Zhang Yongzheng “Process 6 – Water Disaster”, Acrylic on canvas, 195X130cm, 2010
The Dao: To Ceaselessly Grow and Multiply
Reflections on Zhang Yongzheng’s Paper-based Improvisational Works
By Luo Fei
Translated by R. Orion Martin
Author’s note: I have long been interested in Zhang Yongzheng’s creative process, and am quite familiar with the various stages of his work. We’ve also always been very good friends, but when I really began to write about his works, I still found it extremely challenging, as it is always difficult to make sense of the cryptic nature of abstract art. This is because it is not art that can be “read.” Rather, it must be “seen.” Nevertheless, I strive to use my own impressions and understandings in order to decipher it clearly, and I hope to contribute to a richer understanding of his work.
Process and Improvisation
Circles, squares, breaks, and piercing radial patterns, writing like running water, pure colors that garishly dazzle the eyes, an atmosphere of cold metaphysics, and concealed pearls of Xuanxue philosophical wisdom. These are the impressions that Zhang Yongzheng’s propylene on canvas works, begun in 2006, give me. These works possess a stunningly clear individual style, especially in the art world of Yunnan where scarcely any abstract artists are active. The canvas based works are collectively referred to as his Process series, and are differentiated by their themes such as solar cycles, four seasons, the five elements, and disasters. Zhang Yongzheng works from an amalgamation of Chinese philosophical schools called Xuanxue which includes elements of Daoism and Confucianism. He uses his spiritual and visual resources to search for an abstract form that is related to philosophy as well as contemporary experience. He assimilates the sharp contrast of Xuanxue-derived geometric forms with a kind of improvised writing. Together they bestow his works with a feeling of conflict, mystery, and universality.
But before making this kind of canvas-based work, Zhang was engaged in another artistic style quite removed in appearance. These were his paper-based works. In 2003 Zhang Yongzheng came from Beijing to Yunnan for sightseeing, and his trip happened to coincide with the SARS epidemic. With no way to return to Beijing and just in time for the rainy season, Zhang found himself renting an apartment and drawing every day. Yunnan’s cozy climate and the relaxed lifestyle of ethnic minorities moved him deeply, a stark contrast to the anxious bustling of Beijing. This aroused in him things that had long been suppressed and he began working on paper. Most of the resulting works are drafts, often made with markers or charcoal pencils. Using rough brushwork or improvising human figures, Zhang integrates the styles of sketching, graffiti, and simplified brush strokes. The works possess an unaffected levity, and are brimming with dynamism and humorous delight. This kind of work opened the floodgates of Zhang’s creativity, and buried within them is a foreshadowing of the larger “formal” works he would go on to create using propylene. These sketches became a field of experimentation that nourished his art. Whether on standard size or half-sheet pages, they are collectively referred to as his Improvisation series.
The following July, Zhang Yongzheng moved his entire family from Beijing to Kunming and focused all of his time on artistic production. Due to his extended stay in Yunnan, I have also developed a strong relationship with this linen-clad Gansu artist. (At that time, another artist from Gansu, the musician Zhang Quan, was also headed towards Yunnan. He later moved to Dali.)
Zhang Yongzheng’s paper-based improvisational paintings began to change in 2006. In addition to his graffiti-like style, he began using an airbrush to produce abstract works such as Improvisation 1010283, Improvisation 1010284, and Improvisation 1010285. These works resemble the meeting and parting of a microcosmic world, and express the artist’s attempt to take his experiments on paper further. In his improvisational paintings from 2008, this form of experiment appears to strengthen and mature. The works from this year are made with materials such as string, rope, rags, clothing, and palette knives. These he wets with ink in order to whip, rub or drip the image onto the paper. The paper, having gone through these “actions,” carries the vestiges that are left behind in the form of lines or shapes. These forms are related in the way they crisscross, hedge, and superimpose upon one another. The shapes on the page rise, fall, and interact, resulting in a feeling of unrestrained movement. Among these, many of the works feature a textured pattern intentionally left behind after contact with the materials, apparent in the traces of string in 2008017 and the mark of cloth in 2008024. If his early works are more focused on the expressiveness of the paint and ink, then the works after 2006, and particularly those after 2008, are more tuned to the living spiritual nature of the various painting implements.
This period of works continues Zhang Yongzheng’s unique method of painting, typically involving flat application of lines while coloring in the closed spaces of their intersection. The unkempt style of painted line contrasts with the elements of ornamentation, common in cold Mondrian-like abstraction, that he injects into the paintings. This method is also reflected in the writing that often appears in his canvas-based works. The text that covers the surface of the paintings is like a semi-cursive script, concealing the secret narrative of an epic. But these characters cannot be distinguished. They appear similar to pictograms or ancient painted pottery motifs, inspired by the Majiayao pottery culture of Zhang Yongzheng’s native Gansu.
By 2010, the paper-based improvisations already appear to be completely mature and seasoned. While remaining improvised and unplanned, they are more controlled and gradually begin to give up the aforementioned practice of decorative coloring and cold abstract elements. In terms of materials, Zhang does not limit himself, using supplies as varied as soy sauce and lacquer paints. Simultaneously, a portion of the works also return to a figurative style of expressionism, depicting the human figure and portrait with a terse conciseness. The abstract works from this period are splendid, permeated by lines streaking fiercely across the surface with rhythm, beat and elasticity. In works such as 2010057 and 2010060 one observes how the whole appears nimble and active throughout, but also refined. They are reminiscent of the metaphysical view in Daoist philosophy that an entity in the universe is ceaselessly growing and multiplying, unstoppably, meticulously in motion.
Calligraphy, Abstraction, and Xuanxue
Zhang Yongzheng has not been influenced much by academism, having taken only a few courses in applied arts and clothing design. However, one could say that his work has benefited from his youth when his father trained him and his brother in the art of calligraphy. Years later, the training gives him an extreme sensitivity towards the brush. Chinese landscape painting master Jing Hao, active during the Five Dynasties period, wrote in his Notes on Brush-work, “A brush has four potentials, namely: tendon, flesh, bone, and breath… he with dead tendon, without flesh, is working only for daily survival, without bone.”⑴ Despite the fact that Zhang Yongzheng’s improvisational works do not carry the same emphasis on the “Four Potentials” that traditional calligraphy does, still they belong to the category of expressive painting, particularly in their marked display of muscle and breath that give the lines on the surface a rich sense of elasticity. The images possess the unbroken feeling of articulation in a single breath.
Calligraphy is also deeply affiliated with abstract art. In evaluations of postwar art, theorists discovered that Asian calligraphic brushwork and Xuanxue philosophy promoted, to a certain extent, the development of American abstract art. In 1955, art critic William Seitz argued that postwar American abstract art clearly showed elements of Asian calligraphic brushwork. He wrote that the calligraphic brushstroke can be regarded as expressing “the nothing beyond itself.” He also believed that it reflected a “symbol of reference, not only containing form, but also spirit. During the employed movement, the bold, drastic and experimental characteristics are expressed.” Furthermore, in traditions of Southeast Asian calligraphy, kinesthetic expression is an important aesthetic value.⑵ This causes the flowing script to possess a strong quality of inner connection, and these values influenced the style, method, and spirit of Western abstract painting.
At this point, Zhang Yongzheng’s improvised works may remind people of Jackson Pollock, particularly the works employing the technique of dripping paint, but I believe there is a great distance between them. First they differ in terms of dimensions. Abstract Expressionism’s main promoter, Clement Greenberg, wrote in American-Type Painting that the enormous canvases used by abstract expressionists were extremely important because they impeded the artist from making a feeling of depth and required that he produce a flat plane. Furthermore, gigantic dimensions could develop the ceremony of the “painting event.”⑶ Zhang Yongzheng is certainly not seeking to create these enormous works. His works are of conventional dimensions and his “painting action” is focused on expanding the vigor and texture of the image. He is not performing a “painting event,” nor is he challenging or rejecting conventional artistic forms. Second, he consciously uses humble materials such as ink, cloth, rope, and so on, transforming them and giving them new life in his work. He seeks the vivid natural state and spiritual aesthetic of these materials. At the same time that he strives to release his state of mind on a psychological level, he is also attempting to achieve the Daoist virtue of opening one’s mind to a deeper level of wisdom. This is in stark contrast to the unconscious state and excessive expansion of mood that abstract expressionists favored. And finally, Zhang Yongzheng is in no way pursuing the view that abstraction is the highest form of art. Unlike some promoters of abstraction, he does not belittle or reject realism in art or promote its replacement with abstraction. The footholds of Zhang Yongzheng’s art are not in unconsciousness, abstraction, and ceremony, but rather a frame of mind, an expression, and a daily practice of Daoism. To activate the former one looks to alcohol, for the later one seeks tea ceremony.
The interconnection of calligraphy, Xuanxue philosophy and abstract art illustrates the interaction and blending of Eastern and Western culture in the postwar period. Chinese art historian Jonathan Hay said that in those days, American abstract art’s “intercultural experiment” became “the foundation for artistic practice.”⑷ Today, the calligraphic brushwork and elements of Xuanxue present in Zhang Yongzheng’s art are not based on an “intercultural experiment”. Rather, they are triggered by the interaction of and tension between the “experience of the faultline (duanceng*) of national culture,” the “experience of doubt in the face of the ultimate questions,” and the “experience of individualization of Daoist practice.” Zhang Yongzheng consciously pursues the roots of his personal culture and seeks to transform them, particularly in regards to incompleteness of the transformation of Chinese society today. Grounded in a crisis of living environment and the tension of blending Eastern and Western culture, this awareness and practice seem to be forcing him to tread on thin ice. But this is exactly the cultural assumption that contemporary Chinese artists are confronted with.
Here we are reminded of Chinese Mysticism and Modern Painting, written by French art critic Georges Duthuit in 1936. In it he proposed an influential interpretation of the aesthetics of Xuanxue philosophy and modern European art. “Chinese artists long to act as one who has insight, seeking the power that rules and controls all living things. This kind of power governs earth, heaven, and the artist’s own consciousness.”⑸ From this point of view, Zhang Yongzheng is attempting to use art to enter this kind of insight and ultimate awareness. For example, canvas-based works such as Process 4 – 2008.5.12 Great Earthquake, Process 6 – Water Disaster, and Process 6 – The Furious Yangtze express both the vast force of movement that is central to the Daoist world view and the Confucian value of humane care for those struck by disaster in contemporary China. When compared to his canvas-based works, Zhang Yongzheng’s paper works tend to pursue the Daoist practice of returning to a natural state – a free realm of “Active Inaction” (wuwei). Zhang Yongzheng perhaps exists between his personal striving for Daoist virtue in a corrupt world and his Confucian mentality of working to sanctify it, both apprehensive and balanced.
March 3rd 2012, Kunming
⑴. Jing Hao, Notes on Brush-work, http://knol.google.com/k/%E8%8D%86%E6%B5%A9-%E7%AC%94%E6%B3%95%E8%AE%B0# (Chinese)
⑵. Bert Winther-Tamaki, The Asian Dimensions of Postwar Abstract Art: Calligraphy and Metaphysics, Translated by Zhu Qi, The Forefront of Contemporary Art Theories, chief editor: Zhu Qi, Nanjing: Jiangsu art press, 2010, Page 68.
⑶. Greenberg, Clement cited in David Joselit, Notes on Surface: Toward a Genealogy of Flatness, translated by Liang Shuhan, Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985, Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung, Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 2010, Page 294.
⑷. Jonathan Hay, Brice Marden: Chinese Work, New York: Matthew Marks Gallery, 1997, Page 10.
⑸. Georges Duthuit, China’s Mysticism and Modern Painting, Paris: chronique du jour; London: Zwemmer, 1936, Page 13-14.
*Translator’s note: Duanceng, which literally translates as “tectonic fault line” also refers to the aftereffects of the May 4th 1919 Movement, which marked a turning point in the culture and politics of the country.