Zhu Jinshi: an immense physical presence in Chinese art

October 13, 2015

Zhu Jinshi’s canvases are vast, heavy and buttered thick with paint in layers, applied with a palette knife and other hand tools. They have a brooding presence, a visual intoxication which fills one with a heightened sense of reality.

The artist has said his paintings are “my confrontations with myself”, but I’d suggest they can be confrontations with any viewer. Indeed the paintings are so intense, so vivid, they breathe and move, sigh and stretch, long after the oil has finally dried (itself a process of years).

My favourites are those with the most intense colour palettes, even though the selection of hues is not necessarily beautiful to the eye. There are bright ochres and reds, but among the licks and curls are ashen shades too, creating subliminal contrasts and enhancing the tactile effect of the dense paint.

Zhu’s impasto style was learnt from his teacher, the painter Zhou Maiyou, who was heavily influenced by Russian artists. Zhu himself says the first time he saw abstract art was in 1980 in a friend’s Chinese catalogue of the work of Wassily Kandinsky.

There are clear influences too from Impressionism and German Expressionism. He has said seeing his first abstract by Gerhard Richter forced him into a “state of total crisis”. It was the scale: “I sat there for two, maybe three hours … this painting was like five metres.”

I can’t help thinking Zhu’s current work has the same potency when viewed for the first time, especially in light of each work’s specific titles such as Shock on Hearing About Wenchuan Earthquake. These are vast abstracts, yet rooted in metaphor and imbued with emotion and experience.

Look closer and one motivation is hidden in plain sight: abstraction has provided a form of protest as well as a safe haven during politically uncertain times. Zhu has called it “artistic protection”.

Nor are the backs of the canvases left plain. From 2000 on, Zhu developed the practice of writing on the back of his intended work: observations, random impressions, thoughts, memories, notes about recent events. This conceptual, almost poetic phase is where the painting begins – although the finished work may have no seeming connectivity. This is Zhu at his most Chinese; allowing the influence of Zen, which prizes the spark of honesty and truth when the busy mind falls silent.

In this way, we invite our intuition to affect creativity.

Zhu’s art is not, therefore, inspired by an idea, but is at one with an idea. Zhu is working subliminally through feelings, perceptions, ideas and memories. And just as this material accumulates, so does the paint, its sheer weight meaning Zhu must push and pull it up the canvas as the layers build like geological strata, building into a vertical sculpted terrain. To look at a painting by Zhu is to be fundamentally shaken by the overlapping brush strokes, the scumbled and smeared marks, the sheer physically of his technique. No wonder then, his peers know him as the “artist of strokes”.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation