Emerging from a generation of artists interested in exploring counter-cultural forms of artistic expression, Shanghai-born painter Ma Kelu is known for his abstract, figurative, and landscape works that contributed to the development of a new form of modernism in China.Read More
From 1973 to 1974, Ma studied as part of the Beijing Culture House Studio Program. His profile as an artist grew in the late 1970s as he became a part of the No Name Group, or Wuming, a dissident avantgarde collective of artists active in Beijing from the 1970s to the early 80s. The group came together in response to limitations on artistic expression during the Cultural Revolution, presenting artworks and exhibitions that diverged from the state-sanctioned style of socialist realism.
In the late 1980s, Ma spent time travelling in Europe before settling in the United States, where he studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine (1989). From 1989 to 1990, he attended SUNY Empire State College in New York. Ma returned to China in 2006, where he currently lives in Beijing.
Ma Kelu works primarily with oils on substrates including rice paper, board, and canvas, though he has also experimented with lithography. Concerned with painting as a medium through which to explore process, gesture, and form, Ma produces paintings that reflect a fluidity and uninhibited freedom of expression.
Through the 1970s and 80s, Ma produced landscape and figurative paintings in a post-impressionist style, partly in response to the artistic constraints of the period. The small-scale oil on paper work Lake in Gray (1974) demonstrates an unconventional approach to composition, with a bare tree trunk and branches framing the left and upper edges. The subdued palette of greys and browns in conjunction with the thin application of paint evoke a wintry atmosphere. Similarly, Autumn Breeze, Ripples and Willows (1975) visualises a cropped view of a path lined with autumnal trees in thin, suggestive strokes of oil that partially reveal the paper underneath.
Ma's later work reflect a purer exploration of abstraction, as seen in paintings such as Black Heartbeat No 2 (2015) and the 'Ada' series (2016–ongoing). Typically restrained to one or two focal colours, Ma's large-scale abstract works examine various ways to explore a pictorial space through mark, repetition, and rhythm.
For his 2022 exhibition Wilderness at Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong, Ma presented a suite of abstract and landscape paintings spanning his decades-long career, from the 1970s to today. Arranged in chronological groupings, the survey exhibition allowed for a distanced comparison of the artist's broad stylistic range and subject matter. Abstract studies of mark and colour such as Autumn (1991) and Twilight (2008) sit alongside Motorcycle Repair Shop on North 3rd Street (2000), a simplified, impressionistic rendition of an urban streetscape.
As Elaine YJ Zheng observed in Ocula Magazine: '... Ma's preference for the art-making process over the final art product, which the artist compares to "a way of existence" or "spiritual drift", is noted in the painter's distinct approaches, from flat, representational landscapes to textured abstractions ...'
Ma Kelu has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions internationally since the 1970s.
Solo exhibitions include Wilderness, Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong (2022); 1972–1984 Time, Scenery, Light and Life / Sacrifice of the Spring, Platform China Contemporary Art Institute, Beijing (2020); SELF-STATEMENT, Platform China, Beijing (2019).
Group exhibitions include Salon, Salon: Fine Art Practices from 1972 to 1982 in Profile—A Beijing Perspective, Inside-Out Art Museum, Beijing (2017); Early Works, Yuan Art Museum, Beijing (2016); The Research Exhibition of Abstract Art in China, Today Art Museum, Beijing (2016); Hybridizing Earth: Discussing Multitude, Busan Biennale (2016).
Ma's works are held in museum collections including Art Beatus, Vancouver; Deshan Art Space, Beijing; Guangdong Art Museum; M+ Art Museum, Hong Kong; National Museum of China, Beijing; Inside-Out Art Museum, Beijing; Yuan Art Museum, Beijing; among others.
Misong Kim | Ocula | 2022