The Sense of Contradiction

The story of Zhou Chunya and his Dog

Monica Dematte

Green dogs, scarlet stones, red or black human figures: a free and anti-naturalistic use of colour is a constant theme in the work of Zhou Chunya, an artist from Sichuan and a lover of neo-expressionism. He started painting at the age of sixteen(in 1971) in one of the very few schools that existed during the Cultural Revolution, the “5th July” (from the date of one of Mao Zedong's speeches) dedicated to the production of works for the population. Zhou therefore begins his creative journey with a very simple and exclusive vision of art and its role. From that period he remembers the education provided by his teacher, ten years older than himself, with a high academic content ( a copy of the original one, anatomy)filtered through the Russian school of realism, alongside the new Mao diktat, according to which the lives of workmen, farmers and soldiers should have been the only source of inspiration and the only subject of the rigorously “ true” design. He also remembers that, in times of widespread poverty, his school gave him a small wage and the possibility to eat meat a few times a week.

In the three years following his diploma (1974-77) he works with the “Artistic Company” of the city of Chengdu, mainly drawing portraits of Mao. They are always very direct, univocal and understandable works of art in which the personality of the author is of no importance whatsoever. Today Zhou believes that the concept of “art for the public” applied in this way is very limited and limiting, and that each creation that becomes a work of art should be considered as a service provided to the public. However, he adds, Mao was a politician and did not know much about art.

Zhou Chunya comes from a family of “intellectual communists” in which his father, a literary critic, who died very young when Chunya was only 14 years old (1969), owned a large amount of books, as well as some important traditional Chinese paintings (shuimohua), while his mother worked in a music high-school as a party leader. His father transmitted his love for painting to his child, when socialist realism and oil paintings had already replaced the ancient patrimony of ink painting. Subsequently, Zhou's subscription to the Academy of Arts of Sichuan in Chongqing, reopened 1977, made him even more familiar with Western art, although not the contemporary kind but that of classicism, realism and impressionism. In those years, as Zhang Xiaogang, one of Zhou's school-friends and famous for his rang The line of Blood, remembers, every day the teachers turned one page of the book on the lectern so that the students could copy the picture. It could have been Millet, Courbet or Monet.

In 1980, Zhou starts on a series of trips to the area of Tibet, connected to Sichuan. It was normal for artists, especially Sichuan artists, of that period to draw portraits of exponents of numerous ethnic minorities: the people from Tibet, with their coloured clothes, and impressive physical presence, the decisive “somatic” traits and open characters, were his favourite subject. Influenced buy Impressionism, painters concentrated their efforts on the effects of colours, not disjoint from a certain level of realism however. It was a passage that allowed painters to free themselves of a lot of ideology even though it is still connected to a representation of “reality”. Up until 1991 the individuals from Tibet were one of Zhou's most popular subjects. Gradually his paintings started to contain new influences: metaphysics, cubism, expressionism and “fauvism” which loosened his connection with reality.

Thinking back to those years, Zhou remembers that he went from a period of pure ideology, in which he painted flowers just to practice the use of colour, to the awareness that flowers could be a subject of their own. The closure of China during his adolescent period, says Zhou, was not only negative: it contributed to instilling a lot of idealism and determination into his generation.

After finishing the Academy and after getting married and having a daughter - Zhou Hehe(1981) - Zhou obtains a job as a professional painter at the Academy of painting in Chengdu (Chengdu Huayuan), a state institution that has nothing to do with teaching and is reserved to those artists who contribute to the cultural enrichment of the country. It was more or less something similar to imperial Academies, rather than modern art institutes. It is an ideal job that provided the artist with extreme freedom and a lot of time dedicated to creation, even if requesting some compromise.

In 1986, a Chinese friend living in Germany offers Zhou the possibility of going to visit him to continue his studies. Difficult emigration procedures are completed and the artist leaves for Europe, a country whose varied national diversities he ignores but with a history of art that he is already familiar with. As he does not require further knowledge of painting techniques, Zhou dedicated his time to learning the language, visiting museums and art galleries, observing and discussing, and generally trying to understand and get a feeling of the country and its artistic culture. The professor that he is in contact with, Reiner Kallhardt, also fascinated by China, helps him in this comparison and discovery.

Zhou is extremely touched by German neo-expressionism: Baselitz, Penck and Kiefer become his favourite authors. But during the first year of his stay in Germany (1987) he does not paint at all, while in 1988 he creates painting with names that inevitably lead us to think of the so-called “green dogs”: they are Red Horse and Blue Cow. They are works that feel the expressionist and neo-impressionism influence and generally, German sensitivity.

In this period an event occurs, which could have passed unobserved it as extremely important for his creative process, so much so as to determine a drastic change. Zhou receives a music cassette prepared by two of his Chinese friends who play the guzhen and the pipe, ancient string instruments, and they ask him to use it to organise concerts in Germany. The artist immediately realises that he is not capable of doing this but the traditional melodies overwhelm him ad strike his most intimate cords so much so that, to this day, he does not listen to any kind of music, Especially one of songs, which is about a girl called Han, given in marriage in a foreign country, arouses extreme sadness from the awareness that he belongs to a very different culture than the one that he is living in. From that moment Zhou develops a keen interest in ancient Chinese culture that he starts to study.

After his diploma achieved in 1988 at the Gesamthochschule Kassel Fachbereichkunst and before the events of Tiannamen Square, Zhou returns to his homeland just in time to experience the euphoric atmosphere before the 4th of June and the pain and suffering that followed. Another year goes by, and Zhou returns to Germany (1989), where he does not do any paintings even though he starts working with the Academy of Chengdu again. The divorce from his first wife further complicates the situation.

A whole rang of canvasses date back to 1990, some of which of a Tibetan nature, which contain new pictorial effects: brushstrokes, with often large and square, coagulated into crusts with illusory material appearance and of strong impact, almost deforming the faces. It is a technique that has become a personal sign, that Zhou often uses (see Self-portrait, 1993). The process created by listening to the pipe and guzhen music extends to many other aspects of traditional Chinese culture, almost unknown to his fellow contemporaries. Attracted by freedom and the strength of expression of a lot of contemporary Western art, from which he has gained much experience, the artist feels as though he possesses another approach that he starts to cultivate against the tendency of the Chinese art of the moment. While almost all artist look towards the West, he is fascinated by ancient painting, he is interested in neo-Confucianism and he reflects on the meaning of gardens. Among his predecessors, he is extremely fascinated by Bada Shanren (1626-c. 1705), an original individual and a very important artist, considered to be eccentric, but also by more academic figures such as his coevals “The Four Wangs” (Wang Shimin, Wang Jian, Wang Hui, Wang Yuanqi); in the slight variations made by each of them in tradition, Zhou notes a depth and elegance that can belong to Chinese culture alone. Among the more recent traditional painters he is very much attracted by Huang Binhong(1865-1955), a painter and theorist, whose works are strongly personalised, even in the wake of tradition, and considered by contemporary critics as “wild, strange, untidy and black” (ye guai luan hei). In him Zhou appreciates the incomparable Chinese capability of expressing the Ego through the expert and subtle revisiting of pre-existing iconographical elements.

In 1992, he begins his first series of oil paintings dedicated to stones or garden rocks, in Chinese literally called” false mountains”(jiashan)because in the civilised nature of hortus conclusus, a metaphor of the universe, they substituted mountains according to the principle of “showing large within small”. The representation of the rocks was very important in classical painting manuals such as A garden as large as a mustard seed (Jiezi yuan hua pu)at the second half of the 17th century. They may appear within the scenery types (shanshui), literally mountain water) or in the category of “flowers and birds” (huaniao), togetherwith bamboos and orchids. Bada Shanren used to sketch them with small signs from a soft brushstroke held with the point rigorously at the centre, often placing them with extreme freedom and open-mindedness in the middle of large white spaces on paper as if they were almost separate entities.

In answer to my question on why he chose rocks among all classical subjects, Zhou says that the most probable reason is the hardness and complexity of the shape f the rock that is easy to express with oil colours. In another conversation with Jonathan Goodman he says:” I do not understand why rocks are a constant theme of traditional Chinese painting. Maybe a rock is the symbol of nature, its strength associated with a certain amount of roundness allows the painter to express his own spirit as well as his technical skill”. But the kind of nature that Zhou refers to is rebuilt, miniaturised and with great attention paid to every small detail where even spontaneity is simulated by gardens, beautiful areas and restoration areas enjoyed in the past by just a few people, and now overcrowded by hasty visitors. A few years after, the artist substituted his visits to the areas of Tibet with those of Suzhou and the nearby lake Tai (Taihu) where the most renowned gardens are found. He photographs the most spectacular rocks that attract him from a pictorial point of view and he studies the traditional iconography.

Zhou's shots remind us of Victor Segalen when he wrote in a letter to his wife in 1909 from China: “Generally, everything that you have seen of Chinese art, human figures and animals, gestures, expressions, colours, shots, strange expressions, nasty or elegant pictures, everything is much closer to the truth, much more photographic than what we are led to believe.” Therefore, it seems that the Chinese passion for more spectacular exhibitions of nature-and stones are an example-takes its raison d'etre from a more scenographic reality than the European one. Recreated in a domesticated form, nature looses its threatening aspect and acquires elegance that in the eyes of a cultured individual evokes a “totality” in which man holds an important creative position.

Once again in 1992, Zhou participates in several important exhibitions and publishes his own personal catalogue. It is also the year of his second wedding.

The subsequent range of Blocks of rocks (Shikuai xilie) is put on show in an exhibition held in Chengdu in November 1993. It is called the “Chinese Experience” (Zhongguo Jingnian), created by the critic from Sichuan Wang Lin, with the participation of Zhang Xiaogang, MaoXuhui, Ye Yongqing and Wang Chuan, all well known artists from the “South West”(Xinan), or rather the regions of Sichuan and Yunnan. Zhou's Rocks, multiform concretions from which an unrecognizable and stiff flora emerges on a dark blue background that dissolves and becomes almost white, almost seem to be underwater apparitions (see the Range of Rocks, 1992). Making use of his favorite medium, oil, (Zhou rarely uses ink, which he believes does not allow him to express his strength and energy), the painter undertakes an action which, although inspired by tradition, changes him deeply. His rocks have no contours but they are only volumes created by much lighter and darker areas and when each single brushstroke is isolated by the background it does not follow any traditional stylized rules. One could say that the subject is Chinese and the technique used is from the Western world. It is a kind of pictorial research which is decisively against the stream, in a moment in which almost all Chinese contemporary art had a strong social, not to say political, connotation. But it is right at this time that Zhou feels the need to express himself beyond fashions and external influences.

In the following year (1994), he continues with Red Rocks-Ya'an Shangli, and begins a series of paintings with a highly erotic content that he presents to Taiwan. The “Sceneries” also date back to this period. They are canvasses in which the traditional” five tones of black” are made in oil. The effect of the “crust” brushstrokes covers a large part of the painting adding an almost three-dimensional effect: with regards to the rest the brush, held in a firm and decisive way, which does not allow space for second thoughts and corrections(as in the case of ink painting), builds structures that do not remind us of any reality whatsoever. The inclination towards abstraction in traditional Chinese painting that does not however renounce to inserting recognizable detail is brought here to its complete execution.

The brushstrokes, never stylised, are sometimes dry and help the “flying white” (feibai) of tradition emerge, sometimes dense and oily, just like when ink spreads through water.

1995 is a decisive year. One of Zhou's friends gives him a German Shepherd puppy, Hei Gen (literally “black root”). The painter had never before owned a dog but he loves the animal so much that he even shares his bed with him. The dog is forced to stay indoors as large-sized dogs are not allowed in Chinese cities. The mutual familiarity between the dog and his owner grows so much that Zhou is convinced that he can read Hei Gen's mind, which in turn understands him. Sometimes Hei Gen is aggressive but very loving towards his owner and he soon becomes Zhou's favourite subject. The range”Hei Gen's family” portrays the dog in everyday life. In the diptych Hei Gen playing on the roof(1996) there is not just one single situation but various moments, dimensions and positions that suggest an event that develops through time. At the centre of the painting there is Hei Gen on his back legs while he is biting into a piece of fabric maybe thrown by Zhang Xi, Zhou's wife. On the left, at the front of the painting but in a rather small size, a man and a dog are standing still, almost waiting. Another small person, sitting on the parapet of the terrace in the canvas on the right hand side, seems to be calling Hei Gen. All of this has been created by brushstrokes which are free yet at the same time rather square: the figures are without contour and the faces are not outlined. In the dog's shiny black coat the brushstroke hints at signs of white that, together with the lustre of the oil, dramatically enhances the pictorial effect. Mobility is entrusted to the sensation of movement; the colours are all grey and black shades, with the exception of Zhang Xi's clothes that are almost a fluorescent orange. “Painting a face is like painting a stone: I am overwhelmed by purely formal and pictorial thoughts. In both cases they are objects. Painting Hei Gen arouses greater excitement within me”, says Zhou.

1996 is a year of trips and acknowledgements for Zhou. He takes part with the “Sceneries” series (1994) in the Bonn collective exhibition” China”, and takes advantage of this short return to Germany to revisit several places. In Paris he visits museums and galleries. When he returns to his fatherland he is invited to the Biennial of Shanghai and to an exhibition of painters in Chengdu, held in Beijing.

He visits Jiangsu, the birthplace of traditional ink painting and the art of gardens, and goes to Yangzhou, a rich commercial city that in the eighteenth century hosted the “Eight Eccentrics” (Yangzhou baguai), painters with a strong personality and a creative streak.

In the following year, 1997, he paints Hei Gen completely green for the first time. Zhou states that it was entirely coincidental: if there is a reason, he is not aware of it. In an article of the catelogue “The nature of portraits”, an exhibition by Zhou and Mao Yan held in Beijing in July, the critic Li Xianting attributes the choice of the colour green to a rather happy period of his love life: in China, green is associated with a positive state of mind. But Zhou underlines that “I never prepare paintings, I never know exactly what I will paint. Often, for no reason whatsoever, I change”.

In the West, green is a very clear-cut colour, a colour that denotes good luck (and hope) or bad luck: not by chance it is used for games tables. Green has brought Zhou, a lover of card games and mahjong, a lot of good luck: his dog has become a symbol and a very much-appreciated pictorial subject. Beyond any sentimental allusion, it is very likely that Zhou - in that period he was also painting a series of peaches in a vase and vases with flours (Peach buds, Vase) in yellow-green shades with some pink brushstrokes - used the same palette for his dog and then found the result entirely satisfactory. The first green Hei Gen is in reality much more realistic than the majority of his predecessors with a canonical black cloak. Despite the prospect being distorted ( the shape is much the same, extended, just like the “rock”), the animal's legs being reduced to stumps and the seated position excluding any movement, the head and most of all the fauces are painted with extreme accuracy. Zhou is almost without any pictorial references to tradition (a dog is a rather rare subject in China, and not even frequently used with us), and concocts an expressive modus of his very own, whereby his painting becomes much more meditated but always expressionist.

The subsequent paintings (Hei Gen green Nos2, 3, 4) continue with the same characteristics as the first: the dog is sitting down, the prospect is flat, with a view from the top, the fauces are generally painted with abundance of details while the rest of the body is only slightly outlined, cylindrical, rather gawky and with stumpy legs and tail of a rather fragile appearance. Hei Gen green Nos5 and 6, however, depict the dog standing, always with a view from the top, and in this case the disproportion between the large head and the gawky body is even clearer. In Hei Gen green No. 6 the small dog is lost in the empty white canvas (a characteristic of the entire series) that surrounds him and is not outlined by any delimitation of space. Just like a fish, a stone, a bird by Bada Shanren, the figure takes on strength from the emptiness that surrounds it and the brushstrokes are just so: not one more is needed to make it even more incisive.

In the contemporary Peach buds series, the small trees planted in common terracotta vases appear to be very skeletal with nothing at all to do with Chinese and Western iconography. With long airy brushstrokes and the brush only slightly dipped into the paint, Zhou manages to provide an interpretation of the floral theme, so classical that it is difficult to renew it.

A group of larger sized canvasses ( 250x200cm) use a stylised Hei Gen, reduced to mere symbol, in the same position that is repeated. The first painting called Hei Gen green - Lovers under the moon (1997) contains, at the centre, in an important position, the shadow of the dog, which seems to have been added afterwards, onto a background in which naked bodies in various shades of greys and blacks are involved in sexual activities. Zhou says that he was shocked by the existence of an underground yet flourishing world in contemporary Chinese society made up of mercenary sex and elegant forms of corruption.

This year of great creativity includes the series Red human figures (1998). Once again the artist entrusts the expression of his state of mind to one colour, mindful of the expressionist lesson. The important naked figures that indecently dominate the painting with use of a single scarlet colour, infringed by very black wisps of public hair, have clumsy flabby and lascivious bodies. At their feet, on watery red ground which divides the painting into two parts, there are other miniature figures, lightly sketched with black paint, that are miming fights that are similar to sexual skirmishes. Among these Hei Gen appears at times, with a few jet-black outlines, as a detached observer or in movement.

In 1997 the artist goes to the United States for the first time where he adds another notch to his knowledge of contemporary art. The following year (1998) he participates in a collection by Chinese painters in San Francisco.

1999 is the year of his strongest suffering after the death of his father. Perhaps weakened by the fact that he could not go out of the house, Hei Gen also dies. For Zhou this is like losing a son. As the artist states, for some days:” the sky and the earth came together”. There is no possible consolation. From a pictorial point of view the direct consequence is the inability of carrying on painting Hei Gen that would have been too painful. As always happens to him in times of intense reflection or trouble, Zhou does not paint but travels. He returns to the United States for another exhibition, he goes to Shanghai where he is fascinated by the new Museum of ancient art, he visits the gardens of Suzhou and there he captures many images of rocks that had already inspired him. At this time he gains an honorary post of huge responsibility: he is nominated Vice-president of the association of artists of Sichuan, the most populous region of China.

In the year 2000, having overcome the creative impasse, Zhou inaugurates a new series: Rocks of Taihu, made up of green rocks on a white background and white rocks on a black background. In the first case the rocks, in the same acid green that had become Hei Gen's typical colour, share a vertical form already to be found in the dog, which in turn had been influenced and enhanced by a certain level of sinuosity. The lines are simultaneously round and sharp, maybe only how Chinese rocks can be in their phantasmagorical alternation between empty and full. In Zhou's paintings the emptiness within the rocky mass in suggested by light-dark effects while the background dominates uncontested: the warped green formations float on the white treated canvas, without a supporting base just like Hei Gen was suspended. In the same way as the garden rocks, the “false mountains”, shadows of civilised nature, capable of amazing the cultured and making them dream, subjects of inexhaustible variety for painters(this always concerns the same figure, that of the cultured gentleman forced to control writing, painting, music and poetry), Zhou's green rocks have become a metaphor, something which, extrapolated from tradition and transferred onto canvas with an unusual medium (oil), take on the two personality aspects of the painter: his state of suspension between the past and contemporaneity, between China and the west, between the “palor” (the fadeur praised by the French philosopher Francois Jullien) and the strong shade. Just like Leonardo's clouds and spots were formations of such hazy outlines as to allow the painter to give free rein to his imagination, in the same way for Zhou the rocks are a chance to free his pictorial impetus, to draw up energetic brushstrokes by dipping into the existing iconographic patrimony but without feeling restricted, as times and intentions have changed. The white rocks on the black background are different once again: as also stated by Zhou, the intention is much more realistic, there is greater concreteness (the base rests on the background of the painting), the sinuosity of the subject in the painting is inspired directly by the numerous images photographed in Taihu. Cut out on a black background, the rocks are crossed by scratches, perforated with deep holes where empty space for once is black. But there is one detail that makes everything rather worrying, that adds a subjective and unexpected connotation: patches of red that bloodstain some parts and drip onto the surface (see the series of rocks of Tiahu No. 5, 2000). During a lesson held in the Academy of Sichuan in Chongqing, the students' interpretation hinted at sexual references or violence, but once again Zhou declares himself incapable of explaining the origin of the drops. Maybe, they are unconscious transfers to canvas of problems that besiege Chinese society: sex and violence, but it is an indirect reference, rather ambiguous. I believe that a reference to actuality exists but Zhou has managed only now to translate it into a typically pictorial language, where realistic details have been overcome and the meaning is suggested through the most hidden methods, as in the case of the very best Chinese tradition.

The effect of “crust” brushstrokes reappears in the white rocks of Taihu, a sign that this series is related directly to Zhou's first works. The painter confirms that this is a subject and a technique that he is very familiar with. In the year 2000, another position of responsibility is added onto the previous one, confirming Zhou's capability to maintain relationships with the world of institutions without giving up personal expression. He becomes the Vice-president of the Academy of Painting in Chengdu, where he has worked for almost twenty years.

At the beginning of the year 2001 there is another turnaround: Zhou, having overcome the period of greatest suffering, starts to paint Hei Gen green once again. Perhaps it is not really Hei Gen but any German shepherd, no longer with a lively and absorbing physical presence but a synthesis of attitudes, structures and positions. The four green dogs painted for the exhibition “1981-2001-Towards a new image. Twenty years of Chinese contemporary painting” have no volume or realism: the real protagonist in these dogs are the large energetic brushstrokes that outline the subject without any afterthoughts. Colour is soft, almost transparent on a white large-sized background (250x200cm). Each outline is recognizable and builds the souls of the skinny dogs (even in this case the figures are without outlines) from the inside, almost ethereal, with their only existence seeming to be “in spirit”. Typically canine positions, as in the act of scratching themselves, alternate with familiar vertical extended shapes, where the dog blends in with the rock and the rock blends in with the dog.

As Cezanne had imagined, and before him the masters of Chinese ink painting, the entire universe is made from minimal entities, as the brushstroke (yi bi hua )that just like atoms lead to a minimum common denominator.

After having known him for almost ten years and after a series of targeted interviews, I asked Zhou Chunya if there was a question that nobody had asked him yet, and that he considered important. The painter answered that he loved being questioned on his private life, which he believes to be his greatest inspirer. I hope that this “story” of painting and daily life satisfies his demands.