Inner Reflection, Outward Transformation: The Art of Li Hongwei
Andrew L. Maske
Associate Professor, University of Kentucky
For a Chinese ceramic artist, the weight of tradition is a heavy load to bear. As an heir to the world‚Äôs most highly esteemed body of ceramic culture, the creative Chinese ceramist must continually face the conundrum of how to meet the challenge presented by works of the past without simply copying or imitating them. Li Hongwei appears to have met this challenge in part by distancing himself from China and seeing his own culture from a different perspective.
Hongwei left China in 2005 to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in Ceramic Art at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, one of the world‚Äôs few institutions of higher education to specialize in the ceramic arts (among the others is Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute in China). Building on his undergraduate degree in Sculpture at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Hongwei‚Äôs early New York works were a form of figural busts done in the low-fired raku format. He had a difficult time connecting with others at first, so spent much of his time observing the landscape around him and pondering the human relationship to nature.
As he became acquainted with his fellow students and more comfortable in his surroundings, Hongwei‚Äôs focus gradually changed, and he moved away from the human figure. His interest turned to crystalline glazes and their unpredictable nature. In a sense, this was a logical step forward from the so-called American raku firing process, which often uses various materials in post-firing reduction to create subtle yet largely uncontrollable surface effects on the pieces.
At the same time, he found himself able to look back at his own country‚Äôs ceramic culture with new eyes. He began to appreciate the elegant shapes and refined proportions of the vases created in the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Instead of the perfect celadon glazes and underglaze cobalt blue decoration of the past, Hongweidecided that he would use some of those classic shapes as palettes for new glaze types, ones that combined intense colors with startling effects that occurred spontaneously in the course of firing.
In fact, the appreciation of spontaneous glaze effects has a long, if somewhat marginalized, past in the history of Chinese ceramics. In the Song dynasty, the random glaze crackle that occurred in the celadon types known as Ge and Guan were not only appreciated, but even cultivated and emphasized. Although from a technical point of view, glaze crackle represents a defect in a ceramic piece (since it results from a mismatch of the clay body and glaze in terms of expansion and contraction), Chinese connoisseurs loved the pattern that it created, with later collectors equating it to ice cracking on a pond. Celadon wares with crackled glazes continued to be made and prized throughout the centuries and are still admired today.
Other unpredictable glaze effects were found on pieces made at the Jian kilns of Fujian province. Bowls from these kilns were shipped to Japan in large quantities and were avidly collected and treasured there as tenmokutea bowls. Their glaze effects were evaluated and named, ranging from ‚Äúhare‚Äôs fur‚ÄĚ to ‚Äúoil spot‚ÄĚ and ‚Äútortoise shell.‚ÄĚ Most famous of all were the ‚Äúbright change‚ÄĚ tenmoku bowls, of which only a handful exist. This last type displays bright blue iridescent effects that have proven virtually impossible to reproduce, even with modern scientific techniques.
The crystalline blooms that emerge on Hongwei‚Äôs classic Chinese ceramic forms endow them with a vibrancy unlike that of historical pieces. His works have an energy that transcends the monochrome examples of the Song dynasty, yet is more organic and mysterious than the Qing dynasty examples decorated with underglaze cobalt blue or copper red. Moreover, the nature of crystalline glazes is such that each glaze develops in a distinctive manner during the firing, making every piece unique.
In addition to his efforts to extend and elaborate on Chinese ceramic vessel tradition, Hongweiexplores several fundamental sculptural aspects through his work, namely light, volume, balance, and flow. Although refracted light clearly plays an intrinsic role in his crystalline glazes, Hongweiuses reflected light to make an even more emphatic statement through the incorporation of polished steel in his sculptural works. Certain pieces, like those in his Illusionseries(Illusion #1 and Illusion #4)use a mirror to give the sense that what is actually only half of a vase is in fact complete. In his Upwelling of Gravityseries, a ceramic/steel composite form appears to flow upward, defying the pull of gravity. In Xuan, the fluid forms seem to be pulled to the center from both top and bottom, reminding one of suspended mercury or, perhaps, a lava lamp.
Hongwei‚Äôs most monumental works are those of his Allegory of Balanceseries, in which rounded forms resembling polished stones are stacked one upon the other. This approach hearkens back to his days of raku sculpture, in which he frequently stacked inverted humanoid heads and shoulders to create pagoda-like constructions. Although a number of artists have stacked multiples of ordinary objects to create striking installations, Hongweicreates his own objects and does not require that they be actually balanced in terms of weight distribution. Indeed, what is balanced is the visual effect, not the literal weight.
A conspicuous feature of this series is the mirrored steel sections that create a stark contrast with the colorful ceramic forms. The steel adds another layer of tension to the already rather uncomfortable feel of the stacked configurations, reflecting the ambient light, the other sculptural components, and even the viewer. The pod-like forms feel both organic and otherworldly, almost as if growing life-forms had robot components added to them. The impression given by these elements differs depending upon the level of ambient or directed light.
Like so many artforms that appear refined yet simple on the surface, the composite steel and porcelain forms are incredibly difficult to create. The marriage of clay and metal requires tedious and seemingly never-ending adjustments to produce the effect that the resulting shape is all of a piece. Hongwei‚Äôs work emphasizes the truth that the natural and the man-made, the organic and the constructed, must live side by side in our present-day world.
The Daoist philosophy of Hongwei‚Äôs natal country teaches that balance between Yin and Yang must be maintained in order to preserve health and well-being. While breaking new ground in technique and approach, Li Hongwei‚Äôs work also hints at profound philosophical concepts that have existed for centuries in the land of his birth.
Andrew Maske is Associate Professor Art History & Visual Studies, Arts of Asia at the University of Kentucky. He received his doctorate in Japanese Art History from Oxford University. He teaches courses concentrating on the art of East Asia (China, Korea, and Japan). As a curator of Japanese art between 1999 and 2005, he developed the exhibition Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile, and served as editor and primary author of the critically-acclaimed volume by the same name. Dr. Maske also played a major role in the Metropolitan Museum of Art‚Äôs 2003 catalogue, Turning Point: Oribe and the Arts of Sixteenth Century Japan, which examined the revolution in Japanese aesthetics that began in the late sixteenth century. He has published articles and reviews in Archaeometry, Journal of Japanese Studies, Orientations, and Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan. In 2006-2007 he held a Fulbright research fellowship in China to study the development of contemporary ceramic art there.