Zhu Jinshi: The Reality of Paint

Zhu Jinshi—The Reality of Paint

Paul Moorhouse

A video of Zhu Jinshi at work on one of the paintings in the present exhibition provides a remarkable insight into an extraordinary private world.  Made by a studio assistant, this informal visual record shows the artist standing in a domestic space, a small room in an apartment that serves as a studio.  The area is illuminated at one end by a tall window that admits a soft natural light.  Opposite Zhu and in close proximity, a large stretched canvas leans against a wall.  This prepared surface is supported on wooden blocks beneath which several sheets of newspaper and polythene have been carefully positioned.  Approximately the same height as the artist and as wide as a pair of outstretched arms, the canvas is, as yet, unblemished.  Nearby, stacked plastic boxes are filled with fresh oil paint in various colours: orange, pink, yellow and white.  On the floor and standing proud on palettes are numerous substantial mounds of glistening pigment, ready for use.

The ensuing footage follows the painter’s movements.  Holding a flat rectangular metal spatula in each hand, Zhu scoops up a generous lump of paint from one of the palettes.  This is passed between the planes, a scraping and smoothing action being employed until the correct quantity and consistency are achieved.  The resulting buttery deposit is then thrust directly at the canvas where it immediately flattens and spreads.  Subsequently, Zhu repeats this action, slowly building up an accretion of marks, which he begins to drag across the surface using longer, traversing strokes.  At intervals, the process is punctuated as other colours are introduced, all the time the artist stabbing, blending and kneading the paint until the surface as a whole is caught up in this continuous activity.  Most striking is the absence of hesitation.  Throughout, the paint is applied in an unhurried rhythm.  Only rarely does the artist stand back to assess his progress.  Instead he proceeds deliberately—with sure, regular actions reminiscent of an artisan building a wall.

As a recent painting such as Inverted Mirror Surface (2012) demonstrates, this analogy is apposite.  The work appears constructed, such is the formidable physical density of its highly textured surface. Vivid chromatic contrasts reveal a plethora of individual marks.  Collectively, the painting comprises an unfathomable build-up of different superimposed traces, each the evidence of the hand and eye that coordinated colour, position and shape.  Contradicting any intimation of subject or pictorial space,  the sheer material fact of the painting positions it at the very cusp of art, dangerously close to the real world of dumb things and fabricated objects. Yet, these initial impressions are succeeded by connotations of an entirely different order.  Although Inverted Mirror Surface expunges the virtual, the illusory and any semblance of depiction, it nevertheless eschews any purely practical significance.  Its creation was motivated entirely by aesthetic considerations in which colour, texture, mark and shape are conspicuous and sensuous.  The literal, physical quality it achieves in paint is inseparable from its significance as an expressive statement. Enmeshing reality and art, how is this apparent paradox resolved?

Artist of strokes

This question stands at the heart of Zhu’s work and was evident from the outset.  Born in Beijing in 1954, Zhu did not attend art school. Instead, from 1973 to 1977, while working in a factory, he studied under the guidance of Professor Li Zongjin, a fine arts professor at Central Academy of Fine Arts.[i] His formative years as an independent artist, therefore, corresponded with the economic reforms spearheaded by Deng Xiaoping after 1978.  As well as opening China to foreign trade, for artists of Zhu’s generation these radical developments also meant greater exposure to Western art.  Until the late 1970s, Zhu was entirely unaware of the Western modernist canon and knew nothing of its central innovation, abstract art.  This changed with the growing availability of reference books and catalogues which shone a light on hitherto undisclosed areas.  For a culture long separated from Western modernism, such ideas were seen by the authorities as subversive and discussion was curtailed.  Abstract painting was forbidden and Zhu recalls the impact of a growing awareness.  Many respected older artists recoiled.  In contrast, a younger generation saw abstract art as an avant-garde riposte to the socialist realism enforced during the Mao era.

By 1980 Zhu had encountered the work of Kandinsky whose importance in revolutionising Western artistic ideas he appears immediately to have grasped.  Among influential publications, Herbert Read’s seminal book A Concise History of Modern Painting (1959) was one of the first to be available in Chinese.  Read discusses the advent of abstract painting in the West.  Focussing on that moment around 1910–12, when art shifted from observation to a deeper involvement with pictorial elements as ends in themselves, the book contains the following luminous statement: Once it is accepted that the plastic imagination has at its command, not the fixities of a perspectival point of view (with the consequent necessity of organising visual images with objective coherence) but the free association of any visual elements (whether derived from nature or constructed a priori), then the way is open to an activity which has little correspondence with the plastic arts of the past.[ii]

The influence of Kandinsky’s achievement in creating an art of pure plastic relations is evident in Zhu’s own break with figurative painting.

The first step in that direction was taken with a small painting on paper panel,  Abstract Brushstroke, which he completed in 1980.  Although modest in scale, without the safety harness of a recognisable subject, this sudden leap into pictorial space is impressive.  In one advance, those elements that would comprise Zhu’s later, mature painting are already apparent.  Comprising a flurry of individual, overlapping brushstrokes the character of each mark is paramount.  Smeared and scumbled, the resulting matrix provides an index of energetic movement over which the substance of the paint itself presides.

Having seized the nettle, Zhu’s commitment to a language of pure abstract form was, however, far from complete.  He continued to absorb other aspects of modern Western art, including Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and, not least, Expressionism.  The work of Emil Nolde, in particular, stood out.  For the moment, he continued to paint figuratively.  Around 1982, an exhibition in Beijing organised by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston provided the opportunity to see examples of Abstract Expressionist painting.  This appears to have confirmed Zhu’s initial affinity with abstract art, and a greater boldness in his brushwork attests to the influence of the New York School.  Abstract paintings such as Wall (1982), for example, though relatively diminutive, are reminiscent of the broad, ideographic motifs that dominate the work of Franz Kline.  An insistent flatness is, however, characteristic of Zhu’s approach.  Though articulated by a dominant linear shape, any implication of a surrounding recessive space is underplayed.  The surface of the painting remains overt.

From 1982, Zhu’s conversion to abstract art became irreversible, and a succession of paintings demonstrates the emergence of some distinctive features.  Prominent among these is a growing emphasis on facture.  Black Jungle (1983), for example, is animated by accentuated texture in terms of the marks themselves.  Each stroke is a dynamic element asserting the character of its application, whether pressed, dragged or swept across the surface.  Waterfall (1983) moves from an adherence to monochrome or earth colours and incorporates a greater chromatic range.  Its faceted areas of pigment reveal a dependence on the use of a palette knife and other flat tools.  From these essays in mark-making there developed a way of working which exemplifies Zhu’s earliest phase of abstract painting.  In essence this can be identified as a reductive and consistent involvement with brushstrokes as prime pictorial elements.  Indeed, from this point Zhu became known within his circle as the ‘artist of strokes’.

Between 1983 and 1986, Zhu’s work was dominated by gestural mark-making.  Even by the standards of earlier European painters such as Wols and Soulages, this sustained endeavour to concentrate his painting in these fundamental terms is compelling.  From the raw simplicity of Black (1983) to the frenetic impulsiveness of Mountain Forest I (1986), Zhu stripped his pictorial language of non-essentials.  He arrived finally at a form of spontaneous expression that is essentially calligraphic.  This is significant for it reveals an impulse which lay beneath his early involvement with abstract painting: the desire not simply to emulate his Western antecedents but to invest that art form with characteristics that are specifically Chinese.  In this respect, Zhu’s paintings attain a distinctiveness that sets them apart from Abstract Expressionism, Art Informel and other, earlier manifestations of Western painterly abstraction.

Having absorbed an approach to painting that defines Western modernism, it is clear that Zhu also wished to retain a distance.  He was impatient to reassert a sensibility that identified his own existence.  Works such as Black and Mountain Forest I thus manifest a dialogue between Western and Eastern painting – but also a certain tension.  The creation of such paintings was prompted by his exposure to Expressionism but, equally, they are steeped in the conventions of traditional Chinese brush and ink painting.  But Zhu’s engagement with his own culture was far from straightforward.  Though at times his paintings have a calligraphic character, this is tangential and evocative rather than literal.  White Calligraphy (1984), for example, is inhabited by the spirit of writing rather than by its literal appearance.  Such references impart a particular aspect and feeling.  They relocate the language of abstraction by removing it from a specifically Western mindset.

In other respects Zhu’s early involvement with abstract painting reflects the preoccupations of his own culture and situation.  White Calligraphy captures the energy within a brushstroke and, by providing a trace of that action, implies a human agency.  It does so without resorting to description.  Visible nature is expunged.  However, paintings such as Abstract Landscape (1985) carry other implications.  Though gestural, in this painting Zhu’s colours and shapes suggest natural forms.  Without being described, sky, earth and foliage are present, if only as shreds of memory.  The atmosphere of nature that inhabits such images arises, it seems, from a particular –  sensibility, one rooted in Chinese landscape painting.   At a deeper level, Zhu’s motivation for engaging with abstract painting was political.  Having been curtailed in the early 1980s, abstraction was a form of protest in the adverse environment he inhabited.  In his own words it was artistic ‘protection’. [iii]

A painting completed at the end of this period, A Naïve Scribbler (1986), conveys a sense of the advances Zhu had made in the preceding six years but also the dilemma he now confronted.  More developed in terms of colour and complex visual density, the work encapsulates the interaction between reality and art which defines his later output.  However, as its title suggests, at this stage Zhu felt uncertain about the ground he had covered and his future direction.  Was it the case that gestural marks remained simply scribbles, devoid of significance and meaning?  Or was this open-minded spontaneity a strength to be exploited?  Either way, it seems that rooting his painting in calligraphy was not enough.

Other realities

The year 1986 represents a turning point in Zhu’s development.  Having reached something of an impasse, the opportunity to travel abroad for the first time presented itself.  Supported by a DAAD grant, he participated in the international artist-in-residence programme run by the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, Germany.  Living now in the West, he was able to see a broader range of artistic activity, much of it profoundly unconventional in character.  Fluxus and Arte Povera were highly visible aspects of the collections he visited.  The work of Beuys, Kounellis and Merz, in particular, made a deep impression.  These artists’ involvement with the appropriation and manipulation of real objects was a shock.  Their extension of art into physical space, through installation, was revelatory.  Other artists working in three dimensions also attracted his attention, not least Frank Stella whose complex organic forms bridged painting and sculpture.  Collectively, the use of different materials had a direct visual force and a capacity for poetic association that resonated.  However, as Zhu now realised, these insights entailed a personal re-evaluation.

It now appeared that painting was not at the forefront of the West’s avant-garde activity in the way he had previously imagined.  Even the experience of seeing paintings by Gerhard Richter in Dokumenta 7 the following year did not remove that impression.  While he admired Richter’s work, and respected his achievement in taking abstract painting into new territory, Zhu recognised that painting had been superseded by other, more radical forms of expression.  These insights, and the expense of obtaining painting materials in Germany, led in 1988 to Zhu’s abandoning his own painting completely.  This was a move that ushered in a prolonged and difficult period of deep uncertainty when he questioned the nature of art itself.  Although he partly resumed painting in 1990, from then until 2000 Zhu explored and embraced other media and ways of working.

During the 1990s, Zhu’s artistic range diversified enormously.  In addition to painting, he forged a new repertoire that encompassed installation, the creation of objects, performance, video and photography.  There was a concomitant openness to working with various materials and objects, both natural and man-made.  Noticeably these include those with particular Chinese associations.  Rice, bamboo, paper, wood, rope and cloth were combined with soy sauce bottles, roof drains, bicycles, cars and teapots, among other things, in outdoor settings and in gallery spaces.  This wide-ranging aspect of Zhu’s oeuvre is significant.  In addition to greatly broadening and advancing his means of expression, it enabled him to engage directly with his own culture.  Making object-based work provided a physical and evocative contact with the traditions, issues and fabric of the society to which he belonged.

That said, there is a sense that confining his art to themes related only to China’s life and history was for Zhu too limiting.  Following his major installation The Tao of Rice Paper in Vancouver in 1997, he experienced a desire to return to painting.  While since then his work outside painting continues to provide an outlet for political and cultural ideas, Zhu’s re-engagement with painting from 2000 has signalled motives of an entirely different kind.  Having made a first return visit to his homeland in the mid-1990s, in 2000 he began painting again in China.  He thus recommenced an activity there which had lain largely dormant for ten years.  However, as was immediately clear, his attitude to this way of working had undergone a transformation.

Painting resurgent

As if to contradict his earlier output in this medium, he now immersed himself in an activity, the aim of which was to deny painting.  The question he addressed was whether it is possible to make paintings that subvert their own aesthetic and expressive status.  In part this was motivated by his awareness of Richter, whom he continued to regard highly, but whose art he felt to be almost too visually seductive.  Zhu wanted a tougher alternative.  Working on small wooden palettes, he covered their surfaces with marks which deliberately lacked finesse.  Colour and shape have a raw artlessness.  Over a five-year period he created several hundred such objects, each a defiant contradiction of tasteful picture making.  The overriding impression is one more usually associated with a palette: paint as material, awaiting transformation into art.  In such works, reality and art are presented as antagonists, each holding the other at bay.

At the end of this period an uneasy truce was reached.  Painting could not be denied.   The physical activity of applying pigment to a surface inevitably, and almost in spite of itself, drew into arrangements of colour, mark and shape.  Although such elements possessed a raw, independent reality, neither could they be rendered dumb.  The human agency that organised his material always invested it with subjective significance.  Come what may, engaging with the substance of paint brought it within the sphere of the artist’s day-to-day experiences and, hence, his life.  These insights form the basis for the impressive body of work that Zhu has created since 2003.  From an imperative to subvert painting, Zhu found a confidence and a corresponding will to renew this activity.  The language of painting itself became his subject, its possibilities his materials.  Zhu’s involvement therefore transcended his own culture as an end in itself.  For that reason it must be viewed from a wider perspective.  His activity is that of a painter exploring the continuing potential of his chosen medium in the 21st century.

Zhu’s work possesses distinctive characteristics that are uniquely personal and informed by his background.  Coinciding with his return to painting in China in 2000, he commenced a new practice that continues to the present.  Prior to starting a painting, Zhu spends some time writing on the back of the intended work.  Often extensive, these observations proceed spontaneously in the form of random impressions, thoughts, memories, plans or notes about recent events.  While not directly connected with the ensuing painting, this conceptual phase seems to provide a starting point.  As if emptying out the artist’s mind, it articulates a mental framework within which a work may—or may not—respond.  This qualification is important for it would be misleading to suggest that a painting by Zhu illustrates the script that precedes it.  The relation between the two is entirely contingent, one accompanying the other.

To a Western audience, this ambiguous relationship between thought and action may be difficult to grasp.  The preference is for empirical certainty, causal relationship and demonstrable connection.  Eastern thought proceeds in other ways.  Zen, for example, whose influence Zhu acknowledges, prizes intuition, the resolution of opposites, and insights afforded by a flash of awareness when the intellect is stilled.  The great Taoist sage Chang Tzu taught: ‘To place oneself in subjective relation with externals, without consciousness of their objectivity, —this is TAO.’ To this he added ‘all things are ONE’.[iv]  The connectedness of things, in which thought and action are brought together, bridging the internal and external, is germane to an understanding of Zhu’s painting.

Viewed from these vantage points, in Zhu’s painting external substance and subjectivity have indeed become one.  The material reality of the objects he creates is preceded by the ghostly touch of thought and language.  Also, as their titles imply, the physical substance of his paintings is related to a range of subjective experiences.  The Potala Palace; Flamenco; Pushing from the Left 1; and Inverted Illusion all transcend the facts of paint.  Imagined places and things, fleeting actions and perceptions are implied.  But this is not a question of representation.  In Zhu’s art, an idea is not described by a painting.  Rather, the two are elided.  One is embodied by—or could even be said to be— the other.

At this, the logically inclined Western mind pauses.  However, certain Western perspectives are illuminating.  In Shakespeare’s Imagination (1946), an illuminating book about the psychology of association and inspiration, its author Edward A. Armstrong showed how creativity is founded on an unconscious process of association.  At a subliminal level, feelings, ideas, perceptions and memories are stored.  Subsequently, this material migrates and becomes interconnected.  Thus, the memory of a particular place or event becomes combined with a colour, shape, word, emotion or atmosphere.  With that principle in mind, the particular complexion of the reality advanced in Zhu’s painting becomes more approachable.  From an Eastern perspective, any distinction between the material and the conceptual is dissolved.  From a Western point of view, the two are fused by an unconscious process of association.  Thus, inner experience and paint co-exist and are connected.

The paintings Zhu has completed since 2006 comprise a huge body of work, which manifests a growing authority.  In the preceding year he had rented a new, bigger studio in Beijing.   This enabled him to operate on a larger scale, and his favoured format employing surfaces measuring 180 by 160 cm dates from this time.  Greater space also enabled him to use  prodigious quantities of paint.  This has become a defining characteristic.  No longer constrained by modest tubes and tubs, he now began to use industrial resources of pigment delivered in large vats.  The greater freedom this afforded permitted an opening out of his activity.  This is not to suggest that his method changed.  He still painted in close proximity to the support.  But being able to spread out, view and store these expansive canvases encouraged an unfettered approach.  As a result, his prolific output mirrored that when he was working on small palettes, each painting proceeding naturally and spontaneously.  Notwithstanding their large scale, these creations thus fell into the rhythm of diary entries.

Allied with this freer approach, there was a corresponding dramatic increase in the surface thickness of Zhu’s paintings.  Applying the paint in large quantities led to a build-up of pigment that could be moved around the canvas in a very physical way.  Not simply manipulating the medium from the wrist, instead pushing, pulling and piling up was now entailed.  Often, while a vertically positioned work was in progress, the sheer weight of wet paint would result in areas becoming detached and collapsing downwards.  In many paintings, the trace left by this spontaneous movement can be seen.  The deeply profiled, sculpted terrain of these works conveys a vivid sense of of Zhu’s process.  In particular this increasing thickness bears the evidence of the artist’s actions and, thus, his presence.  In Qigong Master (2006), which belongs to this period, a human figure appears in literal form, incised in the paint itself.  Other works around this time have a similar, figurative connotation.  Snow of Houhai, Windows of Houhai and Hotness of Houhai all intimate a landscape subject.  Linking many of the paintings around this time, colour and mark yield glimpses of sky, earth, trees and other natural elements.

Even though he was working on an expanded scale, with each mark a vastly enlarged material fact, the substance of the paintings seems inhabited by thought.  As their titles suggest, some are connected with Houhai, a district of Beijing and the scene of Zhu’s childhood.  Although energetically gestural, Hotness of Houhai contains recognisable shapes.   Subsequently, his paintings shed these literal references but seem no less charged with subjective significance.  In some instances, specific places are mentioned, particularly temples, as in Jietai Temple (2006) and the recent three-panel painting Tiantong Temple (2012).  As a child, Zhu played on the rooftop of a temple near his home in Houhai.  Around the time he made his first abstract paintings he began visiting Jietai Temple outside Beijing.  The contemplative atmosphere he found there recalled his nascent experiences in Houhai.

From these allusions, it is evident that memory has a part in the visual language that Zhu has developed.  But, again, the paradox arises: how can inert paint be invested with thoughts linked with the past?  In her great novel of the imagination, Orlando—A Biography (1928), Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that.  Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.  We know not what comes next or follows after.’[v]  As Woolf suggests, when the conscious mind is subdued, memory proceeds according to its own unpredictable laws of connection.  In a similar vein, Zhu’s paintings can be seen as dense tapestries of interconnected experience.  In that respect, their thickness is essential, giving tangible form to the fleeting and ephemeral.

The most recent paintings have advanced further into this mysterious domain.  Some, such as The Song of Lhasa (2012), present an all-over field.  Others, of which Season of Paralysing Stroke is a magisterial example, hold up a violent contrast between a virgin surface and an explosion of mark-making.  Confronted with an external reality that is essentially unknowable, such works are an extraordinary fusion of elements derived from the material world and from experience.  In Zhu’s art, such distinctions are dissolved.  Painting becomes a site where reality is re-made, illuminated by imagination.


[i] Prof. Li studied arts in Paris during the 1930s. He was labelled as a rightist in 1958 and was forced to leave CAFA.

[ii]  Herbert Read, A Concise History of Modern Painting, Thames and Hudson, London, 1959, reprinted 1969, p96

[iii]  The artist in conversation with Paul Moorhouse, 22 October 2012

[iv] Quoted in Christmas Humphreys, Zen Buddhism, William Heinemann Ltd, Melbourne, London, Toronto, 1949, p14

[v] Virginia Woolf, Orlando—A Biography, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1928, p78