Zeng Hao’s solo exhibition, “Summer,” is touching to behold; in this collection of works, we see how an artist, after two decades of searching, has at last returned to the pure depths of his heart. A painting that depicts personal experience is not an uncommon phenomenon. But a painting that combines personal experience with the artistic language of purity is not such an easy feat. One could describe it graphically: what Zeng’s “Summer” represents is in fact white day and black night—the season’s two states of being. Or one could approach the works from a more worldly perspective: with their black-and-white backgrounds, these paintings provide people with the direct sensory experience of the black-white dichotomy. But one might also see how Zeng is not actually concerned with the diametric opposition between black and white; what he is concerned with is actually the very state that exists between the two: what could be summed up as rhythm, meter, form; although, still, none of these words is entirely accurate. If we insist upon clearly representing that delicately liminal state, we might think on the statues of Day and Night that Michelangelo created for the Medici family tomb. What these works have in common is the notion of what happens when the parts come together: they form an inseparable whole. They are works that make people feel as though the artist is meditating on matters that reach far beyond this mortal world.
Curator Wu Hung summarizes the experience embodied in the show as the issue of “painterliness”—a concept that constitutes another richly interesting dimension of the exhibit. In the nineties, Zeng Hao began to develop a close relationship with contemporary Chinese oil painting. Wu holds Zeng’s painting up against the entire history of Chinese contemporary oil painting, skillfully showing how Zeng has consistently kept his distance from reigning orthodoxies—first Cynical Realism, later conceptualism. By making these distinctions, Wu actually inserts Zeng into the art-historical framework, arguing for him as a special case, and one that backs up Wu’s own investigations of “pictoriality” in contemporary Chinese painting. In his own creations over the past two years, Zeng has discovered something that can drift freely from the social, the conceptual, and the schematic; that something is the personal experience of the artist. To use Zeng’s own words, it can “immediately make a person feel moved.”
“Summer” articulates an entire painterly lexicon for Zeng Hao, one that has its mature beginnings in his “little people” paintings of the late 1990s. In the past few years, Zeng has pursued not a personalized vocabulary, but a wholly personalized experience. For example, as we look at the numerous rough-draft sketches whose traces still grace the finished surface of Morning of 15 June 2008 (2008) we can wonder whether the artist is preserving a personal language or attempting a methodological experiment. But when he begins an in-depth exploration of the motif of trees—as he did with The Trees in the White Background and A Leaning Tree in the Black Background (both 2010)—we see an artist who has fallen entirely silent. When an artist is capable of multiple, subtle variations in rhythm within the same theme, he has captured the tonality of Malevich, Mondrian, or Kadinsky.
Zeng Hao has produced this collection of works out of loyalty to his own heart and decades of experience with trees. Standing before these paintings, will an audience lacking background knowledge be moved? I was, at least. And either way, I personally believe that somewhere between the artist’s personal experiences and his artistic language, we have already established an effective means of evaluation. This is an area in which Wu Hung can provide a useful perspective as an art historian and art theorist. He ultimately attributes the idea of the “punctum” from Roland Barthes’ phenomenology to that “something” that moves us. Within this most complex and yet most simple, most profound and yet most plain theory, Zeng ought to be able to find a nice home for his personal experiences and for the language of his painting. Pu Hong