Working within a Distinct Chinese Tradition of Painting
During his days studying in Germany, Zhou experienced a strikingly different European lifestyle, which rekindled his sentiments and understanding of Chinese culture. He came to realize his responsibility for the development of nationalism on the global stage of art as a Chinese artist. He once stated, 'I have unknowingly transformed from worshipping Western art to staunchly defending and absorbing traditional Chinese cultures. I firmly believe that only by gaining sustained nourishment from our own soil can we, Chinese artists, develop characteristics distinct from foreign artists because the mysterious and sensitive elements contained in our tradition are absent from Western cultures. This recognition has played a significant role in the characteristic formation of my paintings.'i
Since the early 1990s, Zhou has been systematically studying ancient literati paintings, particularly the Four Greater Masters of the Yuan dynasty, Bada Shanren, and Dong Qichang. In addition to borrowing their formal vocabulary and symbolic modes, Zhou penetrates the spirit and aesthetics of traditional literati. He brings forth a new style of literati paintings that represents this era by integrating elements of Expressionism he learned from the West with the essence of Chinese traditions.
A Kaleidoscopic Miniature of Nature
Garden and landscape art are symbolic of Chinese material and spiritual cultures. In the early 1990s, aside from landscape paintings of mountains and rocks, Zhou Chunya expressed his reflections on literati paintings through the Flowers in a Vase series. Deviating from the understated, reserved expressions of traditional floral and bird paintings, Zhou attempted to create a visual impact using exuberant, unrestrained brushwork and posture. The Flower in a Vase showcases the charm of traditional calligraphy lines. Utilizing varied brushstrokes to portray the free and spontaneous sprawling of branches and buds, Zhou presents an untrammeled style that defies the traditional floral aesthetics - an orderly arrangement of primary and secondary objects. With thick stems interspersed with thin, needle-like branches, this painting reminds viewers of the signature “crab-claw” technique of Li Cheng - a great landscape artist in the Northern Song Dynasty - in his wintry forest portrayal. Curling or stretching, exaggerated or downplayed, and converged or dispersed, the diversified brushstrokes display sheer vitality and vigorous growth rhythm that surpass the life limitation of potted flowers. Zhou Chunya expresses his unruly, bold character through paintings. Just as he once said, 'Other than the orthodox vision that we are used to, I have found a type of visual experience that accords with my nature yet stands opposed to conventional practice – interpreting “gentle, introverted, and inert” literati paintings through my presumptuousness. It is these attributes that have given birth to my unbridled artistic style.' Based on his own national culture, Zhou infused the fiery passion of expressionism into his paintings, which marked the first critical turning point of his artistic career.ii
Sitting at the center of The Flower in a Vase is a substantial volume of flowers created with layers of turquoise and dark oil paint. This stands in a stark contrast to the surrounding vibrant colours, such as bright red and dark red. Here, he follows the mountain and rock technique used in his previous Chinese Landscape series, which creates mass and volume through built-upon layers of paint. Similar to that, Zhou expresses an undulating texture through impasto layers of paint, increasing thickness. The visual effect of an uneven surface created by layers of paint suggests the organic exterior of plants and the naturally formed veins. The branches and leaves radiating from the center alter the density structure of the space and amplify the sense of layering with concreteness and abstractness interlaced in the painting. Another unique feature of this artwork lies in the use of line segments to restructure space. The ambiguous horizontal line cutting through the background of the vase pushes the vase forward, constructing a definite front-back spatial relationship. By this, Zhou Chunya successfully renders a three-dimensional space – a concept unique to Western painting, transforming the flat narrative space in traditional Eastern paintings into a spatial expression that delivers a sense of depth.
Chinese literati paintings provide literati artists a vehicle for spiritual cultivation and self-purification, while neo-expressionism displays the artist’s rebellion against traditional art, advocating passion and emphasizing individuality. Zhou Chunya successfully captures the common characteristics shared by the expression of literati paintings and the abstract qualities of neo-expressionism. Despite their distinct national cultures and historical backgrounds, Zhou absorbs, fuses, and transforms these two practices to shape his signature style. Converting from the Western style to the Eastern style, he opens up an unprecedented dialogue. Through a series of trials, he continues to break through existing frameworks, liberate conventional aesthetics, and create a value model that transcends the binary opposition between the East and the West. Setting an unparalleled example for contemporary artists by straddling the past and the present, Zhou is indeed an iconic artist in the history of contemporary Chinese art.
i Zhou Chunya, recorded in Hu Yung-fen, Flowery Life, Rainbow-like Being: The Art of Zhou Chunya; May 14, 2008 (online).
ii Zhou Chunya, recorded in Qi Lan, A Tale of Flowers: Interview with Zhou Chunya, Chengdu, 2007, p. 13.