Happy Year of the Horse to All
image courtesy of Zhong Biao
I thought I’d repost some of my favorite old Zhong Biao works along with newer work marking among other things changes over time. The image above, “Today” (今天) (acrylic on canvas 400×280 centimeters), strikes me as good a starting point as any for such an exercise.
There was not much new in the “Today” image in 2009 when it was created, as an abstract method juxtaposed with human and other animal figures have both been core elements of a Zhong Biao picture since 2005. The figures themselves are also not particularly new, with birds and airborne human beings being about as close to thematic constants as Zhong’s work provides. The most notable element of the canvas, the belly-flopping corpulent fellow, on the other hand, had not emerged in any work before, as far as I know. He, spectacular as he is, seems more variation on a theme.
I couple “Today” this with his 2013 “裁云剪水” (acrylic on canvas 130 x 388 cm):
The title is a challenge to translate. Literally its “trimming clouds and cutting water,” a phrase drawn from Ming dynasty critique of poetry that is miraculously perspicuous and creative. The work is expansive, sharing many features with Zhong’s largest painting to date “Mirage,” most particularly its panoramic quality. What is new here is relatively minute point of the abstract box, new to the vocabulary of his painting. Rather like pointillism of Seurat, one needs to take a few steps closer to see them:
Upon closer inspection, the polygons, all white in this painting, emerge as angular portals of light, like windows or other apertures in fixed structures. They also refer to pixilation, interruptions in what should be seamless digital universe that may or may not intersect with (un)virtual reality. This is particularly true when they are in a background of darker colors, such as the street level boxes around the pedestrians’ feet:
What also intrigues me about the geometric elements is their implication in terms of practice. As I’ve observed Zhong work on painting, the abstract component is usually applied first, and human and other figures drawn out over time from them. The abstract brush work is dynamic, rapid, and in larger canvases involves something very much like dance to execute. The squares are a different kind of image production altogether, it seems to me. In order to find out just how this comes together I guess I’ll have to make another trip to his studio and hang out there for a few days and watch what happens.
Zhong Biao’s recent book, Zhong Biao: The Universe of Unreality (Charta), is out (co-edited with Xu Gang), and I’ll be reviewing it for MCLC (Modern Chinese Literature and Culture). Much to note in this publication. One major feature is the 150 or so paintings beautifully reproduced in the book. Another feature is the inclusion of some interesting old photographs, some of them down right striking. Three in particular to note: this one from 1986, was taken when Zhong was a middle school student at the Sichuan Fine Arts Academy Middle School in Chongqing:
Following is this rather severe looking portrait from 1989, just as Zhong was preparing his final works for graduation at the China Academy of Art 中国美术学院 in Hangzhou:
And finally an un-dated image entitled “Working on my Autobiography”
This third image, minus title, also appears in Zhong Biao Dictionary, a curious work which I finally own in full text and will have more to say about later.
In a word, I’d call Zhong’s new exhibition at the Suzhou Art Museum successful, even highly so, and quite contrary to my expectation. Now I see why, when I called him last week from Seattle, he seemed so emphatic that I jump on a plane immediately to come see what he was doing.
But first, a word about the context,
Though billed (I still think strangely) as a one-man show (个展), the entire spectacle involved far more than Zhong and his work. There were in fact two, simultaneous, even nearly adjoining ‘one-man’ shows, being Zhong’s and another notably, cleverly contrasting installation by famed Cui Xiuwen 催岫闻, whose photography, installation and video work have been very high profile and sometimes controversial at least since 2000 when she installed video cameras in a Ladies’ Room in a Beijing Karaoke club. In addition to these two solo exhibitions, there were paintings of 20 “young” artists displayed on the floor below and one Spanish artist in a small and rather hard to arrive at gallery upstairs. Given time pressure, I spent most of my time in the Zhong Biao part of the gallery and so I have sadly nothing to report about the other parts of the exhibit. Given the short time frame, though Zhong Biao’s bit was more than enough.
It should also be noted that the entire exhibition was held in honor of this year’s recipient of the Yan Wenliang Art Prize, the second iteration of this event. This year’s winner is Geng Jianyi 耿建翌, who was not present nor his work represented. He was however the focus of the opening remarks by Xu Jiang 徐江, President of the Chinese Academy of Art (Hangzhou), not to be confused with the Central Academy of Art (Beijing). But I digress.
Zhong’s work for this exhibition marks an important departure, though one he billed as a “summing up” of all his previous efforts. It is rather extraordinary that the act of summing up includes so much new raw material, and more importantly, new approaches to presentation of new material. The part of the Suzhou Museum allotted for Zhong’s work comprised one major largely square gallery space connected to a longer rectangular hallway. The walls were covered with paintings as usual, but one could easily see that, in true contrast to year’s past, these were not properly the focus of the experience. The list of additional elements is roughly as follows:
Mammoth bones mounted on a stack of Zhong Biao Dictionaries (the latter of which I’ll get to describing sometime soon)
Han Dynasty inscriptions of death sentences for criminals beneath a petrified tree interspersed with Han dynasty pottery fragments carved into the shape of leaves:
This image (quite by accident, of course) captures well the overall sense of the exhibition, namely the “new” stones in various forms from ancient period mixed with Zhong’s paintings, both new (on the right, the image which serves as signature for the exhibition) and the old, namely his graduation thesis work. The traversing of space and time through art is well manifold, to be sure.
3-d Printers, which as reported in previous post, reproduce a fake antique Buddha sculpture:
There’s much more that my skills at photography weren’t up to the task of capturing well. I’ll sort through conference materials and see if I can’t add an image or two in subsequent posts. The list, at any rate, includes a bird cage with caged bird; Jingde Zhen porcelain vases decorated with Zhong’s paintings; an entire wood wall carved with reliefs of Zhong’s paintings and plaster maps of Chinese territory in Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing eras, replete with dynastic histories laid out on tables underneath them.
Obviously, such installations are the works of many people, from friends who loaned Zhong precious objects to wood carvers, potters and so forth. His ‘crew’ has thus expanded greatly. What matters perhaps more than this though is the way it all comes together, presenting truly well connected if a bit overwhelming array of details, points in time that are solid and specific as the names carved in death stones or literally mammoth presence of an individual animal thousands of years dead. That Zhong has managed to so vividly express in a very new way his long-standing meditations on space and time is indeed an important accomplishment.
Not letting any grass grow under his feet, Zhong Biao is moving from a Biennale-related exhibition in Venice to a solo show at the Suzhou Art Museum 苏州美术馆. Above note appears on Sichuan Art Web , and carries English title “Tailoring Clouds.” In Chinese, 裁云剪水, trimming clouds, cutting water. Or is that the ‘nip and tuck’ idea?
The contents of this exhibition are in part retrospective, 20 paintings drawn from his work extending back decades. In addition, more new-fangled experiments, in this case using a 3-D printer and to reproduce counterfeit antique statues. Counterfeit counterfeits, a not very Zhong Biao maneuver, whose work is more typically marked by a literal astronomical earnestness (near constant contemplation of universe-level phenomena and beyond). I will be traveling to opening and discussion of his work over the weekend, hopefully reporting more detail thereafter. I’ll be looking to see in particular whether this is a true stylistic shift or small detour into another area of plastic art expression. At any rate, the fact that he could put this together while his Venice show is still up (opened May 31, runs through October) is no mean feat, and perhaps part of the reason he’s talking about taking a break from art-making for the time being. Seems I’ve heard this before, namely at his 2005 Xin Dong exhibition in Beijing. That hiatus turned out to be no more than a mere few weeks. I’m guessing this will be the same, but we will see.
Recently received the following announcement from Zhong Biao:
The curator is Xu Gang 徐钢. He’s a new figure in the Zhong Biao pantheon, near as I can tell, and professor of Chinese literature at University of Illinois.The principal sponsors are Today 今日 and Winshare 文轩美术馆 galleries, the latter of which being an appendage of Xinhua media group.
The concept is a reprisal of previous work by Zhong, who has not been inclined to change his approach much since I’ve begun following him in 2005. His artistic ideas, in other words, are repetitive, if also impressive, a curious blend. In this case, an even more simple dichotomy is at work than the one’s he’s used before, namely Reality/Fantasy, or more properly, the “unstable relationship between the two.” A cosmic element is also there, as the relationship is explored (exhibited) within “the primordial mass of the universe” 在混沌宇宙, and I wonder how the cosmic plays, through painting, other installation and video screens, within a Venetian church. Exhibiting Zhong’s work in refurbished urban warehouses, or sparkling new annexes of modern museums (the last two shows I’ve seen) seem to offer more congruency than 17th century Italian architecture. But this is difficult to say from afar. Sure do wish I was there….