Zhu Jinshi’s first solo exhibition in New York showcased three decades of the artist’s paintings in two separate but complementary styles. His “allover” works cover the canvas completely with paint up to six inches thick. His “liu bai” works, in comparison, balance the heavy application of paint with areas intentionally left blank. Liu bai (literally, leave white or blank) is a reference to a concept in traditional Chinese aesthetics that describes the artful use of emptiness in a composition. The link to classical Chinese painting is most evident in Zhu’s recent monochrome works, one of which was on display. In Bringing Food Upstairs with Both Hands (2014), black paint rises dense and shimmering from plain white canvas. From a distance, the solid mass of layered forms looks almost like a series of faraway mountains. A closer look reveals that the paint has been applied like mortar, each layer crackling and shining like paving tar.
To some extent, the idea of painting as manual labor is a natural connection, as Zhu first studied oil painting while working in a factory during China’s Cultural Revolution. Born in Beijing in 1954, he never attended art school. From 1973 to 1977, he worked as an assistant to Li Zongjin, who had formerly been a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in the capital. Soon afterward, Zhu became associated with the Stars (Xing Xing), an avant-garde group based in Beijing. His paintings were included in the group’s inaugural 1979 exhibition, which is often considered the first show of contemporary art in China. Painting in Beijing during the 1980s, Zhu worked to reconcile elements of Western Abstract Expressionism with Chinese aesthetics. In 1986, the artist relocated to Germany, where he was profoundly influenced by Joseph Beuys, who largely abandoned painting in favor of more radical means of expression. During the 1990s, Zhu’s artistic corpus grew to include performance, video and photographic works. When Zhu returned to China in 2000, he began to paint again, soon producing a large body of work in a unified but evolving abstract style.
Zhu’s most recent paintings wrestle with the power of paint to transcend the boundaries of the medium. For Clement Greenberg, allover compositions marked an attack against the dying conventions of easel painting by flattening the surface of a work, thus dissolving the pictorial space into “sheer texture, into apparently sheer sensation.” But Zhu’s allover approach disrupts this dialectic, subverting uniform flatness with a thickness that asserts the weight of each skein of oil, defying a reading of any work as a flat plane. Zhu has said that thickness “can be used as a point of breakthrough,” a statement particularly applicable to Hunger 2944 (2015). The bold blue lines in this work gently evoke Pollock’s Number 11, 1952, the blue poles of which undermine the perfect flatness of the picture and led Greenberg to dismiss the piece as a failure. In Zhu’s painting, however, each brilliant streak of blue rises up and stands against the areas of bare white canvas and angry swirls of yellow and red. These blue poles struggle against the surface of the painting itself, laboring to escape the gallery walls.