The Shape of the World
In 2012, Zhou Yinghua returned to work as an active painter after a hiatus of almost half a century. At first glance, it seems that he has hardly been away. In just a couple of years, he has established a distinctive set of techniques and motifs that constitute a developed idiom. He has done so with the confidence and discipline of a young artist consolidating a mature style—fresh, complete, and firmly stated in the present tense. These paintings, however, also have deep roots in one of the most fertile episodes in the history of art, a period in the 1950s and 1960s that set the terms for most of what remains vital in visual creativity. In the years since Zhou Yinghua suspended his own activity as a painter, the medium has been pulled in various directions by conflicting ideologies and critical edicts. Painting itself has gone in and out of fashion several times. Zhou Yinghua avoided those struggles for aesthetic primacy, which succeeded only in establishing that painting is never inherently just one thing. It is not a single path. Painting is once again what it was in the late 1950s, a field of possibilities.
The clearest connection between Zhou Yinghua’s paintings and their heritage is the drastically expanded inventory of materials and techniques that contribute to the final result. Every time he reaches for a piece of detritus and gives it a place in a developing composition, or for a blowtorch with which to scorch accumulations of matter on the canvas, he is also reaching back into his own artistic novitiate. There are some clues to lineage embedded within his paintings, including a small reproduction of Robert Rauschenberg’s Canyon (1959) in the first panel of the triptych The Trilogy (plate tk). Rauschenberg’s Combine paintings thrive on the dissonance between the rarefaction of artistic intention versus the pragmatism of everyday use. For some, that dissonance is fraught with ethical and philosophical quandaries. For Rauschenberg, and also for Zhou Yinghua, it was and remains a condition of the world with its own remarkable aesthetic characteristics. One of these characteristics is an arrested temporal flow, so that processes and events we scarcely notice under ordinary conditions become fixed and emphasised in a completed painting.
Rauschenberg and his peers developed approaches that evolved from the techniques of gestural abstraction, especially in the treatment of a painting’s surface as an environment for recorded activity rather than as a pictorial window into a fictitious world. Attitudes to materials also changed as artists became less obedient to formal conventions, but more attentive to the compelling mysteries of matter and transformative states. Compare, for example, the carbonised, punctured ground and fabric in one of Zhou Yinghua’s few extant early works (plate tk) with a late-1950s Combustione by Alberto Burri, or with one of John Latham’s scorched works from the same period. In those days, Zhou Yinghua was emulating others. He was learning from the echoes he sounded. Now, with years of accumulated experience and a personal history that includes a successful career as a restaurateur, there is a broader set of connotations when he uses combustion as a technique. Emphasis on unfolding processes rather than prescribed templates not only significantly expands the range of possible outcomes, it also embodies the convoluted nature of our lives in the world and across time. That was a core precept of experimental work during the 1950s, when advanced art became an international laboratory of aesthetic proliferation.
The resulting sense of unconstrained potential does not mean that painting suddenly became easier. If anything, the absence of templates or a clear formal lineage means that the risk of degeneration into visual babel is greater than ever. Judgement and control have become crucial, as has the process of making decisions about materials and how to handle them. This requires a degree of reciprocity, especially where the tempo of painting is concerned. Zhou Yinghua favours swift movement and abrupt choices that correspond with the ready-to-hand spontaneity of his preferred materials.
A few examples of his techniques with paint include pouring from the can, scraping up the dried puddles, and casting the rubbery sheets in volumetric piles onto the canvas; pushing a saturated brush onto the canvas until streams of paint run from thick pools; and sprinkling drips, sometimes with his fingers. He does not agonise over these decisions. To do so would disrupt the tempo. Instead, he works with relaxed facility, the way a practiced speaker extemporises in the belief that the sentence will end up where it should. A more traditional language of painting is also present in the textures, compositional restraint, tonal sense, and varieties of balance in different works. In On A Clear Day (plate tk), the colours hum: quiet in isolation, but more emphatic in concert. A brief and airy flurry of green establishes the centre of pictorial gravity in A View From Mt. Everest (plate tk), despite the weight of tones and matter elsewhere.
That weight is particularly evident in the accumulations of precious metal that lend heft and pronounced texture to his compositions. He takes sheets of silver—or, occasionally, gold—and crumples them the way one might crumple a sheet of paper before throwing it away. Sometimes the results are convoluted and sharp, sometimes wrinkled and torn. When those pieces of metal are attached to the canvas, their crevices and protrusions take on a topographic quality. In places, chemical treatments or selectively applied varnish have caused striking tonal and chromatic variations. Elsewhere, the metal has been scorched by fire. These processes defy conventions of preciousness and heightened aesthetic value. Instead, they emphasise the elemental nature of these metals, the earthy grandeur that only emerges when they are subjected to slightly disrespectful handling. Materials surprise us when their treatment differs from the predictable.
The levelling sensibility that allows Zhou Yinghua to treat silver as merely another material can also elevate the most humble and fragile things. For example, he often uses eggs in his paintings. Sometimes, their broken shells and spilled contents form a passage of texture and colour. Occasionally, the contents of an egg land intact—a consequence of physical forces in lucky alignment. In its own terms, that outcome is as precious as a sheet of gold. Zhou Yinghua treats it accordingly by preserving the egg with a coat of varnish. Arresting time in this way is characteristic of painting, which excels as a means of capturing processes and events that might otherwise slip unnoticed into the past.
Among the pieces of metal, we might find a black latex glove, or a kitchen utensil with a splotch of bright paint, or a piece of plastic wrap, or a piece of sponge. Our habits of thought enjoin us to search these objects for legible meaning, something that fits into the cognitive path from emergent thought to fully-formed sentence. The paintings give some scope for this and, occasionally, we might happen upon an association that has crossed Zhou Yinghua’s mind at some point. Certain kinds of objects recur often enough to be treated as motifs. Black latex gloves, for example, might suggest bodily experience even when they also offer protection from toxicity. They can imply different kinds of suppressed tactility, different registers of human feeling, and different kinds of risk. The gloves might reside in the paintings as surrogates for the artist’s hand, present-tense reminders of events in the past. They might simply have been the right objects in the right place at the right time.
Such objects can contain so much potential because they arrive in the painting fully formed, rather than as inchoate material that requires activation. They have established identities and self-contained physical integrity. They have a past. We tend to respond to these objects the way we respond to the reconfigured signs in Pop art. We accept the offer of visual and mental engagement because we cannot have tactility or possession. In accepting, we become sensitive to the particular situations of the objects, and to the differences among several occurrences of similar objects. In becoming attuned to such variations, we bring them to life.
This is not the only way that Zhou Yinghua’s paintings touch upon the organic conditions of our lives as intelligent animals in an adjustable world. Several of his paintings invoke conventions associated with landscapes. The downward gravitational pull of material in Summer Noon (plate tk) sets the orientation and sense of distance appropriate to a landscape view. The format of the horizontal diptychs (plates tk-tk) emulates the division of earth and sky, which in turn initiates a chain of connotations—many of them spiritual and elemental—associated with that division. Where the paintings refer to the seasons (plates tk-tk), Zhou Yinghua uses his full range of tonal adjustments—heat, chemistry, paint, and glossy lengths of transparent plastic film—to take us from the hard clarity of winter light, through the softened growth and fruition of spring and summer, to charred autumnal nocturnes. There is an acute sense of visual harmony at work, which is particularly evident where delicate swathes of paint serve as counterweights to heavy regions of silver or humanise the utilitarian tensile resilience of plastic wrap.
There are less straightforward implications of landscape as well, such as eggs that suggest celestial bodies, or antique nails with painted tops that resemble fungi. These objects are thematically consistent but spatially incongruous. They disrupt our sense of scale, or imply horizontal ground as well as vertical depiction. That planar ambiguity can exist because of the way the paintings reach out into the neutral space between us and them. Any projection from the flat surface of a canvas tends to focus our attention on physical presence rather than on pictorial legibility. The effect is comparable to a breach of the fourth wall during a theatrical production. We become more aware of real events happening in real space and time, because we are no longer held in a state of suspension. We become participants rather than spectators, admitted to common ground.
Shifts of planar orientation allow the paintings simultaneously to invoke conventions of landscape painting and the physical conditions of real terrain. The topography of crumpled metal sheets has the rough variation that was once so prized in the aesthetic category of the picturesque. The compositions are organic rather than organised, which is to say that they follow an unfolding process of human judgement in the moment rather than an artificially predetermined structure. That distinction is appropriate to paintings, but also applies to different ways in which we can understand landscape. It can be an ecological field in which we participate, or an inventory of material over which we may choose to assert mastery.
This is where developments in postwar art intersect with the material conditions of the world as we find it. For the more fortunate among us, the prevailing condition of life is not shortage but glut. Our material culture has embraced overproduction and overconsumption. Our access to information is unprecedented, even though our capacity to assimilate information has changed in barely noticeable evolutionary increments. This situation recapitulates the conditions that prevailed in the 1950s, when artists and thinkers began to consider seriously the aesthetic implications of a split-second, supersaturated world. In the years since, contemporary art has become a global activity so dynamic that little seems to take root. It is increasingly aimed at an audience that engages with life more easily through electronic screens than through encounters with the material world, with its insistent physical untidiness. What is available has far outstripped our capacity to grasp, hold, or contemplate it in peace.
Zhou Yinghua’s paintings embody these conditions of proliferation and fluidity, which thrive by keeping us detached from the nature of things and perpetually on the brink of disorder. But the paintings also present an alternative view, that it is possible to humanise and harmonise the world we have. The silver sheets that arrive in the studio as immaculately machined products reach the paintings as manipulated texture. The urge to add can be held in check by the will to stop. Zhou Yinghua works enthusiastically in the field of possibilities, but remains conscious that openness is not shapelessness. Everything needs to be handled, sensed, chosen, and subjected to unfolding decisions for which we are willing to accept responsibility. That is what makes us human. That is what makes Zhou Yinghua a painter. It is good to have him back.
Written by James Lawrence
James Lawrence is a critic and historian of postwar and contemporary art. His recent articles and essays include studies of Cecily Brown, Cy Twombly, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Rachel Whiteread, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra. In addition to his essays for museum and gallery exhibition catalogues, Dr. Lawrence is a frequent contributor to The Burlington Magazine, for which he has written more than forty reviews and editorials.