White Ink, the Painter is Absent
I can only pray for a transformative experience coming along with every year’s Xian Rui artist. The memory of brainstorming this exhibition with Zheng Chongbin two years ago is still vivid. I was looking at the two large vertical paintings of his biomorphic series, finding them aggressive and radical. I wondered where he would go with another leap. And here we are: a whole new body of artwork that bears no heavy-handed intervention, nor does it take on any set pattern. It is spontaneous, but somehow with a very controlled appearance that dictates the entire energy of the gallery. There seems to be an unspoken persistence amidst the free flowing form, with some spots or blots emerging randomly, creating a magnetic and misty mood. White Ink shows a consistent expression of celestial chaos, but with a refined control that points to a less present painter. The energy of Zheng’s painting is like a string of secret codes that emanates from the work, affirming that its vibe has motion and is real. While staring at the work, even at close range, I often forget all the elements that go into this piece: that it is ink and that it is painted. Every shade and shape seems organic, unplanned, and unstructured. I seldom think of the artist who made the work. It is as if he does not exist. It is the border and the snowflake shaped ink spots that serve to vaguely remind one of the presence of Zheng Chongbin, the Chinese Culture Foundation’s 2011 Xian Rui (Fresh & Sharp) artist, a painter who seems to create paintings without painting them.
White Ink debuts fifteen new works Zheng created as a site-specific installation that includes video projections and paintings. This is certainly a refreshing take on the contemporary interpretation of culture, conversing with ink, abstract expression, space, and how they intertwined to brew something new, different and unexpected. Leaving China as an experimental ink painter and becoming a performance artist upon his first few years in the U.S., Zheng might be deemed “離經叛道” (lí jīng pàn dào, deviating from the rules and rebelling against the law) by many. However, it was the very distinctly different route he took that brings him into a sphere that intersects with ink and abstract expression, both of which have long heritages and lasting contributions to our perception of aesthetics. Both Chinese ink painting and Western abstraction possess their own exclusivity, with few successful crossovers yet to take place.
Looking back at Zheng’s early biomorphic forms, one of the endeavors that mark his early attempt at abstract work, one can see that Zheng’s work at this stage was experimental, bold, and rough. But it is obvious that the stroke of ink is asserted with a soaring gesture like graffiti on a bright wall, visually violent and emotionally unsettled, alluding to the strong presence of the painter. The style of whimsy and unpredictability Zheng revealed in those paintings is something very uncommon amongst the serenity and harmony exhibited by traditional ink painting. Such a biomorphic approach planted seeds for his style, not so much to the paintings themselves, but as a new dimension to the possibility of ink.
Zheng’s delineating of the biomorphic shapes is like a prophet heralding his own metamorphosis, which continues to this date. From the partially graffiti, partially biomorphic Type of Facial Make Up #2 (1987), Zheng’s work gradually transformed through repetitive stains (Blot, 1999) into random and radical chaos (Untitled No. 18, 2007) as well as a semi-transparent, frosting haze (Stain, 2008; Grey and White, 2009; Field, 2010). What once appeared in his stroke as an aggressive, savage, and outward intervention in ink painting was gradually expanded and softened, becoming more inward. The later works show visible interaction between the ink and the paper, complicating an expression of a more mediated ambiguity. It is difficult to apply any single branch of theoretical thoughts to examine his work, as he touches on many of them though doesn’t exclusively belong to one category. I find his early work assertive and borderline possessive, and his recent work obscure and abstruse. Either way, they appear unconventionally familiar and unique.
It all starts to make sense when I think of how his work evolved over the years. When his life experience finally materialized through his art, it demonstrated a sense of lucidity that is like the three states of water: frost, liquid, and vapor. What intrigues me the most about this lucidity is the disappearance of the artist. He manages to create a supernatural atmosphere on the paper as if it is framed by nature or spirit. This is close to the essence of both ink and abstraction, although it does not seem recognizable to either form at the same time. White Ink is an actual exemplification of Zheng’s transformation as a Chinese artist living in the U.S. in the last thirty years. The exploration of different artistic disciplines was a stimulation and inspiration to enable his return to ink painting, with a new methodology of language and expression that are foreign to everyone else but himself.
As geographer and philosopher Yifu Tuan stated in his Geography, Phenomenology, and the Study of Human Nature, “home has no meaning apart from the journey which takes one outside of home.” To say traditional ink painting is Zheng’s home of craft and artistry is no exaggeration. The dislocation from China to the U.S. was a catalyst of his transformation, and the choice he made to go into different genre was an intentional and a conscious one. The willingness and the ability to disengage from the familiarity, and to reconnect back to the root culture after the odyssey, have positioned Zheng as an instrument of cultural translation, which in itself has taken both cultures further to a new present. The presence of ink in these paintings almost resembles the identity of the painter himself and his methodology: in the early works, it has to be loud, direct, and raw; then it mixes, fades, and disappears. It feels to me that he initially needed to forcefully, almost recklessly, dash out in order to rebel and break free, and later subtly, gently, and even secretly pan out, infiltrate, and dominate. What Zheng has managed to achieve from this process is evident and crucial to his artistic development, as well as to the actual practice of what it means to be a Chinese artist in America. White Ink presents a visual overlap, which allows for receiving both forms, without a prior knowledge of one or the other. The energy flow Zheng generates with this exhibition actualizes a process of transformation that denotes Xian Rui’s founding goal: to offer a fresh and sharp perspective that provides new possibilities of thinking about not just Chinese culture, but culture at large, through the lens of an individual artist.
Shanghai Gallery of Art, 2011
3095 Kerner Blvd, #D
San Rafael, California