Zhao Nengzhi: Watch the Unbearable Faces
Source:Artintern Author:Zhu Qi Date: 2009-01-01 Size:
Watching paintings by Zhao Nengzhi, is in fact a process of watching faces your internal response unbearable to see. All those faces describe the grow stage of his adolescence. Through them, Zhao shows the struggle of mind and human nature. Paintings of faces, therefore, become a way of salvation,

Watching paintings by Zhao Nengzhi, is in fact a process of watching faces your internal response unbearable to see. All those faces describe the grow stage of his adolescence. Through them, Zhao shows the struggle of mind and human nature. Paintings of faces, therefore, become a way of salvation, and the portraits do not have any characteristics of the times, but a detailed and elaborate narrative of the soul’s struggling. Since the end of 1990s, almost all the paintings are about painful faces. They are grey, distended faces, with melancholy, weird and horrid eyes. Sometimes, the faces seem to watch something; moreover, they just look through the mirror to see the cruel face of their own.

Zhao found his own way of expression in the late 1990s. He put all his attention to human’s faces, and instead of portrait of a real figure, what he cared about is a spiritual symbol—an inner face. The faces are unfamiliar with the real ones, like being soaked in the water for a long time, hence human nature and the soul seems to suffer a great distortion, and in this way, the artist obtained a penetrating sense of pain. The vacant-looking eyes are always very complex: they seem to watch other people, while at the same time seeing themselves from the mirror image. Zhao could paint the faces in a stereotyped character; however, he did not follow the trend of using symbolic forms or Chinese identity. Instead, his painting dug out the spiritual part of human’s faces. His early paintings, which exhibited on the “Cruel Adolescence Paintings”, were about youth growing up.

That exhibition can be regarded as a preview of the Post-70s Art in the late 1990s, for its emphasis on an allegory way of expression. Without a realistic background, though some of those paintings had real figures, all was used for creating a much inner image of heart. As soon as the Post-70s Art came out, it received widespread attentions. Because of its emphasis on one’s inner experience, it had sharp contrasts with the prevalent style of symbolic and print like character. Among the exhibits of “Cruel Adolescence Paintings”, Zhao’s painting may not be the most striking one. The absence of particular adolescence image and narrative storylines made his paintings just a remold of his own face. The whole painting is shot through with a single face, sometimes, the face are so expanded that they even surpass the picture frame. The elements of his works are very simple, with every face showing a poetic expression. Besides this expression, there are no more things to convey in fact. The painfulness caused by turgid skin, made the face extremely ugly, but it also showed a complicated stated of mind. From the young man’s eyes, expressions such as melancholy, weirdness, horror, anxiety, doubt, anger and weary are clearly conveyed. The focus on his own experience, imparted Zhao’s early paintings a sense of adolescence sentimentalism, that is, unbearable painfulness with poetic sentimentalism.

This poetic sentimentalism is the prominent feature of Zhao’s painting. Among the Post-70s Art, few people’s work could have the same power as his. For a long time after the 1990s, Zhao maintained a style of grey tone and sickly appearance, which is the keynote of modern paintings. Together with ugly and painful images, the face series left people a deep impression, a mixture of painfulness and poetic penetration. Zhao did not walk very far along the single direction. His paintings are not only about adolescence, but also about prevalent experience shared by every human being. And in addition to creating the image of adolescence growing up, he also keeps experimenting the language of art. Since his early stage of the grey face series, Zhao have found a language of his own, by which his image showed his state of mind. His portrait changed as his mind changed, and eventually it became portrait of his inner heart. Though the gray faces themselves are clear and definite image series, the state of mind is changeable as time goes. During the five years of working on the gray faces series, more and more men’s faces appeared on the canvas, with different kinds of sickly appearance. These images are particular and unique in exploring the existence of human nature, in that case, Zhao finally had a style of his own. In 1990s, the main feature of the contemporary art is remolding the already existed image with symbolic meaning. Zhao, however, just walked on his way. His paintings reflected an allegorical form of heart, which more came from his experience rather than reality. Each year, there are subtle changes in Zhao’s painting, and these changes are producing a kind of deep and inner power. Behind the images of sick faces, Zhao kept trying to purify the state of mind presented by expressions. As a result, sentimentalism and adolescence growing up themes gradually faded away, while human nature’s sickness and struggle of the soul were strengthened to a prevalent height. In his early gray faces series, Zhao’s practice only dealt with the poetic feelings of painting. From the red face women series, he began to put more attentions on the meaning of sickness and struggling themselves. This series marked a tremendous change in his painting. The gray black background, and golden or silver gray hair, are all immersed in a strong crazy color of red. If the gray series is regarded as dark and sentimental tones, the red series is almost the true sickness. Zhao used colors subjectively, and what’s interesting, he painted all the men’s faces in dark gray, while almost all the women faces were painted in enthusiastic red. Women’s red faces are no longer in the poetic tones. Comparing with the gray face men, whose panic are watched by a poetic eye, the only thing can be seen in these women is cruelty. The artist abandoned the poetic tone, instead, reproducing the cruel reality with colorful sickness. The ugly faces, crazy expressions, almost seemed to be possessed, and the images are torn by human nature and evil spirit. Among them, some cries, some laughs, some are at the edge of mental collapse. Their crazy is a real, a sick state that hard to control. Besides the detail description of human’s deep involvement in evil spirit, the presence of sickly appearance in the red series is not as cruel as the gray faces series. Through subjective approach, the red face image went to another extreme tone. The gray tone made the whole picture poetic, transforming painfulness into aesthetic beauty; while the red color on the contrary strengthened the panic feelings, along with some inner tensions of struggling and restless. The focus of painting is not poetic beauty any more, but deep rooted conflict and division, and human nature that suffered all kinds of torments. It seems that, watching the cruel reality itself is meaningful. If the gray face is still about uncertain state of blurred and turbid mind, the red face presented goes to an extremely strong state of human nature. Women in his paintings are not beautiful at all, and they seem to narrate the struggle of human nature by themselves such as their confronting to the ugly faces. The early gray face men are a kind of autobiography, these women images, however, are not only sick women but every human being’s struggle. That is to say, Zhao’s red face series marked his change from autobiography to the concerning of prevalent destiny of human beings, though it was still about human nature and the struggle, revealing the cruelness of humanity. In his then following series of “Phantom”, Zhao tried to surpass the express of human nature and began to reveal the essence of life. Paintings of this series focused on the evil and negative side of human spirit, such as hate, hostility and indifferent, with red color kept as a symbol of real panic suffered by artist, and early gray style of describing the face and expression. Bold lines are used to describe the shape of face, and the sense of reality is diluted, which emphasize an allegorical feature. Emotional state also becomes less important, giving prominence to the spiritual attitude.

Though without strong emotional rise and fall, this series highlighted the tension of conflicts of human’s spirit and willpower. From poetic painfulness, realistic description of sickness, to representation of the soul itself, Zhao keeps to experiment the language of art and reveal the deep side of human beings in his paintings. His image initially was an imitation of himself, but later on, he surpassed this stage and searched for the true self. As a result, images of the soul gradually appear. From that time on, Zhao’s painting began to have possibility and meaning of salvation.May 11, 2007, in WangjingTranslation: Yang Fangfei

[Editor] Zhang Shuo