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Taking a rich tradition to new heights
ALMOST everywhere that he's had an exhibition, Chinese artist Su Xiaobai has people asking him: "Is your work a painting or an object? Or an installation?"
"Wall relief" would probably be the most accurate description of his lacquer paintings that have defined his practice in the last decade and more. But yes, they are paintings, Su confirms.
"It's a good question. It's good that they are curious. Curiosity is a good starting point," says the 67-year-old artist who has been based in both Germany and China since the late 1980s.
The query arises because of the appearance of the paintings. Instead of being flat 2D paintings on canvas, Su's works are raised in the middle and sloping at the sides, or they're uniformly raised, looking like pillows. Instead of paint, he uses lacquer on linen.
Three layers of linen, to be precise. Su uses foam as a base, and then he paints the linen and lays them on another as each layer dries. "I'll let you in on a secret - do you know that lacquer needs a humid environment to dry? If you put it in the sun, it won't dry as well - it needs to absorb moisture from the air to dry well."
Lacquer is a medium that he started investigating in the early 2000s, when he returned to China from Germany. "To say that I suddenly switched media would be too simple . . . the journey that I had been on since going to Germany had led me to this stage," he says. "As artists, we are always looking at what's around us and searching for new material. At that time, I noticed just how much lacquer was around us in Asia, in our everyday lives."
So he started looking into lacquer as a paint medium because he wanted to find a medium that would reflect a quality of movement and texture that he couldn't find in ink, acrylic or oils. "I even tried to experiment with paints to make them look like lacquer but I couldn't manage to," he says.
It triggered an investigation into traditional methods of lacquer-making, and this brought him to over 20 districts in China, not to mention countless other workshops in Japan and Vietnam. "It was like I had fallen into a rabbit hole because I was learning all these things about lacquer I never knew before."
Traditional lacquer is made from resin of a tree. Exposed to air, lacquer becomes like a plastic coat which is resistant to water, acid or alkaline corrosion.
All the factories and workshops do it slightly differently, but Su finally found that he preferred the Fujian and Suzhou schools of lacquer production. "Even Japan imports the lacquer resin from Fujian which they later re-distil."
Su started learning traditional methods from the lacquer factories, and found the Japanese studios most generous with their knowledge. He mixed the lacquer with traditional German pigments, which in his opinion, are the best in the Western art tradition. "So I married these two traditional forms together to create something contemporary. I found that I liked the luminescence that lacquer can create, that they have this quality of light which isn't just on the surface but from within," Su explains.
Before he started experimenting with lacquer paintings, Su had already forsaken figurative work and had embarked on abstracts about a decade prior, with a focus on colours and letting them tell the story. Although he first studied traditional Chinese painting in China - a graduate of the Wuhan Institute of Painting, Hubei Institute of Fine Arts and Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts - his art practice took on a totally different trajectory in Germany when he went to study there in 1987.
"That's the time when China was opening up and as artists, we were so keen to learn from the West and see the works of Western masters that we had heard or studied about," he reminisces. Fortunately for him, top artists there - their fame and stature then unknown to him - such as Konrad Klapheck, Gerard Richter and Markus Lupertz took him and his family under their wing. "They were extremely kind to me, and I was so naive, not to know their standing in the art world," he confesses as an aside.
"For some 30 years, I was painting traditional Chinese landscapes and also social realism, with my work based on Confucian philosophy. But the philosophy in Western avant garde art radically changed my approach," he recalls. "Now, the Chinese in China says they can't 'read' my works as well as before, while in the West, friends say my paintings are Chinese."
Su is perfectly happy with that assessment, as he feels like it reflects his own life journey engaging with both eastern and western philosophies and practices. This mingling and intermarriage of cultures, he notes, is something that Singapore does well. "I like this kind of exchange because that's when something new and exciting can come out of it."
Lacquer is his contemporary language now, in art-making. And he likes that he's engaging with a rich tradition that's thousands of years old. "The Chinese have a saying when they describe a stormy sky, that the sky is lacquer black - because it's the blackest black and there's no other black that's blacker," he says.
One black painting he did was bought by a European art institution, a mark of achievement for him, he feels. "It's not easy for contemporary artists to make 'new' discoveries these days. I've found lacquer, and I want to see how far I can take it," he concludes.
Luminescence, Su Xiaobai Solo Exhibition runs from now until Dec 31, at Pearl Lam Galleries, 15 Dempsey Road, Dempsey Hill. The gallery is open daily from 11am to 8pm