KE Jipeng, From trace to emptiness, a practice of subtraction

Simone Schuiten and Xiaoman Li

KE Jipeng, From trace to emptiness, a practice of subtraction


Ke Jipeng is born in 1979 in China’s Guangdong Province.

As a young boy, he discovers ink painting through his grandfather, a calligraphy lover, who offers him ink picture albums to copy.

He graduates from the Fine Arts School of South China Normal University with a bachelor’s degree in 2003 and from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts with a master’s degree in 2014.
Since 2003, he teaches at the College of Arts of South China Agriculture University.

During his rather formal artistic education he experiments with different ways of painting, including realistic painting, expressionism, and Pop art. In 2003, before graduating, he starts a three-year project with a series of paintings whose motif is Identity. At that time, he quite focused on using Pop cultural symbols and existing objects in his oil painting.

An invitation to be part of an artist residency project from the Italian Foundation Cittadellarte will permanently change his artistic approach. After he spent a whole summer submerged in a totally different culture, a Western perspective rather unexpectedly makes him rediscover interesting elements in traditional Chinese painting.

Abandoning all forms of figurative expression, he begins to search for spiritual intention. The latter, belonging par excellence to the Chinese aesthetic, is the foundation and purpose of the act of painting. Ke Jipeng then becomes aware that this act of painting or writing merges with abstraction. The gesture of the painter or scholar opens a path and allows its development. Abstraction is then understood as a connection between the hand and spirituality, the latter leading to meditation and detachment. From the technique of wrinkles, that is to say the repetition of strokes or points in the classic landscape painting « Mountain-Water », we distinguish a process of materialization of aesthetic emotion. The human value or the inner richness is manifested through the repetition of the gesture and the accumulation of traces.

Ke Jipeng creates new mental landscapes that gradually inscribe on the canvas. By the act of drawing lines or wrinkles, he reconciles spatial data with a materialization of temporality.

What is valuable is that Ke Jipeng’s repetition is not only the repetition of style or « mechanical » meaningless repetition, his line is indeed changing. This also confirms the statement of the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, that what we acknowledged and understood as « repetition » is relative, and every repetition has a difference. But the “difference” itself is absolute, when we look at the same piece of artwork, we may cause different feelings, even differ with the intention of the artist. From this perspective, the monotonous behavior from Ke’s line drawing, derived beyond the physical, and the visual thought space and spiritual space. Artist himself says:

« I try to empty the ‘form’ deep in my subconscious and real memory, I want to maximize the reduction of the canvas to ‘blank’. In the concrete practice operation, the ‘form’ (traces) are constantly appearing and repeat, coverage and destruction, harmonic and enrichment, ending finally in the right ‘time’ they (traces) feel.”

What the audience intuitively sees is the repetition of lines, but in fact it is the difference generated in the accumulation of time, which can only be perceived by the artist’s own body and time.

In Pop art, constant reproduction is to eliminate the subjectivity of the image. Ke Jipeng’s early line has the same objective, that is, the whole is the subject. In his works after 2017, he marked out a horizontal line among the endless freehand lines to highlight and emphasize. There is no rule for setting horizontal lines, it is still a matter of perception to find the most suitable position. It emphasizes the difference between lines, more specifically, it is the difference between the time of emotional cohesion in freehand line and the time of mechanical production. At the same time, more ornamental elements are presented in the repeated visual narrative, and the visual subject thus returns to the image again.

One of those elements, the technique of “Ji Mo”- “Ink layering” greatly inspires him for his first steps in abstract oil painting. Although very simple and repetitive, this painting nevertheless embodies a peculiar texture. At the same time, its physical repetitiveness also conveys a pair of Chinese philosophical concepts: “You Wei” making a difference by acting proactively, and “Wu Wei” letting things take their own course.

Ke Jipeng’s works show a particular pattern similar to “Ji Mo”, which can be interpreted both as a process and a performance. It stems from a factual accumulation of time. The actual time employed during this repetitive painting can become visible as a result of the layering. This is Ke Jipeng’s unique way of combining two different painting techniques and esthetics, thus bridging two different cultures.

“Ji Mo” is one of the elementary techniques of traditional Chinese painting. It starts out with a light primary layer of ink, then continues by adding more layers over time on previous layers at various stages of drying so as to give the image a sense of structured solidness, thickness and texture. This technique was mainly used in traditional Chinese landscape painting, because of its faculty to highlight the texture and form of mountains. Meanwhile, it also adds a humanistic trait to the landscape. By showing his personal awareness and understanding of the external world, the artist participates in nature and in the landscape he is representing.

Ke Jipeng integrates this traditional Chinese technique into oil painting to provide, in his personal way, a tangible interpretation of the abstract nature of time. In his view, infinity comes from the absence of both ends of temporality. By leading a simple and fluid existence, he breaks away from the entanglement of worldly meaning, references and values.

The continuity and expansion created by hand movements from one point to another on the canvas is a behavioral ritual, encapsulating the “writing character” of the traditional Chinese painting and materializing visible traces. Throughout the whole painting process, the works restore the artist’s continuous and specific perception of the abstract notion of time. He is fascinated by the contradiction between its invisible nature and the concrete traces it leaves behind. The shadow-like canvas with black and white lines is embedded with his cognitive perception of the time lapse he uses for painting.

When one considers this superposition of layers with an absentminded, quick glance, it may look simple and direct on the surface, whereas in reality it is unexpectedly full of finesse and variety with an open-minded, prolonged contemplation. This repetitive process is a kind of self-improvement in an Eastern Zen manner. The artist likes to observe equally all creations and subjects in this simple and plain way (“Wu Wei”), and is eager to use it to echo the sense of existence of the artist’s time and intention (“You Wei”).

Initially, “collecting time” is an empty behavior. In a certain way, ink layering makes it possible to transform time into a perceptible object. Each line has its own location and weight. Through a new approach to the inherent “writing character” of Chinese traditional painting, the artist hopes to get closer to the secret of painting. Lines in different shades give an authentic description of the perceptible and the imperceptible; repetitive gestures reveal the natural order of writing.

The more recent choice of acrylics rather than oil stems from Ke Jipeng’s fascination for the unpredictable brush touches given by this “waterborne” material, which delivers a rich visual rendering as a result of an over-layering of semi-transparent colors. This “denial” and “cover”, or “cover” and “reappearance” forms an interesting experience: diffused black and white pigments merge into each other on canvas, and culminate at a certain point of time with a particular pattern only belonging to a precise painting gesture.

We then understand Ke Jipeng’s artistic act as a ritual opening to an infinite conversation with emptiness. The artist reconciles time from the act of painting which is nothing but a trace recreating itself by repeating itself tirelessly.

Everything happens as if the hand at work no longer needed to draw legible and identifiable signs. It just mingles the white and the black as it puts in dialogue the full and the empty. The codified burden of our language thus disappears to the benefit of a meditative act to which we are invited to participate in a contemplative way.

The act of painting is simple, extremely simple, but in doing so, it takes part in the millennial Chinese culture in order to reveal its emptiness. The painted line, associated with the gesture of the wrist takes off from the blank canvas and has no limit. The lines repeat that the act of painting is associated with time and space in order to contribute to their aesthetic embodiment. This endless same humble and open gesture to the infinite is speaking to us. It associates us with a meditative understanding of time in becoming. Time, that we can now interpret according to the paths of our own gaze that « empties » and returns to the white page.

As a result, Ke Jipeng appears as a Buddhist painter looking for the most abstract expression of the brush stroke. With the actions of his hands, he adds up temporal moments while subtracting by non-action all elements that limit his gesture. Ke’s lines constitute a long « time » and the whole story through countless moments. And the change within is not the change of time itself, but the way the time through different « states » to present.