“Emptiness can be expressed by ‘fullness’ if the right method is used.”

b.1948, Shanghai

Liang Quan cuts rice paper into hundreds of narrow strips, stains them with diluted ink or tea, and pastes them on his canvas. The result looks at first glance like a sea of grey, but the apparent emptiness is filled with detail: subtle variations in tone (the edges of the strips absorb more ink), sweeps of pale colour, scattered dots and smudges. “Blankness can express a lot,” says the artist, a Chan Buddhist. In classical Chinese landscapes, blank spaces were as important as mountains or trees. But when Liang Quan was growing up, he seldom saw such paintings. Condemned as decadent, they were destroyed by the thousand during the Cultural Revolution. It wasn’t until he was in his 30s and went to San Francisco to study printmaking that he saw landscape scrolls in significant numbers. He describes his collages as abstract “diagrams of traditional Chinese landscapes” in which the pattern of strips traces the flow of water through the mountains and “calm, irregular, and silent lines … express the peace of Zen”. In creating these works he also goes with the flow, surrendering to “spontaneity, accident, randomness” as he adds dabs of colour and dots of black ink. If one of these looks wrong, he covers it with a paper strip, returning the area to blankness.

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