A Contemporary Reading of Tong Zhengang's Paintings
Source:Artintern Author:Gao Ling Date: 2008-12-06 Size:
Reading Tong Zhengang’s paintings from an academic viewpoint, it is undoubtedly essential to have a thorough review and comparison on contemporary art trends.

 Tong Zhengang, Artwork

Reading Tong Zhengang’s paintings from an academic viewpoint, it is undoubtedly essential to have a thorough review and comparison on contemporary art trends. Or else we can just immerse ourselves in the unique atmosphere that he builds in his works and nothing more. It would be prejudicial and limited if we simply define Tong Zhengang as a Chinese traditional ink painter, because his artistic career progressed from seal carving, calligraphy and then ink painting. In his latest creations, Tong Zhengang has broken through the general concept of the creation of Chinese ink painting, no matter in terms of the materials used or the expression of ideas. What does it mean? First of all, let us return to the painting media that is called Chinese painting and its related languages as the starting point of this short article.

As everyone knows, under the background of modern culture, there is a huge controversy which has lasted for a long time over what is Chinese painting. However, I think that in traditional Chinese painting, there are some basic elements that cannot be substituted by other formats of painting such as paper, pigments, the calligraphic brushstroke, poetic atmosphere, integration of poetry, calligraphy, painting and seals, as well as the ways of constructing the interplay of emptiness and substance, white and black, and the artistic conception of viewing vastness in a small painting. When doing research on the development of Chinese ink painting in the past two decades, people have undeniably noticed the transformation of ink painting based on these elements. Specifically speaking, there are Gu Wenda’s breakthrough in the concept of calligraphy and painting sharing the same origin, the new Literati paintings’ experienced evasion from new trend art, and experimental ink paintings’ divorcement and re-union of these basic elements, and so forth. There is a common understanding by art critics and painters that, compared to oil painting which is an imported art form, so-called Chinese ink painting has encountered much more serious challenge and chaos in recent years. Looking around widely, we can discover that, apart from the main forces of creation from civilian and official traditional painters as before, those who really want to enhance and glorify our national quintessence of Chinese culture in the broader view of present day are under more and more criticism from critic and creation groups. Perhaps, sticking to the bottom line of ink painting represents a voice in this disordered art field. Nevertheless, it is also fruitless to blindly return to tradition or set the regulation and standard for tradition in advance. For the creation of artists, ideas are without boundaries, as is technique. Didn’t Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, contemporary philosophers in France, said that thought can rove around “thousand highlands”? Now, let us look at the case of Tong Zhengang see how he breaks through the turmoil to express himself.

It cannot be denied that if we look back on Tong Zhengang’s creative progress, his early works are deeply influenced by Chinese traditional painting. Yet what is worth noticing is, even in that period his painting has already carried vivid characteristics: from the paintings we can clearly see the impact of composition of seal carving and movement of the knife. Also, we can see the use of brush tip which contains the forceful feature of calligraphy in Han and Song dynasties, as well as the vigorousness of woodcarving block print and clumsiness of inscriptions on metal and stone bells. The most outstanding point is his full composition, which is the pursuit in Chinese painting theory of the so-called “so dense that even not allowing ventilation”. His distinctive application of essential factors of traditional Chinese painting, state clearly that Tong Zhengang has already get out of the influence of inheriting relationship of certain painting schools. To all kinds of essential factors that compose Chinese painting, he has his own unique feelings and understanding. We are afraid that it’s difficult to make clear every small detail of Tong Zhengang’s evolution of thoughts, but in today’s condition that information is commonly shared and it goes without saying that he is affected by various types of art tides. Such point possesses significant meaning as regards our understanding of Tong Zhengang’s experiments on paper material later on. Due to his comprehension and sensitiveness towards the charm of language of forms, Tong Zhengang was urged to start placing his interest on the breakthrough of traditional painting language at an early stage; afterwards he even boldly made noticeable experiments on painting languages. In the “Transmigration Series” and “Transformation Series” done in 1996, large amounts of acrylic pigment and printing color were applied in experiments on paper and traditional Chinese medium.

Some art critics believe that, initially when Tong Zhengang was doing the creation of “New Literati Painting”, he was good at showing the vitality of the calligraphic brushstroke, and did not confine himself to the accuracy of the modeling of figures. This also states that he has already revealed his predilection towards painting languages in terms of form. Owing to this special obsession, he accumulated a capability of form languages surpassing the transmission of contents in the following process of his pursuit. This is the reason for the strong visual impact from his recent creation on paper – “Blue Series”.

Regarding Tong Zhengang as partial and sensitive to painting languages of form does not mean he neglects the contents of paintings. Would rather saying that, if we over emphasize the symbolic contents of his painting forms, it will result in the neglect of his experiments and explorations on painting materials and the aesthetics characters produced. From Tong Zhengang’s early and recent paintings, we can really see the elements of classical symbols, such as beautiful ladies, vases, screens and palace lanterns. We can also see the elements of modern daily life, such as wineglasses with high stands, eyeglasses, and incandescent lamps. It will be too much prejudiced and literary, if we point out their implied meanings in the painting in detail. The contemporary meaning of painting lie in its own charm of language forms; it is the outcome of the capacity and extension of visual languages.

In the recent “Blue Series”, the arrangement of scenery and figures becomes more and more simplified. Yet, the use of color has offset the monotone created by such simplification - dark blue color has densely covered the sky range upon range, dragging the heavy body, rolling, gushing and dispersing everywhere; light blue mountains are also personified as big waves going on and on. As distant views, they are full of rhythm of life. It is as if the starry starry night created by Vincent Van Gogh reappears on the paper of Chinese painting. Other techniques used to express figures in the foreground form a vivid comparison to the large-scale blue color: blushes on cheeks and eyelids of figures, rouge on their lips, and also half-opened sleepy eyes. These enable viewers to notice that, in his latest works, as always, Tong Zhengang still maintains his intense attention to the life state of human. The only difference is, the chilly and gorgeous beautiful elements constructed by modern ladies, green vases, window lattices and fan shapes have been replaced by men and women, the old and young clustered round by big flowers.


The sky is so blue, thick and full of variations, filled with all kinds of transitions. However for those people who are suppressed by the sky, they appear to be dull, indolent, and even puzzled. This is a contrast caused by visual form. Undoubtedly, the artist has an inexplicable unconscious direction behind such method of creation. At least, we can see that the ideology of green porcelain and rouged ladies in his previous paintings has cast shadows on his selection of several colors in recent paintings. Even so, this reappearance has already broken away from the literary traces that his previous creations have not eliminated. Only two to three simple color tones and striking compositions already fully illustrate the charm of form languages in paintings, carrying such information that: this is the times when is in vogue of mixed materialism, behind the wealthy life there is still an inexplicable confusion. Different from the previous paintings which through the mutual blending of elements of all kinds of characters and patterns depicted the feeling of feminized indolence; these new paintings emphasize the conciseness and originality of different kinds of elements. These enable viewers to taste the rich meaning of the images from the simplex and succinct visual images – we are in the time which is full of hopes and confusion, looking at these shocking pictures, everyone’s heart must well up with deep feelings. Here, the artist uses his unique way to mold a portrait of contemporary people, which reaches their deep anxiety hidden in the innermost soul. It is hard to achieve such an effect only depending on the reappearance of the real objects and weaving of various kinds of elements.

The indolence and giddiness under Tong Zhengang’s brushes seems contradictory to his own heavy build. However, a number of writers have discussed his relationship with females; thereby we can have a deeper understanding on the feeling of giddiness in his paintings. In fact, employing females as the main themes is merely the juncture that Tong Zhengang involves the secular life through painting. This becomes more and more obvious in his creation of painting recently. In other words, Tong Zhengang employs his own style (mostly images of female characters) to express his attention towards contemporary social life, reflecting his individual sensitiveness and understanding of painting vocabularies.

To derive nutrients from traditional art and boldly break apart, polish, absorb, then add in fresh material, finally transforms his particular artistic expression, and enables Tong Zhengang’s creation to veer from the limitation, contradiction and disputes of the trends of thought of Chinese ink painting in the past two decades. Then he advances to the rearrangement of varied painting resources, readjustment of the active and passive relations, and the feeling of pressing close to the selfhood and reality. Exactly for this meaningful reason, Tong Zhengang’s artistic practice has paved a route for the development of people’s thoughts on flat-surfaced paintings (here, it is no longer on the original level of Chinese traditional ink painting).

[Editor] Zhang Shuo