Overgrown (Happy New Year), 2016, oil on canvas, 200 x 400 cm
Overgrown (Happy New Year), 2016, oil on canvas, 200 x 400 cm

Without the aid of mirrors, artists seem to be incapable of self-reflection. Their images and works are constructed and processed in the face of the many peers surrounding them, one orbiting another like planets around the sun. Artists, who rarely praise or criticize each other face to face, are nonetheless careful to keep an appropriate distance from one another—not because they are humble observers, but rather because they seem incapable of paying attention to things outside their own areas of interest. Having provided more than enough examples to convince me of this reality, Zhang Hui has inspired me to self-examine, and to ruminate on how one artist becomes the scene of another.

Collaboration | Theatre

Zhang Hui’s fondness for collaboration is a habit perhaps picked up during his years in the theatre. In his line of thought, the process is not really about bringing different ideas together so much as it is a way of testing out ideas impossible to pull off solo. Seen in this light, all art is collective work “one way or another,” as it jumps its way around a root topic or through a given socio-linguistic context.

In our 2001 exhibition, “Retribution,” Zhang Hui and I collaborated on a series of works which we titled “Underwater.” Two other works, “Post-Sense Sensibility: Spree” and “Post-Sense Sensibility: Inside Story,” were completed by Zhang Hui and myself along with a number of other artists. Initially begun as individual works, these were joined together into a single, integrated piece at the site of the exhibition. At the time, Zhang Hui felt that the emphasis on the “here and now” could be seen as directly connected to his background in the theatre. Later on, he even produced a collaborative play, The Black and White Zoo, working with Qiu Zhijie and Yu Ji. In 2005 he collaborated with Colin Chinnery on the Complete Art Experience Project. He then organized the Odd Phenomena Group with his students, producing live performances before finally turning to painting with the 2013 exhibition “Once,” a collaboration with Colin Chinnery and He An.

The 2006 exhibition “Local Area” was Zhang Hui’s first large scale solo painting exhibition, and indicated his intent to work outside the image to create “woven” space. The relationship between images and space was shown to be extremely fraught in his 2008 work “Ready Any Time,” where it became clear that Zhang Hui sees painting as a sort of installation art, or perhaps one could say that he is engaged in a process of making installations more painterly. For “Ready Any Time,” Zhang Hui built a massive circular wall of wood, 2.4 meters high and 7 meters long, with a painting on the outside. Walking inside, viewers were met with what appeared to be props from a stage play. On the one hand this work can be treated as a painting, but it can also be treated as an installation as well. In this way, the relationship between the painting and the installation seems to have been brought inside the painting’s composition, giving it a degree of theatrical space while also allowing the work to present another face to viewers.

Zhang Hui Blueprint.Pleasant Sensation 2009-2010, 2013 Acrylic on canvas 182 × 450 cm, composed of 2 pieces, 182 × 225 cm each
Blueprint.Pleasant Sensation, 2009-2010, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 182 × 450 cm, composed of 2 pieces, 182 × 225 cm each

The theatrical space opened up by Zhang Hui’s work thwarts the typical pictorial analysis we’ve become accustomed to using at contemporary art exhibitions. The theatre, in his understanding, seeps in from a multitude of vectors, co-existing in a common temporal space, meaning that any approach with the sole intent of analysis cannot help but lead us into an analytical labyrinth. Viewed in this light, Zhang Hui’s images are akin to the bait in a conceptual trap.

Zhang Hui’s attention has been focused on how to use the images he paints to produce or bring together a connection to corporeal perception, one that is foreign to the seasoned viewer of art. The space in which viewers find themselves is a space without a center of focus. Having begun with installations and performances during his early period, only to move into painting later on, creative careers like Zhang Hui’s might be considered “scattered.” However, perhaps it would be more accurate to say it is not the nature of the work that is uneven, but rather that our “viewing” is habituated to things with centers of focus.

What this all means is that Zhang Hui’s paintings cannot be viewed in isolation, being nothing more than “props” in his creative process- traps prepared for the old-fashioned viewer created from images. Evidence to this end can be found in two early paintings since destroyed by the artist: the first featured rays of light, while the second contained items of clothing under bright light. When showing the paintings, Zhang Hui would place them side by side, or, failing that, not far from each other. Whenever I saw these two paintings together I always felt the rays of light in the first painting were moving across the frame to light up the clothing in the second one. In more recent works however, Zhang Hui has avoided making blunt statements of this kind. For the artist seeking to mold the atmosphere around his work, after all, installations like this are far too “focused.”

Mural, 2010, Acrylic on canvas, 200 x 290 cm and 80 x 100 cm
Mural, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 290 cm and 80 x 100 cm

Concealment | Rehearsal

Zhang Hui’s paintings are often built over a dark background, concealed under layer after layer of brighter colors. The effect is in some places complete, but in parts the ground suffuses up from underneath. The interplay between concealment and suffusion is asymmetrical: as the ground becomes concealed under countless brushstrokes, the over-layer is in turn disturbed, probed, and provoked by the inescapability of the under-layer. Although concealment seems to be, to a degree, a violent act, it is not erasure (this being another strategy used to suggest a sort of depth in space), because the construction of the covered up images was not entirely in vain. Who would argue, after all, that a “play behind closed curtains” is not really a play?

Zhang Hui is extremely committed to his craft: arriving at his studio every morning at eight, he often skips lunch to work late into the evening. Yet he can hardly be said to be prolific, so from the perspective of capital investment / return we might say that he is an inefficient artist. To my way of thinking however, the “inefficiency” of his daily routine is actually a sort of “rehearsal,” a repeated rejection of the work he has already completed, paralleling the way every brushstroke in his paintings exists to conceal an under-layer of already painted content.

In the studio, Zhang Hui’s “rehearsal” becomes a competition with himself. The rejection and concealment of his own work, layer by layer, is meant to provoke the artist’s own sense of legitimacy (in many cases, Zhang Hui has continued to conceal or alter works already been exhibited and even printed up in retrospective albums). In some regards, his creative process can be seen to be one of masochistic self-flagellation. Masochism lends itself equally to reflection and addiction. At the same time, this specific kind of masochism can also be seen as Zhang Hui’s way of challenging himself via adversity. It is quite possible that Zhang Hui employs this “ploy” as a way of imparting his paintings with a greater sense of depth.

In a world under the dictates of consumerism, little time is devoted to deciphering works of art. Amid the hustle and bustle of various art world events, viewers directly observe the extrinsic visual effect of a work with the added aid of the short explanatory treatises placed alongside each work. Is it at all surprising that few viewers choose to abandon this hectic game to go watch a “play behind closed curtains?” It seems that the true audience for Zhang Hui’s work can be found among his peers, the ones sitting behind the curtain in the darkness that reigns outside the spotlight.

Onlookers No.2, 2011, acrylic on canvas 227.5 x 182 cm
Onlookers No.2, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 227.5 x 182 cm

At exhibitions, Zhang Hui often prefers to use fluorescent lights for illumination, allowing the objects described in his paintings an equal degree of light (two works completed in 2009 and 2016 with the same title, Installation (My Former Lovers Have All Grown Old), are dedicated to fluorescent lights and the evenness of their light). It is thus uncommon for the objects in his paintings to produce a sense of mystery or provide a single object onto which a spotlight might be cast. The even light illuminates and exposes its subject as well as any other, but it is light without a focal point or center. It is exactly this lack, however, which allows objects outside of the focal point or center to be seen. The artist could be said to be molding the space itself.

Zhang Hui’s work is sometimes criticized for being “discursive” (an obstacle to manufactured readings). Criticisms of this sort are perhaps a result of becoming trapped in intellectual and experiential inertia. Contemporary art is constantly being read, and the process of classification and definition never seems to end either. The whole field is like a tropical jungle that sprang up of its own accord, only later to be manicured into a botanical garden. Modern gardening expertise has left room for only some kinds of plants and plotted them out accordingly. The criticism to be made is similar to the one leveled at scientism —experiences incapable of being described and categorized are taken and forced to submit to the logic of currently existing intellectual systems.

When direct observation is verboten, viewers have no choice but to place their trust in the clear readings derived from this logic.

A Scene of Snow II 2014 Colored ink on paper 38.5 x 26.5 cm
A Scene of Snow II, 2014, colored ink on paper, 38.5 x 26.5 cm

Artists believe that the world is complicated (like the tropical jungle) existing both in time and space, with countless crossovers between the two. For most artists it is sufficient to enter the scene, then pollute and stimulate these already complex relationships. Zhang Hui’s task, however, is to take observed reality and weave his own creative logic into the fabric of that reality; to take those disparate, sketchy, and already complex relationships and pin them down for a time. Taking this process to its logical conclusion, we find that, while the watermarks in Zhang Hui’s paintings seem inclined to slide around and float about, they are in fact anchored by very real shadows. The artist uses this technique to provide viewers with a new “image”. What’s more, in Zhang Hui’s paintings, the tools used to anchor this floating, sketchy complexity come from images of his artist friends from daily life, from images of the building he lives in, and even abstract concepts, such as “blue,” a color with no obvious significance for day-to-day life.

That images of snow appear over and over again in Zhang Hui’s paintings (for example, in A Scene of Snow (Relief Sculpture) from 2015 and A Scene of Snow II from 2014) is perhaps related to his memories having lived in China’s northeast (piled up snow conceals multitudes). Zhang Hui uses white paint in the process of painting snow (an especially effective concealer), but in the endless process of alteration, many of the areas of white covering up his earlier brushstrokes are by no means lasting, just like those patches of actual snow which cover the earth for a winter spell, gradually melting away and allowing the original colors of the ground beneath to be revealed. That Zhang Hui reads and thinks a great deal also brings to mind snow, silently accumulating, covering up his work layer by layer before temperature and sentiment conspire to slowly melt it all away.

When Zhang Hui and I were leaving the Beijing bar Eudora Station late one night, I looked across the street to see Lido Place, stomping grounds of a great many artists in years past. Suddenly he said, “It’s rained a lot this year, so I’ll be okay, I think.” I don’t know why, but his words left a deep impression on me. Lido Place has appeared in his paintings more than once, becoming the subject of constant alterations and over-painting (see for example, Blueprint. Pleasant Sensation, 2009-2010, 2013). In the end, the people, trees, tables, plates, and even beer glasses all found themselves covered in a thick blanket of snow, as if to protect these things afflicted by sorrow by hiding them under its white, white surface. These days, Zhang Hui rarely visits Eudora Station, and he drinks less, too. When he meets with friends, he usually chooses somewhere close to home. He’s the kind of homebody who’ll start complaining about missing home after three days away from Beijing. Art takes up most of his time and has compressed his life into a choice of going between Wangjing district (home) and Art Base 1 (his studio), or from Wangjing district to East Mianhua Hutong (his classroom as a professor at the Central Academy of Drama). One way or the other, his life takes place along these two paths. Limited to repeating the same circuits over and over, Zhang Hui faces a regimented daily routine. It is perhaps the unique skill of artists to soften boundaries like this.

Artists are forced to rely on a variety of unreliable means to force themselves to take pause, but theirs is not an absolute pause. It is instead one that carries a sense of forward momentum. Quite possibly, artists are not so much concerned with arriving, nor do they await the performance whose curtain is about to rise. Instead they complicate the path between two points, blurring it entirely. This kind of “scene” is dependent on the events and sudden changes engineered by artists to come into being.

More than once, Zhang Hui has talked about the fire disaster outside his building uneasily, giving rise to a series of breakdowns and attendant paintings (see his 2010 work Mural): those firefighters in Onlookers No. 2 (2011), the wrapped trees in Tree 3 (2011), and the lifesaver-shaped chairs in Life Buoy 2 (2011) …all of which succeed by bypassing the temporality of the linear narrative. With every attempt at reading, ruptures and breaks such as these will continue to occur in the world.

(Translated by Nick Stember)