Hu Qinwu

Chinese history and culture in the blood: the practice of Hu Qinwu
Hu Qinwu, R21, Acrylic on Canvas, image reproduced courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects
Hu Qinwu in his Beijing studio. Photograph Luise Guest
Reproduced with permission of the artist

Hu Qinwu, 'Earth Grid', oil on canvas, image reproduced courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects

"Chinese history and culture are in our blood”

“In China today change is so fast, and as society changes so fast, values change too. You must turn inwards to find a quiet place, and true values. I want the viewer to also look inwards.”
(Hu Qinwu in conversation with Luise Guest, March 2011)

Hu Qinwu was born in Shandon, China, in 1969. He works in Beijing as a painter, photographer and printmaker.  He graduated from the Oil Painting Department, Taian Normal Academy, Shandong in 1990, and from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing in 2008

The Artist:

Hu Qinwu is sometimes described as an abstract painter, and indeed in the last ten years he has developed a visual language of line, grid, tone and mark which at first sight seems akin to Western modernist abstraction. However his working method is grounded in his Buddhist beliefs about connectedness and meaning, and in recent years he has used layers of Chinese calligraphy referencing Buddhist sutras (prayer books) in his work. Some oil on canvas works use layers of rich colour – reds and royal blues – which appear almost to shimmer and vibrate under an all-over pattern of dots which form a grid on the surface of the work. In other works on paper which use tempera paint and ink, sometimes with a fine grid of lines drawn in gold, the colour is reduced to a monochrome of subtle shades of grey, black and white. Hu drops water onto the surface of the works to create the regular pattern of dots, which represent text. The dot and the line are the main elements in this calm and ordered body of work. This is painting reduced and distilled – there are no showy gestures, emotional outpourings or gestural marks. The process is highly controlled and deliberate, and the intention is to reduce the works to essential elements. His work also links contemporary practice with the ancient scholarly practice of calligraphy and ink painting, which in Hu’s work has become less about the mark of the individual’s brush, and more about the creation of order and simplicity with the repeated pattern of dots across the surface.

The Artist’s World

Everything in Hu Qinwu's work can be traced to aspects of Buddhist belief and practice. His works are calm, meditative and ordered. It has been said that the process of working with the paint is critical, allowing a subconscious state in which the 'Kong' (the Buddhist idea of empty space) can emerge and reveal the continuity and connectedness of life and the universe. Hu Qinwu has said that like all artists in China he has been deeply affected by the transformation of society in the last twenty years, and by the dramatic changes in China's economy, culture and politics. That is why his practice is one of 'turning inward' and he tries to find a "quiet, calm place" to reflect on true and enduring values amidst the chaos and confusion of rapid social change.

Hu Qinwu, 11054, acrylic on canvas,
 image reproduced courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects

Questions - seeing artworks from different points of view

Structural Frame
Describe the ways in which Hu Qinwu has used colour, line, surface and mark in 'R21'.

Subjective Frame
Hu Qinwu has said that he wants the viewer to ‘look inwards’ and ‘find a calm place’. What aspects of this large painting and of '11054' might evoke a sense of mystery or meditation?

Cultural Frame
Compare '11054' with a work of traditional calligraphy – find similarities between the two.

 Hu Qinwu, 11506, acrylic on canvas,
 image reproduced courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects

Read Critical Analysis extracts #1, #2 and #3 and answer the questions below them:

Critical Analysis #1

Hu Qinwu immerses himself in the private world of his paintings and prints, but his is not the world of Political Pop Art or Cynical Realism.* Creating order from chaos with his unplanned approach, Hu has developed a highly original style characterised by richly textured surfaces which shimmer with energy and rhythm. Enigmatic and intimate, Hu's mixed media works contain a dialogue of oppositions - thought and action, day and night, space and fullness, control and release, microcosm and macrocosm, mutability and austerity are all suspended in perfect confluence....They emit a gentle but moving spirituality.
* The 'Cynical Realists' were a group of artists including painters such as Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun who became famous in the 1990s for their Pop Art influenced use of Cultural Revolution imagery.

Critical Analysis #2

Sophie McKinnon interviewed the artist in 2009 - this is an extract from that interview
Hu Qinwu's works are richly textured and layered. Bold red canvases reveal dark shadows beneath and expansive black paintings give way to a deep glow. A myriad of seemingly organised dots, lines and monochromatic colour traverse the surface of each work. There are no symbols or images, there are no focal points or centre, the works have an over-all quality suggesting infinity, continuity and harmony. The process of layering marks is a critical element of his work. It is like going on a journey he says, and not unlike a pilgirm arriving at the holy site, Hu feels a sense of spiritual satisfaction on the completion of a work. Canvases are covered, spread, poured with paint, scraped, smoothed, sanded back, dotted, spotted and touched.

Critical Analysis #3
Hu Qinwu lays down the elements of mark making with great assurance and sensitivity on first appearance the works appear to be minimal and monochrome but on careful viewing they are filled with elaborate and sophisticated variations of colour, shape and texture. He uses a variety of mediums, ink, tempera, acrylic and oil, all seem to melt into meditations of texture and colour every mark and subtle shade is of paramount importance. His canvases in particular are pared down to quiet and elegant simplicity and yet exhibit an extraordinary sophistication in his search for a link between form and colour. Hu Qinwus large and powerful ink and multi-media works on paper have a strength and authority that can only come from a knowledge of Chinese ink work which he studied at an early age, the myriad patterns of dots and marks vibrate across rich grounds of black and grey a wonderful play on both strength and subtlety.

  1. What are the key elements of Hu Qinwu's material practice?
  2. Outline some of the ways in which Hu Qinwu is responding to aspects of his own contemporary Chinese world, and creating meanings for audiences.
  3. What are his artistic intentions in working in this abstract manner?
  4. How do his works connect to cultural and personal ideas and beliefs? 
Read Critical Analysis #4 and answer the questions:

Critical Analysis #4

When I visited Hu Qinwu at his studio in March 2011 I was completely astonished at his prolific practice, the beauty and subtlety of his painting, and how it has developed and changed since 2003. Hu showed me his most recent works, in tempera or inks on paper, in which the Chinese characters of Buddhist sutras seem to shimmer, dissolve, disappear and reappear under a pattern of repeated tiny circular forms. They are at once abstract and not abstract, meditative pieces which evoke the colour field works of Mark Rothko in their power to engulf and immerse the viewer.He says he chooses to use tempera because it requires great skill and control over the process – it is the opposite of expressionism. He mimes the actions of an expressionist artist, waving his arms around in big gestures, then shows me how, in contrast, he works with great intensity and concentration, with the works laid on the floor, as he drops water onto the layers of tempera to create the dots in a tightly controlled and precise grid pattern, which is sometimes drawn on in fine gold lines. There are also enormous canvases with subtle layers of colour – in some works rich reds and blues lie underneath the greys, blacks and whites of the grid of dots. 

Recently, however, he has removed colour almost entirely in favour of a subtle muted palette of greys. He doesn’t want too many elements occupying the surface – there is an increasing simplicity and purity in these works. He tells me that me the dots can represent text (much like the text in a Buddhist sutra) which resists one single interpretation. They also hide layers of calligraphy and colour. Irresistibly I am reminded of the way that dots provide the sacred ‘shimmer’ in Aboriginal desert paintings. In Buddhist theology, he says, meanings are arbitrary, and language is just a way of labelling the world. In his practice he has created a unique pictorial language which is precisely articulated, yet suggests many possible interpretations and layers of meaning. His own personal history and the recent history of China have had a profound impact on his work. The change has been so fast, and so overwhelming, that he believes that people must turn inwards to find an inner peace and calm. His paintings convey that sense of a meditative and calm spirituality.”


4. Hu says his work is like ‘going on a journey’ – what do you think he means by this?

5. How does Hu ‘pare back’ his work in order to achieve simplicity?

6. What are some significant influences on Hu’s practice?

In 2012 Hu QInwu's work was seen in Australia in an exhibition called 'Two Spiritualities'. His abstract paintings were shown with 'dot' paintings by indigenous artist Angelina Pwerle.

"What if?"
Read the article using the link below and decide what artist or artists that YOU would include in a group show with Hu Qinwu if you were curating an exhibition in a major art museum. Some writers have compared his work to Mark Rothko, others to Classical Chinese ink paintings. 

What do YOU think? 

 Select SIX works by Hu Qinwu and SIX by one or more different artists for your hypothetical exhibition.

Write the curatorial statement justifying and explaining your choices.

                                 Hu Qinwu, Diamond Sutra, ink and wash on  handmade paper, 
                                 image reproduced courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects

These materials were originally produced by Luise Guest for the 2011 NSW Premier's Kingold Chinese Creative Arts Scholarship


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