Visual Arts

Old-Fashioned Chinese Brush Painting Goes Contemporary at CVA

Surely the biggest news for contemporary art in the 21st century is the ascendancy of Chinese contemporary art and its important place in the international mix. Amazingly, exhibition-goers in Denver have had a front-row seat for this rapid transformation in the art world’s hierarchy, and that’s partly due to the efforts of Julie Segraves, the director of the Asian Art Coordinating Council.

Over the last twenty years or so, Segraves has organized several exhibits highlighting the latest trends in Chinese art, including A New Fine Line, currently on view at Metro’s Center for Visual Art. The show features a select group of artists who are taking the ultra-traditional technique of brush painting and transforming it into something absolutely current. For this show, Segraves worked with Cecily Cullen, the CVA’s managing director and curator, who contributed research and created the gorgeous exhibition design.

Called gongbi, this painting-on-paper method that dates back to the twelfth century is, in some ways, akin to lowbrow mediums like illustration or decorative painting, but in other ways, it’s firmly highbrow, the cousin of drawing and watercolor. The gongbi paintings are characterized by the scrupulous approach to rendering — which explains the reference to “fine line” in the exhibit’s title.

As Segraves explains the unusual process the artists follow in making these paintings, the artist begins by lightly sketching out the particular subject chosen, then fills in the resulting forms with colored pigments. Now comes the weird part: The sheet of paper on which these images have been marked is then flipped over so that the initial sketch is now on the back of the paper.

Since the paper, typically rice paper, is translucent, the lines and colors from the back show through to the front, providing a guide for the finished composition that is meticulously carried out via delicate and precise lines filled in with colored paints. Because there is color behind color — with paper in between —a sense of depth is created, making the illusion of three-dimensionality easier to achieve than it would be had the pigments been applied to only one side of the paper.

The show includes the work of nine artists — Hang Chunhui, Shang Jingkui, Zhang Jian, Lu Peng, Gao Qian, Zhang Qing, Jin Sha, Zhu Wei and Chen Zi — who are all tops in the field. Their efforts are seen in-depth; each has what's essentially an individual solo. All of the pieces in the show demonstrate the formula that’s led to the ready success of Chinese contemporary art: melding Western and Eastern aesthetic traditions invariably leads to an entirely fresh and different look.

A New Fine Line runs through Saturday, October 24 at Metro’s Center for Visual Art, 955 Santa Fe Drive. For hours of operation or other information, call 303-294-5207 or go to

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia