness and substance, hardness and softness, curved and straight lines, and dryness and wetness. The significance of all of these relations originates, moreover, from Laozi’s philosophy.

The brushwork lies at the core of both traditional ink-wash and modern ink-wash painting because “the brush gives both life and soul to what is painted.”

Correspondingly, Zhang believes that the more modern and contemporary elements ink-wash painting integrates, the more traditional elements it must retain. Only in this manner can ink-wash painting “balance the traditional Chinese ink-wash painting and contemporary Western art” and “maintain its unique identity in the age of globalization.” Cultural diversity is especially important at this time, and Zhang’s approach to art is a way of upholding it.


  • by Jiayi Song

    JIAYI SONG is an international student from Beijing, China, and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Arts Administration and Policy program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She obtained her B.A. in Art History and Media Studies at Beloit College. Coming from a background in traditional Chinese philosophy and art practices, her primary interest is to re-contextualize Chinese traditional culture and aesthetics in a contemporary context.