Kang Haitao is one of the most important Chinese artists born in the 70s – a generation much admired inside the country but only now becoming recognised outside.
This London exhibition is an abbreviated version of a recent acclaimed retrospective at the Mark Rothko Art Centre, on the border of Latvia and Russia, where Rothko was born and to which Rothko’s children have loaned six major paintings.
The title of this exhibition is a phrase taken from the poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by the English poet John Keats
‘Tender is the Night’ brings together a number of Kang Haitao’s celebrated Night Paintings. The artist himself has said: ‘I think that the condition of life is or rather
should be, like walking through the darkness of the night… The world outside is full of temptations, materialistic temptations, that distract us – analogous to walking during the day. Live life as if walking at night’.
If spirituality, simplicity, inwardness and nature are amongst the imperatives of our times, then Kang Haitao’s work speaks to our needs.
As the critic Bao Dong says in the catalogue: ‘even when viewed from only a few steps away, Kang Haitao’s landscape always creates a sense of distance, as if the world within his canvas is located somewhere very far away’.
The title of this exhibition is a phrase taken from the poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by the English poet John Keats. In Keats’ poem, there is an unbearable and irresolvable tension between daily life where ‘but to think is to be full of sorrow’ and the night-time song of ‘the immortal bird’, the nightingale, which gestures towards a life beyond suffering and beyond ‘death’.
There is a tension, too, at the heart of Kang Haitao’s work – a yearning for a world beyond the everyday one, but, paradoxically, the lexicon used to explore this spiritual world is largely in his earlier paintings the world of everyday provincial life: old factories, old schools, walls, isolated trees. More recently, the lexicon of the paintings has shifted and there is now a complex interplay between inner and outer, between light and shadow, substance and reflection and the colour palette is higher.
Not only Kang Haitao’s life but also his work is much shaped by Buddhism – the sense that in the end the visible world is illusory; his sources are myriad, from Giacometti and the French Catholic theorist Maurice Blanchot to Chinese masters such as Feng Zikai and Gong Xian.
The feted Chinese filmmaker Feng Xiaogang has said wisely of Kang Haitao’s Night Paintings that they ‘emanate a familiar and intimate feeling whilst also carrying a strange and fantastic undertone’.
The artist’s work has been shown not only across China but in Europe and in the US and is in the collections of major museums, including Shanghai’s Long Museum owned by the important collector Wang Wei, Shanghai’s Minsheng Art Museum and the Mark Rothko Art Centre. His one-person booth at the most recent Art Basel Hong Kong was selected as one of the fair’s highlights by ArtAsiaPacific.
He was born in 1976 to teacher-parents, in a village outside the south-western city of Chongqing which became in the Second World War the capital of nationalist China. Kang Haitao’s year of birth was also the year of Mao Zedong’s death and the beginning of China’s opening up, both economically and culturally. He still lives close to where he was born.
The exhibition is curated by Enrica Costamagna and Philip Dodd whose work between China and the UK won them a Hurun Report Award in 2019. They have curated many shows in China – from Sean Scully to Hsiao Chin.
Philip Dodd has also been named one of the world’s 100 Innovators by Art&Auction and is one of the curators of this year’s Guangzhou Triennial. He is a former director of the ICA.
The exhibition is accompanied by a substantial fully illustrated catalogue including an interview with the artist by the curators, an essay by the award- winning Chinese critic Bao Dong – and a preface by Feng Xiaogang.
Top Photo: KANG Haitao Memory of Light, 2016-2017 Acrylic on paperboard
Kang Haitao is represented by PIFO GALLERY, Beijing.
For a report on the Mark Rothko Art Centre exhibition see: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2022/07/29/art-in-the-shadow-of-war- curating-a-show-at-latvias-mark-rothko-art-centre
‘TENDER IS THE NIGHT: THE ART OF KANG HAITAO’ CROMWELL PLACE, GALLERY 5, LONDON, SW7 2JE 26 OCTOBER – 6 NOVEMBER 2022