On the painterly images that are complicated, confusing, real yet unreal, grotesque and vague, Zhao Yang ceaselessly tries to paint two lawless fields: one pertains to painting, the other, utopia. A definite and explicit expression is intolerable for Zhao Yang. With no rules attached to paint- ing, the canvas is thus the lawless field and at its center are whispering, murmuring and uncontrollability. By virtue of adding heterogeneous ele- ments, images, symbols and incorporating various knowledge and cultural systems into his paintings, he attempts to seek a trance-like state to get the non-artificial outcome by letting it occur naturally. As to utopia, it is the lawless field that haunts him all along. Northeast Asia in the last century was the heaven for adventurers, the homeless, the last hunters, ritual-per- forming shamans, hovering biplanes, loners down Ussuri River and real laborers. Such are the embodiments of the utopia that hold Zhao Yang spellbound. A painter gambles on the canvas, plunging the sword down the plaster; whereas a hunter takes his adventure into the woods, poking the spear into the wild beasts. In Zhao Yang’s creation and imagination, both of these acts share the attributes of romance and fascination, yet in essence, they are both adventure, the gamble, and tragedy.
Part A: Heterogeneity
In the work Black Hole, the only distinguishable feature in a blurry human shape is his face and appearance, with another fuzzy face closely cement- ed behind his head. Even more weird is the black block, forcefully pushed into the center of the human with the recognizable face by either a huge arm or an arm-like object. The black block could also be part of the human, waiting to be touched. Actually, this work does form a black hole, in which the lock and key are no where to be found. Even the faintest piece of information is vague. Couldn’t the black block also be the so-called black hole by the artist?
This is a work Zhao Yang created in 2013. In Skeleton Straits, another work from the same year, a huge black hole is right in sight. If it is not for title which reveals to us that the shape of the hole is like a skeleton, we would be instantly captivated by the violent action in the entrance. Unlike his oth- er works from the same period in which various images are fragmentary and blurred, the frightening scene of violence is depicted with great clarity. A man, wearing a bowler hat, a tuxedo and a pair of boots, raises his left hand up high and tears the woman’s hair with his right hand. The naked woman, on the other hand, defenseless falls down on her back.
What can we infer from such a gruesome image? Is it a real-life violent incident? Is it a horror movie still? Or is it a dream in his subconsciousness? Or else, exactly as represented by the skeleton and the sea - it is a storm in the artist’s mind (naohai, the Chinese counterpart of mind, is the com- bination of brain and sea). And the question that follows is why the artist chose such an unpleasant, erotic and violent scene as his subject matter? He accidentally witnessed some horrific scene, or some taboos touched his heart; buried in his work are the unspeakable secrets of human nature, or perhaps a metaphor for the sense of power in reality.
All versions seem explicable, yet all are in vain. Even when you start to interpret Zhao Yang’s works in such a way, you are on the path of misin- terpretation, unknowingly lured into the trap laid by the artist. From the unspeakable Black Hole to the hole in Skeleton Straits, what disturbs us is not only the horrific scene, but rather the black hole that we cannot see, cannot explain, cannot penetrate - the more we want to look deeper, the more we feel perplexed.
In On Photography, Susan Sontag opens with the decisive statement, “hu- mankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave.” Sontag criticized people for taking mere images of truth to be the truth. If this is true for photogra- phy, the objective collection of the truth and the world, how can painting, the expression by hand, be true to anything other than itself?
However, long influenced by classical realistic techniques and realist at- tentiveness to contemporary society, we are prone to place painting in a clear way of seeing. Especially when coupled with current leftist thinking, direct response to social events and reality seems to be a certain standard in judging visual arts. Though avant-garde art, represented by painting, un- flinchingly rebels against tasks defined by religion, politics, society, theory and aesthetics within demarcated areas, it has stumbled to this day. Old habits have not been eradicated, while new stereotypes have been estab- lished. Accordingly, the history of painting is from time to time abbreviated as the sociological history of tasks.
Obviously, Zhao Yang did not assign himself such a realistic task; he would not sacrifice the openness and imagination of painting to the reflection of facts and narrative logic. But rather, his works perversely let us explore the massive contrast between painting and the real world. An explicit de- piction is intolerable for him. For painting (not only painting, but all things humans do, including philosophy and science), cannot reflect truthfully the real world at its essence, why not paint in a way that is more ambiguous, absurd, inappropriate and astray?
Since modernism, such perception is familiar amongst artists. By subtle- ties of expression and specific dealings with the work, each artist strives to be different, and seeks his/her path to the lawless field. Apparently, that of Zhao Yang is to render past rules fractured, and to add in the ruins his own bits of grit - heterogeneous elements, symbols, images, which emerge themselves, unconsciously or brutally (like a tyrant without any reason), in the image. They constitute a strange and magical scene, like the day- dreams, the alchemy and magicians.
Omnipresent, a 2009 work of his, features a classical scene of Star Wars, which is not alien to science fiction lovers, and is one of the few works in ZhaoYang’searlyoeuvrethatanarrativeisostensiblyconstructed.Onthe top left of the work, there are strong headlights shooting into the sky and on the right top of it, smoke curled upwards from the factory chimneys. In the foreground, the giant-like figures are in a fierce battle. However, when looking at the weapons in the battle one will snort with laughter, as it is not high-tech ones, but the magic in Chinese Xianxia drama: when the highest possible level of power is applied by immortals or masters, a lightning-like flash slips out of the fingers and scurries toward the opponent. The result of such power is shown here in the work, the giant figure in the right is cut into two in the waist. Yet it is not clear, whether the lower half of his body, being moved by two smaller giants, is captured or protected. Just as it is not sure, what kind of battle this is, who are the warring parties, or who will win, who fail.
And such is the distinction between photography and painting, clarity is demanded in the former, while not so much or even not at all in the latter. In this work, Zhao Yang’s immersion in his organic, playful and humorous combination of these heterogeneous elements is revealed. Elements from China and abroad, old and modern, such as a modern industrial chimney, classical architecture, Star Wars warriors and the famous centaur Chiron in Greek mythology alike, as well as that from western science fiction and Chinese Xianxia drama, are interwoven with great interest into a dooms- day warring spectacle, implying his working experience in the children’s publishing house.
But what does the title “omnipresent” suggest? Is he referring to the car atop the mountain? As beams of headlights are indeed alluring, we have to be cautious. In his two large works of 2008, A Gray Turning and the Crack, the two cars with shining headlights play the starring role. Only in the former is a cyan sedan shining its light on nothing, while in the latter is a large chain tractor with its headlights illuminating a pregnant figure, part deer and part man. Besides these subtle differences, the two works are both staged in the wilderness, with rows of utility poles from afar to near. Such scenes remind us of Zhao Yang’s hometown, the Northeast Plain, and its decaying industrial landscape. Yet it stops in imagination only. As for the cone-like light beams shone from the car, they are also frequently seen in other works: beams shoot from the horse’ hooves in A Hidden Magician; lights emitted from the pinnacle of the triangle mountain up into the sky in Holy Cup; three cones aligned with three cubes that look like railroad ties in Potato is the Source of Everything; three cone structures in the blurry figure in Despair is Positive; and at least four such cones in the Corner Candle.
If in Black Hole, the unidentifiable black hole embodies the uncertainty and ambiguity of the world and the world of painting, then what are these intense beams of light attempting to illuminate? What is meant to be seen in such a way? If it could be further confirmed that the light from the two cars in the wild is just light, then the cone-like objects in other works could only be guessed if they are light or not, or even worse if they are cone or not. As under their plain look, an ellipse with a sharp corner, the volume and surface are lacking. Nonetheless, what on earth do these re-occurring cone shapes mean?
Cézanne has treated nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone. Is Zhao Yang coincidentally interpreting painting in the same way as Cézanne, or the cones are symbols in his works? Various geometric shapes recur in large quantities: the cube in Endlessness (2011); the figure on the right on a rectangular solid in Upright Man and Standup Man (2012); the huge ball pushed by a little human with full strength in Sisyphus (2012); as well as in more recent works, Twins (2020), Planet (2020), Anthropoid (2020), Silencer (2021), Godlike Rage (2021) and Still Life (2021). In Silencer and Still Life, the geometric shapes serve as still objects that are copied re- peatedly in academic training; while in Godlike Rage, the geometric shape has been transformed to a burden upon the artist, which needs to be dealt with by the sharp sword in hand. Like Zhao Yang once said, he did not understand why he had to paint still lifes in school. The exercise made him feel that he was being wrapped in layers of the shroud, making it hard for him to breathe.
Hence, when faced with geometric shapes, it is not about mere obser- vation any longer, but the radical question of how could painting proceed nowadays. Is it following in suit, or is it unflinchingly adventuring, seeing afresh, gambling, as if it was a black hole, a veil, a monster. Though the ge- ometric shape, in a small portion of Zhao Yang’s works, is only a structur- ally essential symbol; in his other works, it can be regarded as a metaphor for painting and its problems. To a greater extent, the geometric shape represents the question raised by Cézanne, one that still needs to be faced today. Currently, art seems quite diverse and inclusive, the path of painting, on the other hand, is like entering a narrow gate. As vividly shown in his work Sisyphus, the little figure, day after day, toils to push forward the huge ball. No artists are an exception to that.
Indeed, as flowers and fruits of the trees are determined by the soil and cli- mate, the temperament of an artist is inevitably influenced by the environ- ment where one grows up. 2008 marks the beginning of his artistic crea- tion. Before that, Zhao Yang had worked in a children’s publishing house for fifteen years, a place where one day bleeds into the next, lifelessly confining him. The only comfort he enjoyed was from painting. Everything just naturally happens. His father is a painter, so he learned to paint from a young age, then went to Affiliated High School of Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, later to China Academy of Fine Arts, majored in Chinese Paint- ing, and joined the publishing house after graduation in due course.
At a young age, Zhao went through a special lonely “island” period. Ac- cording to him, he could not hang out with other children, because he needed to take care of his paralyzed grandmother. The lack of freedom made him feel enslaved. The carefree childhood time was thus filled with a wild flight of fancy. He even thought of himself as a suffering boy, just like the movie character Pan Dongzi. And from this, it is fairly evident that his memory of childhood bondage, and his imagination of escaping this power are more or less hidden in his 2013 works, Two Escaped Female Slaves, Tied Slave, A Hidden Magician, and Escaping from Magician.
Imagination coupled with ghost stories blurred the boundary of reality and dream. The still-popular primitive Shaman serves as a great example that the Northeast is a place in no shortage of stories. When relatives and neighbors came to visit his grandmother, he picked from their conversa- tions mysterious and bizarre stories, which were, for him as a child, fasci- nating yet frightening. Such real yet unreal feeling survives, and is shown in his works, as with the fire-spitting figure in Prophesy (2008).
Surely, it is not clearly defined how much childhood experience could af- fect one’s spiritual world. But for some, the impact is indelible, and is worth lifelong rumination. For a child who has immersed himself in fantasies and acquired a whole range of drawing skills, is joining in the publishing house intentional or by chance? And whether the witty, humorous and playful way of portraying cartons and illustrations happens to cheer him up. On the contrary, however tedious the work might be, the experience and knowl- edge he gained from it subtly benefited his later artistic creation.
Imagine an artist trained in Chinese painting; yet without the experience of the distinct observing perspective as a child. It would be somewhat in- credible that Star Wars, Superman, mermaids, seven dwarfs and magi- cians alike were depicted. It is more than just content, but the language of painting. A closer examination of figures in his works, one by one, reveals that there is a transition from graffiti in the earlier period to comic later on. Especially in works that figures appear in pairs, such as in Hunting and Roma Is a Lake, the comic feature is obvious. Instead of seeing all parts of a face equally important, such an approach exaggerates and emphasizes only a certain facial feature, which means Zhao Yang is not on the path of realistic painting.
Now, the vagueness and blurriness in Zhao Yang’s works appear to be the result of two parts: on the one hand, his marked preference of setting traps in opposition to definite and explicit expression; on the other hand, the skillful combination of various drawing techniques, be it painting the idea by lines in Chinese painting, layers of fluid brushstrokes, expressionist shape, or graffiti style, comic style. In his work Endlessness (2011), ex- cept for a few faintly discernible faces, everything else is bathed in chaotic colors and formless brushstrokes. Habit strong upon him, Zhao Yang does not apply intense and vivid colors, but main colors in Chinese painting, in-between indigo and ochre hues, which are occasionally paired with red, yellow and green. The choice of colors renders his works, though chaotic but less noisy and quite elegant. His grasp of color ensures unity of works, and forms his unique cloudy and blurry style.
If the diversity of painting language leads to chaos, then that of content leads to hybrid and alienation, which Zhao Yang craves for. To increase ambiguousness, he lets such contents as Western mythologies, religious legends, primitive witchcraft, folk monsters, fairy tales, philosophical propositions, modern science fictions, pop culture, children illustrations, historical figures, history of art etc., creep into his work, studded in his painterly labyrinth.
Yet this way of interpretation seems to be an undue simplification of paint- ing. A painting is not made out of a simple and strange stack of references, but rather out of its proper cause and logic. Mobilizing so many resources requires sensitivity and solid logic, and only when both are embraced can content and form of painting be perfectly matched. Therefore, Zhao Yang draws drafts, and he has logical reasons for his paintings. For instance, in Home of the Mermaid and Diamond Castle, there is an aesthetic structure from art history; in the Birth of a Potato, there is a legendary narrative of a magician’s turning stone into gold; in Double Cups, he puns on the meaning of “cup”; in Two Sisters of Archimedes, there is teasing about the discipline and knowledge; in No.5, traditional Chinese aesthetic structure is applied; and in Roma Is a Lake series, there are narrative models of Western religion.
It is undeniable that the use and control of various knowledge ensure reasonable work and justifiable interpretation. But, when developed into a skillful technique, it in turn alienates itself from art, as is with the case of repeatedly copying geometric plasters and portraits all along the training process. Therefore in his latest work Godlike Rage and Silencer, Zhao Yang starts to hunt down and deconstruct such skillfulness. He takes hunting as a metaphor. Before hunting, everything seems under the hunter’s control, there are agreements among hunters, and he can still prepare if doubt lingers; in Godlike Rage, however, in face of a strong opponent, immediate reaction and unexpected power are more need- ed than past experience. “In the extremity of rage, you are oblivious of yourself, and are even filled with unexpected power outside your bodily boundary”, said Zhao Yang.
That is also true when an artist is facing the canvas. In Godlike Rage, the angry figure is in a stand-off with his prey and at the same time battling the geometric plaster figure with resourceful efforts; even the plaster figure in Silencer has shown violent rage as though to break loose from the plaster that bounds it up in. This is exactly what Zhao Yang is after, escaping from the skillfulness of techniques, searching for the lawless field, and creating in the trance-like and uncontrollable state. Just as Rilke said, “Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further.”
Part B Northeast Asia
Anyway, the year 2008 is a defining year for Zhao Yang. Even now, it is a known danger for many to quit a stable job and be an artist with an unknown future. It must have been a tough decision, as there are not so many shots to be missed in his life anymore. So at the age of forty, he de- terminedly decided to be an artist.
What is painting? How to paint? Seemingly simple, yet the journey is long and arduous once embarked on. The first is the question of painting itself, then the expression of the world view through a unique language. For any contemporary artist, these two intertwined parts need to be faced and to be dealt with. Throughout Zhao Yang’s works in 2008, he had explored various themes, and had steadily built up his language. One work from this period, A Game of Catching (2008), is alarming.
In A Game of Catching, the captured is not a person, but an animal, being slaughtered; the atmosphere is not playful, but bloody. This is Zhao Yang’s typical way, an ambiguous title meant to make the work enigmatical. With reasonable attention, this work is actually quite straightforward, a man is slicing his prey in a gray and yellow background. Two trees, one smeared by paint and the other clearly shown, suggest the background is a wild for- est; the man, though topless and barefoot, can still not cancel the bleak- ness engendered by the bare trees.
It is not known if the subject of the bleak forest is triggered by epiphany, or submerged among the sea of subjects in those passionate years, for such images are rarely seen in his works before 2014. But the weed is buried, and waiting for the right climate. The dramatic change in his life during this period duly influenced his thoughts.
As experienced by most contemporary artists, in 2010, he relocated north from a southern city with a pleasing climate to the urban-rural area, out- side the 5th Ring Road in Beijing, his life from stable to unclear. He de- scribed his moves as follows: he first lived in a quiet neighborhood next to a cemetery; soon to Black Bridge which was surrounded by garbage, open gutters and dead animals; and later to Roma Lake, which was always steeped in murkiness. Such a huge difference in life easily triggers one’s emotions and a sense of crisis. He experienced personally the darkness and tragedy of life, hardship of survival in this weird and magical reality. More or less, this reminds us of another bondage, when he was confined in the house with his grandmother. Both are bondages, yet with a funda- mental difference, the one when he was young is direct and specific; the other he is facing now is overwhelming and intangible. For the former, he can just fantasize and try to escape in that “island”; for the latter, the choice is to be made, he is the director of his fate in the reverie and is searching for a place to settle the soul.
The head-on confrontation of life leads to an obvious change in the sub- jects in his works since 2014 - a serial groups of figures re-occur as the subjects. Previously, the figures are “passive”, such as in Four Disabled Persons (2013) and Tied Slave (2013), and they are independent, alone with vague faces, maybe a nobody in an insignificant story or a fable. Un- like that, figures in his later works Fire Thief, Scavenger, Striker, Striker of Light , People Walking in the Snow, An Arduous Journey Back Home on a Windy and Rainy Night, Ball Shooter, the Last Man, the Man with Lightning, Meteor Catcher, People Playing with Heart etc., as well as in his series Roma Is a Lake and Godlike Rage, are proactively fighting, they are wres- tlers of fate, warriors of life, portrayed with clear expressions and athletic bodies. Zhao Yang builds up a novel of many chapters, the story unfolds as these figures appear on the stage.
Here the novel is read in reverse, starting with “leave far away”. In 2017, he created two works entitled Leave Far Away, in both are three figures with backpacks on the road. The scenes, however, are different. In the work where three figures are tightly held, it is raining heavily, and the hovering swallow gives a hint of spring. In the other work, it seems the figure with powerful and bare foot (such dramatic scene is usual in his works, bare feet in winter) walks on with long steps in the wintry forest. The moment when he looks back, his eyes are resolute and confident. So the question is, what are they leaving behind, where are they heading to? The familiar yet constant topic “where do we come from, where are we going to”.
After viewing all of his works since 2008, it turns out that no urban land- scapes are placed in his works, except for the aforementioned two cars and utility poles in the wilderness, and the UFO. It means that though he has been living in the city for many many years, such things as urban land- scape, modern life, commodities that most city dwellers depend on have no room in his art at all. Thus it is clear that Zhao Yang is leaving the modern city behind. Unlike Eliot, who regards the Western modern world as a dry, barren and infertile wasteland, Zhao Yang’s escape is not out of criticism of urban civilization or problems. He just does not feel much for secular life inside the steel forest. Where to go then?
Now flashing back to 2016. On closer inspection of the Glory Way and the Last Man, the latter seems a zoom-in of the former. Entitled “the Eye of the Road” (by Zhao Yang), it is not complicated, the man with his back to us is holding the horse and is walking to the leafless woods. When the two titles are put together, however, the answer to the above-mentioned Gauguin style question emerges - the last man escapes from the city, and enters the cold forest through the path of light.
Then further retracing back to 2014. Still in the woods. In the snowy land imbued with silence and frost, two elks are fighting. Yet danger is nearing secretly. As agreed, hunters are patiently waiting, for the final and fatal shot. The liveliness is attained and released at its most in these thrilling moments, and is shown in the series of Hunting (2014), such as Spring, Hunter, the Beekeeper, Tiger Hunter, A Pursuit on a Snowy Night, Nightfall, Doubt, Sound of Silence, Appointment etc. After the long, long nurture, the seeds buried in A Game of Catching Somebody (2008) fi- nally produce in Hunting.
“Hunting”, as a subject of painting, is only occasionally seen in Chinese paintings that depict royal activities; but has its tradition in Western clas- sical painting. As is shown in Hunters in the Snow, by the famous Nether- landish painter Brueghel, even though a hunter is returning home safely, but the tall trees, far-off peaks and busy peasants in the snowy world sug- gest it is more like a mountain landscape painting, an idyllic symphony.
In the series Hunting, from 2008 to now, is it the thrilling moments in the hunting process the one and only part that Zhao Yang wants to convey? Or conversely, why is hunting in the cold and snowy virgin forest depicted time and again, and why does it become his favored subject to this day?
Zhao Yang said he likes to live in seclusion. Throughout history, a clois- tered life is indeed ideal, especially influenced by literati and scholars. Yet most live their seclusive lives in pleasant mountains with leafy trees and crystal green water, cultivating their morals and pursuing sage-hood. Just like Neo-Confucianists in Song Dynast, they built a lodge of wondrous remembrance in beautiful and fecund mountains, wrote books and gave lectures. But Zhao Yang set his sights on the northeastern part of China, faraway Northeast Asia.
Northeast Asia in the last century was the heaven for adventurers, the homeless, the last hunters, ritual-performing shamans, hovering biplanes, loners down the Ussuri River and real laborers. This is the lawless field, the darkness before dawn, the edge of hope, this is the start and this is the end. This is the place, the terminus that holds me spellbound. (By Zhao Yang)
Such fascination of treating the wild icy and snowy land as the spiritual home has been, inescapably, brewing since the “island” period. The leg- ends he heard must have included that of Ussuri River and tracks in the snowy forest (there is nothing more natural than this for a person born in the Northeast). Generally, children love exploring and imitating war movies. And for a child who craves for the escape, isn’t Ussuri River thus to be considered a magical, haunting place?
Only then do the figures, occasionally occurring or re-occurring, and the weirdness make sense. The man spitting fire in the dark; the horse-leading man on the path of light; hunters and beekeepers; the scavenger with a sack; the gold hunter wearing a huge diamond; the attacker in the heavy rain; as well as figures such as the skater, the angler, and the man lighting the campfire etc. in Roma is a Lake, Aren’t they, in Zhao Yang’s mind, the true heroes living in Ussuri River, the lawless field?
Here in Roma Is a Lake, it is no different. Back then, he lived in Roma Lake, and would occasionally walk along the lake. With the sparkle and gleam of the river, with the neon lights in its neighboring restaurants and bars, it is yet still depicted by Zhao Yang as an icy and snowy wonderland. A shift in his mind from real to unreal, and Roma Lake seems to be the Ussuri River, yet with all its romantic sides: the skater dancing on the icy river, the angler flying above the lake, the goddess showed up in the barbecue, and the athletic girl gazing at the lake. As shown in Only Canto, the goddess, eyes closed a bit, gives herself up to the beauty of the flute.
Obviously, what is presented in real Ussuri River is the opposite side, the cruel battling and gambling, not only between man and animal, animal and animal, but also man and man. In the large-size work An Arduous Journey Back Home on a Windy and Rainy Night (2015), two men in heavy coats, each with a balancing tool in hand, are standing face to face on the tight rope set in between cliffs, and each is in the way of the other. In Implicit and Restrained, two puppet-looking men are waving their weapons, just about to go after each other. In 2016, several other works with similar subjects are created, such as elks in the fight, swans that are twisted together, an- gels leaning in the same direction, shoulder to shoulder etc.
And all these years, Zhao Yang made his way from the Northeast to Hang- zhou, from there to Beijing, then back to Hangzhou again. In all these moves lies the essential gamble against survival, unavoidable and faced by all. The resulting utopia is the lawless field, Ussuri River in Northeast Asia, the place his imagination unfolds. Or reversely, stripped of the weirdness and the traps, the lawless field emerges itself in the paintings. In a sense, his works describe his imagination of Ussuri River. Moreover, all stories about it are doubly treated, respected, like the detailed portrayal of the hunters’ clothing, strips in the pants, the shape of the hat, things in hand and their looks. These are barely seen in his other works.
We are deeply aware, however, there is no such thing as lawless in the world. Those who are in Ussuri River, though have their romance and won- ders, have to wrestle with beasts, gamble with the environment, just to survive. It also goes for Zhao Yang. He quit the stable job and embarked on the unclear artist path; he gambles ceaselessly with painting, and in the end, he knows the only battle is the one within. “Escape is only escape, the space is combined, yet in vain, there is no utopia.” Zhao Yang would occasionally comment like this.
In spite of it all, a man still needs to escape, time and again, to search for the lawless field. No new story or new painting can be made with the artist being stuck. If it is not for the Northeast, the legends in Ussuri River, can these battling heroes in the icy and snowy land still be seen?
May 1st, 2021 Yida, Beijing