It is common knowledge that eight years ago I set up a fine art print studio in Shanghai, a studio which now has quite a reputation. The Chinese artists I produce prints for are some of the most prominent artists in contemporary art. Among those I’ve worked with is Zhang Huan and my long-term cooperation with him is an experience that has enriched both of us. However, few people know that over these past eight years I have never given up my own process of artistic creation. In 2008, I finally returned full time to painting. It was a clear spring, and to return, felt like reuniting with a long awaited lover. Although the reunion was late, and the long trail back was filled with sorrow, despair, betrayal and homesickness for the dream of painting, I was thankful that I never abandoned the idea of coming back. The works shown in this exhibition were mostly created during this period of reunion, and while they subjects seem disparate and sometimes un-related, these pieces frankly reflect that time.
When I was young, I used a brush pen to paint ink on rice paper and thus earned the admiration of other children. It was at that time that the joy of the brush in the fingertips started to inscribe itself within my body. I knew then that the consistency of ink is the same as human blood. I was told that painting is part of the artist’s spirit and it flows out of the artist’s body. The ego-fulfilling joy of painting made its mark on me particularly when I was praised from time to time by my father, who is also a painter. I was pleased to listen to him talk about how to wield a brush pen, and how the artist expresses their concepts through poetic imagery. These conversations have had a profound influence on my attitude toward painting. As old as he is, my father’s dialogues on art and life still continue to resonate.
When I began to learn painting, I found I always failed at rendering noses. My classmates laughed at me a lot. As a result I avoided noses, they were a forbidden and a handicap I could not overcome. But this also became an impetus to never give up painting. This deficiency burrowed deep within my mind and followed me everywhere, like the genes that make up my being. I realize that the happiness of painting encoded in my body, the influence of my father and the mental shadow of my inability to depict noses are always present, like fairies close to my soul. They foretell of nothing and are not there all the time, but once in a while they touch the nerve connected with painting.
I often make rough sketches of paintings first because it is convenient, and as time passes my sketches accumulate. These sketches seem insignificant but they actually mean a great deal to me. First, I have a passion for the feeling particular to paper. Second, these sketches are the inspiration for my oil paintings. I use these sketches in the traditional sense. I make the sketches almost randomly, playing freely, and then later I use them as a reference for larger work. Even if they look ugly at the time I do not throw the sketches away. Often I come back to a sketch that should have been discarded, and to my amazement a new feeling emerges. It speaks in a voice I couldn’t hear before and touches a place I was not previously aware of. The oil paintings are not simply made by repainting these sketches onto canvas. Instead I spend a great deal of time remembering, revising and recreating the feeling of joy I had when making the sketch. The black color in my pictures is ink. I paint the pictures with watercolor and Chinese ink. Nowadays the quality of the ink on the market is much worse than before. You cannot feel the luster and the texture of the medium. I use the ink on paper not for emphasis, but to achieve a particular gradation of grey. The ink seeps into the water and color, injecting into the picture a sense of the accidental, of that which is beyond our control, but in a way that is not overwhelming.
I doubt all facts and proof of what we know as ‘truth’. I believe that aesthetics are accompanied by tragedy. This sense of uncertainty informs the sense of loneliness within my paintings. They remind me of the point right before the act of creation and my helpless political state. The uncertainty validates my ignorance, disappointment, and my alternating sense of heroism and powerlessness. These ambiguous feelings give rise to the weird, absurd, unreasonable swaying hallucinations within the time and space of my paintings. I like this description, it seems more realistic.
A childhood story again. I remembered once I rose from bed to relieve myself at midnight. When I left my bedroom and walked toward the bathroom (which was a bit far away) in a daze I suddenly saw a lion standing outside my door. It noticed me! I ran back to my bed and could not help but to tremble with fear for a long time. Later I felt lucky to escape from it, but I still remembered the strange and pleasant sensation of this thrilling encounter. As time goes on, artists gradually abandon the burden of social responsibility, and their art becomes less dogmatic and more nuanced in its expression of an individual reality. My reality is intertwined with the vivid fairies that live next to my soul. I recall the fragments of narrative that have touched my senses and brought them into depiction.
One day my wife Rong Rong suddenly said, “If God does exist in this world: there must be only one, which is Death.” Her sentence felt real, more like a perfect answer rather than a question. I was inspired, and subsequently inferred, “If Death hasn’t come for you yet, it means Death still tolerates and even loves you.” In the profession of painting the ‘death’ of the creator means a petrification of ideas, a drying up of the imagination. I’m thankful that I’m not in this state of desperation. I do not want to be found by Death, while always receiving Death’s love. Just thinking of the crisis of ‘drying up’ I prefer the feeling of staying fluid like water, thus I keep rendering my scenes so that they’re close to overflowing.
Painting engenders a kind of constant anxiety. It provides a release for our most primitive emotions. Paintings are almost like footnotes for the essence of human behavior- those who are happy consider it boring, while those who are lonely draw happiness from it. For the artist the compulsion to create is like a mental illness that degrades the artist every moment of every hour. Only constant creation can cure this affliction and bring peace. The anxiety of painting is like a bottomless black hole. In my effort to carefully and rationally fill this endless vacuum, I interpret this as a desire for culture or spirit.
This is the first solo exhibition of my life. I would like to thank the Shanghai Gallery of Art, Mathieu and his team, and everyone involved.