Zhou Chunya

Giovanna Nicoletti

Zhou Chunya embodies in his work nature's greatness in spirit, where “nature” is intended as extension of man and his feelings. This is an ancient form of Chinese expression by which the artist representing a detail of the mountain is actually describing the large with the small. It means composing the mark in its full extension without obstacles, without wavering, without pause, as a reminder of the application of ink strokes of ancient tradition, to delineate the idea.

Chunya's language hovers between expressionism and abstraction in an atmosphere taut between realism and an almost metaphysical suspension where the recognisability of the signs recalls their direct and real appearance even when reality is rendered via elaborate calligraphy.

The ancient East and West seem to meet through this artist's hand, although in western culture it was Romanticism that gave shape to an interest in nature through the rendering of experience of the spirit, defining the awareness that sentiment s expressed through landscape. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, the comparison between art and nature became customary, ranging from the futurists search expressed through a mechanical reality to the elusive and ironical nature of the surrealists.

We are at the end of the 19th century when the Chinese and Japanese prints reach western markets, offering impressionist painters some information regarding making-up of the composition, the rendering of the shapes, the setting of the figures. Impressionist painting seems to fray colour in order to express the attempt of search for light. Conversely, oriental painting is dominated by flat colour surrounded by a drawn profile. Such a technique will be later celebrated in the composing method of artists such as Paul Gauguin.

It is anyhow the presence of a natural element such as the cloud in the “view of fogs and clouds” that occupies a privileged position in Chinese painting, as stated by Hubert Damisch in his treatise on Theory of the cloud, published in 1972. The text relates that in the 18th century, in the written work dedicated to Lessons in painting of the garden as large as a mustard seed, the clouds are considered the synthesis of the landscape:” Indeed, in the unreachable vacuum, one can observe many mountain profiles and water courses hidden in them. This is why one speaks of mountains of clouds, of seas of clouds” (from the translation by Raphael Petrucci, Encyclopedie de la peinture chinoise, Paris 1918). Therefore, the landscape is a representation of the universe, the fabric of which is found in the rivers and clouds. The sky encloses the landscape with winds and clouds, and the earth animates it with rivers and rocks, as described by Pierre Ryckmans in writing about the paintings of Shitao (18th century), in 1970. Painting thus means to trace the lines that constitute the outline of the shapes, borders, just like pathways outline the borders of the fields. From here, the idea that Chinese painting exists in function of its graphism, viewed not so much as extension of the line but rather as of the brushstroke. The ink defines the shapes of the landscape and the brush fills in the shape, defines the profile and forms them.

Another peculiar feature of Chinese painting is the importance held by empty space, namely by the support of the painting. When the surfaces seem unutilised and randomic, in actual fact the artist has elaborated thought-out and measured spaces. These empty spaces give special value to the painting surface and provide it with the possibility of reflecting itself, of being enhanced by it, as if this space were a mirror. In western art, the brushstrokes cover the canvas and make it disappear under a preparatory layer, while in Chinese art the writing or the mark take directly part in the quality of the silk of paper supporting them.

Since the Nineties, Zhou Chunya, by means of brush strokes and empty space, has dedicated his art to the representation of the landscape of his tradition as the vertical development of elements that seem to drip out from a magmatic mass. The artist uses the nature element to bring sky and earth closer, in a single vaporous form. Space dilates, is extended and it inhabited by figures. Rocks or dogs or figures are dispersed along the surface.

Sometimes the backgrounds are interrupted by narrations, with animated figures as protagonists. The actions and attitudes are strongly allusive to the sphere of eroticism. The bright monochrome suggests the presence of vertiginous energies that remind the viewer of the movement of images shot on film. These shapes overtly show the aggression of signs and colours suffered by the bodies. The bodies are almost painfully revealed, are uncovered after close and lengthy observation. The considerable size of the canvases suggests an eager need to communicate, to activate human relations. Humanity is revealed, as an ally, in sinuous, often female, bodies. In the foreground, the figures are extraordinarily large and the powerful settings deny whatever possible reference to pure decorativism.

Our act of viewing, in front of this enlarged picture made restless by this absolute shape that depicts its action, translates into immobility. The narrated object, described in its total adhesion to visual reality, takes absolute control over the work. The object is the work, and reality becomes the motive of its representation.

The aspect of narration is deep-set and embodies the size of the universe. The rocks are fragments of the garden, and are, in actual fact, the description of the typical Chinese rocks that through voids and openings hint at empty and full spaces. The rocks transpire power and yet are light, almost ethereal. They are placed in the empty space of the surface and vibrate with throbbing energy. The recent rocks abandon the vacuity of the nebulous and faded backgrounds and rise high, recalling the memory of an anthropomorphic presence lacerated by drops of red that score the surface. The result is a representation firmly defined by a grotesque body the evanescent tension of which is ready to elude the definition of space.

It is the play of light and colour that sets out the sequence of the figuration even when it is of an illusory kind, pure appearance. At this point the glittering becomes powerful and capable of absorbing the composing rhythm and of accelerating the power of expression. The image of the vertigo is highlighted by a circular presence, by a silent motor that attracts of shapes and makes them rotate, while in the space monochrome inserts of light are born: sparks of light that enrich the time and space of action. The central space features, in addition to the rocks, the beloved image of the Alsatian Hei Gen. The green-painted dog appears while in life in various phases as the subject of emotions while, more recently, after his death, as the image made symbol of action. The dog's more instinctive behaviour, such as the scratching, the rolling over, the yawning, become familiar everyday attitudes humanised in various ways.

Zhou Chunya's idea of nature is that of nature possessed by human experience. Nature reaches out to man, who is first attracted to and then overcome by it, almost as if he were succumbing to the power of that same universe that, in absorbing him, places him in an impossible vortex of infinite illusionistic possibilities. The recognised object is therefore paraphrased by the artist, who translates it into various suggested meanings.

Even when it is the figure that moves the thin wires of the poetical composition using images, the fragment of the object appears redolent with allusive, hermetic and secret significance.

The image sketches a tale, a kind of conversation.

The viewer is struck dumb, he approaches the canvas silently in a space unfamiliar to him, a privileged space where every form of contact is absolute. In brushing against the colour, the sparking eddy of empty space submerges us: we remain still, as if spellbound.