A precocious youth forced to work in a factory during the Cultural Revolution, the painter Zhu Jinshi afterwards joined the seminal new art group the Stars (星星), producing works that dabbled in the imported medium of abstraction. Eager to explore Western-style modernism, he moved to Berlin in 1985, only to discover that his work was actually decades behind the times.
However, after spending 20 years in Berlin, he returned to Beijing and continued his practice without becoming an international sensation or a symbol of “Chinese-ness.”
I don’t mean to undercut claims that Zhu Jinshi might make for his own work, as he titles many of his paintings somewhat allegorically, such as “Hunger” (2012) and “Power and Country 2” (2012). That said, the associative leaps needed to make those connections would also, in the end, undercut the work; after all, “Chinese content” is as much of a construction as anything else in art. To approach Zhu Jinshi’s paintings with the expectation that they are abstractions with Chinese “characteristics” is to look for the work of an exemplar first, and that of an artist second.
The works in the artist’s current solo exhibition at Blum & Poe on the Upper East Side can be compared to the abstractions of Robert Motherwell or Richard Diebenkorn, though they sometimes play with semi-abstraction, as in the face appearing out of a swirl of blue and red paint in “Elder Feng” (2015). There are also two sculptural pieces, “Bank” (2013), a landscape-like mound of golden yellow oil paint, and the Donald Judd-indebted “Nine Levels” (2015), a modular work consisting of nine boxy floor pieces.
In many of these works, references are made to historical and political experience, but if they appear to go for a too-easy symbolism (the golden “Bank” sculpture, for example), the artist seems less concerned with expressing concepts than with manipulating difficult forms, pushing content to a secondary position (including, again, any political or so-called “Chinese” qualities that might inhabit the works).
If the works themselves can be viewed as “minor,” in that they don’t loudly announce an agenda, are their formal qualities muddied or compromised by their relationship to allegory or, more importantly, to themselves? For example, if we assume the context of “Power and Country 2” has something (however vaguely) to do with the Chinese state apparatus, while its paint extends outward from of the canvas, twisting and cracking at various angles, is it then our responsibility to extract the relationship between the supposed “content” of the title and the (completely abstract) painting? Can they can be de-coupled from each other?
Tellingly, one can never actually even see all of the painting at one time, since the frontal view actually obscures the effects of its heavy impasto (rendered undetectable in photographic reproductions), which at points reaches several inches in depth, curving over colors underneath, and on close inspection reveals a high-gloss finish on its underside.
As such, it’s tempting to say that there is no feature of the painting that is foregrounded, apparent to the viewer in a way that will significantly orient the work. Claims for a broad inclusion into “Chinese art” are subverted by similarities to Western painters; any homage to a Western style is undercut by allegorical readings and historical context; a formalist approach is undercut by Western and Chinese precedents; any declaration that “what you see is what you see,” to quote Frank Stella, is undermined by the human eye, which can’t, of course, see the sculptural impasto of these works simultaneously from different angles. Even an assessment, like this one, can only offer summary descriptions and raise questions, which are what these works, in my mind, appear to be working against.
Some larger questions that come out of this are: What is left of the paintings if they resist sense-making and positive description? Do they in fact opine little about context — political or even art-historical — and remain mercurial, temporal facts of their own materials? Are they, because of the focus on their materiality, apolitical artworks that sidestep the issues taken on by such contemporaries as Ai Weiwei or He Yunchang?
Indeed, many of the works in this exhibition “say something” only if the viewer coordinates dissimilar facets of the work — paintings that, due to their physical makeup, do not reveal themselves completely at any one time. The sculptural quality of many of the paintings (although, notably, not all) renders multiple views necessary, and parts of the works are thereby hidden from the eye and consequently the intellect. This is hardly the first exhibition of a Chinese artist to function in such a way. Nevertheless, apart from art circles relatively unknown outside of China, it’s notable. Not mired in theatrics or heroics, the works in the exhibition push the viewer into a sort of compromise, in which all aspects of the work, including its various contexts, are either simultaneously willed to the fore, or picked out as exemplary of one thing or another.
In either case, it is this kind of compromised vision which may, surprisingly, tie Zhu Jinshi to the overtly political artists of his generation — informed by multiple traditions, with the artworks and viewers displaced from their customary positions. As much as democracy is meant to resist a single, uniform vision, Zhu Jinshi’s works exist together with the artist, his context, and the viewer — asking for dialogue instead of totality.
Zhu Jinshi continues Blum & Poe (19 East 66th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 20.