Zhao Dajun: Red Lines on the Blue
2022.06.12 - 2022.07.16
Artist: Zhao Dajun

Red Lines on the Blue

Curator: Su Wei


It is not easy to read the paintings of Zhao Dajun (1937-), whose painting practice does not seem to find itself in any existing frame of reference. This pioneer of modern Chinese art from the Luxun Academy of Fine Arts spent most his lifetime teaching, and his name is rarely mentioned in canonical writing on the post-1949 history of Chinese art. Also goes unmentioned are his contemplations on art and achievements that depart from, and transcend, the spirit of the times. The fact that such a pioneer has been forgotten is a pity to art history as well as to us who attempt to think through the post-1949 art scene: its remaining driving force and some effort towards overstepping the confinements of its time.


The painting practice of Zhao Dajun presented in this exhibition began in 2008, when the artist, recovering from an illness, picked up his brushwork again and embarked on a new, eye-opening journey with the "Divine Mountain" series (2008-2010). But we can also say that what we see today is the culmination of his entire artistic career. This is not to confirm the legitimacy and the overall coherence of his lifetime’s work as a whole (or his oeuvre). Rather, what we see throughout his career is an almost fractured language of painting, a tense juxtaposition between multiple heterogeneous styles. Zhao’s artistic career assumes a quality of negation and transcendence. Unlike many who lived through China’s socialist period, he did not merely unleash his long-suppressed creative energy in the early 1980s, thus taking a broader path of realism. If we are to categorize him as abstractionist or abstract expressionist based on the appearance of these images, we risk overlooking the development of their inner rationale and the breadth of the dialogue they seek to strike. His paintings, over a long, protracted period of waiting and deliberation, have accumulated a certain intellectual power which moulds thought into artistic creation. This quality, rarely observed in China since the second half of the 20th century, makes his painting practice stand out in the current Chinese context that brims over with various myths about painting.


Zhao’s paintings are the paintings of a thinker. They immediately impress with their individual strokes, or one could say that this tendency to paint with separate strokes has become increasingly evident in his recent years of practice. This seemingly simple approach conveys a dynamic thought process. The brushstrokes appear to be the result of an arduous tug-of-war within the artist's mind before they are spilled onto the canvas: they are clearly different from the language of figurative art in which the artist excelled in his early career, and they even deviate from that language in the direction in which the brushstrokes travel on the canvas. They faithfully enact the artist's integral thought process from thinking to visualization and all the way to the practice oil painting, and reveal, before the viewers’ very eyes, the emotions and creative will coalesced therein. Here, it is hard not to call to mind the "late style" (der Spätstil) that Adorno discusses, which links tradition to subjectivity where creative practice is concerned.


Roughly speaking, since around 2016, Zhao has begun to continue his painting practice with a more explicitly analytical approach. Explorations prior to that were more multidimensional. There were attempts of repeated shaping or overlaying of figurative objects as well as of their tendencies on the canvas, which shows the artist’s reflection on his own socialist legacy, or more importantly, on the modernist painting language that he had initiated in the 1960s. There were attempts to apply paint to the canvas from the bottom upwards, using a squeegee, with the paint flying diagonally and obliquely, suggesting a certain departure from the accepted order, or more precisely from the realist sketching tradition. There were more universal contemplations and thought experimentations on how to communicate momentary/constant emotions while maintaining an openness of the mind, and gazing towards the path of freedom. These dimensions are still visible in different ways in his works after 2016, but from this year onward, Zhao more explicitly base his practice on the specific problems these images would afford. 


The process where a painting comes into being is equally one of clarifying and solving a specific “problem”, which is again no less a complete thinking process. Such a “problem” often arises randomly, emerging from the artist's past artistic experience, trying to map itself within the artist's own landscape of thought. It may take on the form of a certain image, a certain creative idea that has long been undefined, a certain relationship between lines and color blocks, lines and brushwork, color and structure, feelings and brushwork, or sometimes as simple as a specific color. … These often entangled “problems” are singled out, analyzed and redescribed by Zhao, forming a unique multifaceted method of painting. To Zhao, these paths all lead to the most fundamental questions about the reality of creation that has preoccupied him throughout his artistic career. The sincerity and the intensity of thought that he instills in each stroke also invites the viewer to approach these questions from their own perspectives. It can happen, nevertheless, that sometimes we cannot fully "decipher" from a certain image the specific “problem” in its initial forms. Attempts that are still taking shape, as well as past thoughts that still linger, are also to be found on the artist’s brushstrokes.


This analytical phase, full of tension, repetition, hesitation and uncertainty, has built up enough strength for Zhao to make another creative leap in late 2018. In a note from 2018, Zhao observes that "a rediscovery, of something that has earlier on been 'repeated' and piled up with 'painting', would arouse one’s desire to ‘sow’ the painting again and see its vitality grow. It is an interesting process, like 'the red line on blue'." In this remark one finds a hint of the shifting dynamic. His perspective gradually changes from analytical and comprehensive to comprehensive and purposeless. During this period, he was given new, better paints, which also enabled him to make another breakthrough. Now, the “problem” he needed to "solve" in his pictures became the confirmation of a certain state of mind.


It is evident that from this period onward, the brushstrokes that Zhao used in his paintings exhibit a strong sense of certainty and determination, with short, clear and convincing forms. He hardly mixes colors, and many of them "break open" directly in the overlap on the canvas and are spontaneously generated. Transitional brushstrokes of this kind rarely appear in the paintings of this period, or are not part of the bulk of these paintings. Many of his paintings from this period begin with a carbon brush, and a few strokes outline a certain trend that is sometimes reminiscent of the panoramic approach of traditional Chinese landscape painting. Throughout his images, which reflect a fusion of structure and rhythm, the artist seems to have stepped out of the laboratory and faced the world at large once again. It is difficult to identify the artist's initial "solution" to the “problem”, and the edge of the canvas is no longer the end of the painting. In the previous stage, the canvas was like a notebook, a comprehensive record of the artist's thoughts and thinking process, as if the artist's mind had been transplanted onto the canvas. At this point, the picture itself has metamorphosed into a rich human world, and the huge leap between thinking and creating is completely presented on the canvas.


We can identify traces of the artist's painting process in the picture, some of which are preserved and some are overlaid with new patterns. This habit has been maintained in his painting practice for more than ten years, and should not be regarded as a modernist-style performance of the body. Just as thought itself is not abstract but a dynamic process of seeking breakthroughs in finitude, Zhao's paintings possess this quality as well. For the paintings of a thinker, the importance of their truthfulness by far outweighs the images themselves. Zhao imbues the paintings with the sincerity of his thought, which is in turn faithfully recorded in the images and emerges from behind the layers of further colouring and negation. And in 2019, the method of retaining the painting process has subtly changed. His perspective seems to switch back and forth between the whole and the local, and the picture evolves and structures like baroque music. Through such switching, the flat space is given depth, while diachronic traces can be identified in a synchronic image. Hence the dialogue between time and space, an age-old and ever renewed issue in painting.


Zhao named his paintings "My Modernism". He has adopted Cézanne's way of thinking in color, but its acquisition is not through conscious learning. Rather, it is the most natural result of his sincere interrogation of his own artistic career spanning more than five decades, and of his constant, often negative reflections on the zeitgeist and limited reality in which he lives. His thoughts rub off on the images, and in the process the modernist method makes itself readily available to him. The psychedelic and dazzling images, the production process bordering upon witchcraft, the decorative appeals: none of these has really entered the heart of Zhao’s painting, though all these were repeatedly established and discarded by modernists, and repeatedly introduced and suspended in the Chinese context. His concerns are not with pictoriality or the various issues surrounding the formalism of painting, but are with the creators who, in the long course of history, have used ideas as the raw materials of their creation.


This exhibition focuses on Zhao Dajun's paintings that are dated around 2019. We see him as our contemporary, a thinker whose artistic career spans more than half a century and who remains in dialogue with the realities of Chinese artistic practice today. That dialectic of negation and transcendence, which has permeated Zhao's artistic career, continues in these paintings. It is in the year of 2019 that, after starting a new painting approach in 2008, he turned to a comprehensive artistic language and deepened the intellectual structure of his paintings. The year also marks the beginning of a new journey for him, a beginning that starts in his 80s.