top of page
IMG_6770_edited.jpg

Zheng Chongbin grew up in Shanghai, where he trained in traditional ink painting and calligraphy as a teenager. He then studied and subsequently taught at the Zhejiang Art Academy (now the China Art Academy) in Hangzhou. He moved to the United States in 1989 where he studied at the famed San Francisco Art Institute and where he has lived since.

In a career spanning some 40 years, Zheng has established himself as one of the leading practitioners amongst contemporary ink artists in the world today.

Zheng is a multi-faceted artist whose practice ranges from his own unique adaptation of the medium of ink on xuan paper, to video, to what he refers to as “light and space” installations, to ceramics and, recently, “monoprints”.

He is represented in the permanent collections of major museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the British Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Art, Houston, the Daimler Art Collection, and M+ and the Hong Kong Museum of Art here in Hong Kong.

 

His installations have been exhibited in venues ranging from the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the Shanghai Library East, the Asian art Museum of San Francisco, the Ryosokuin Temple at Kenninji in Kyoto, Asia Society, Houston TX, the Shanghai Bienale of 2016-17, to name just a few.

Art works
image_edited.jpg

 

Slanted Line, 2012

Ink And Acrylic On Xuan paper

143 x 179cm

Five Definitions,2012,292x287cm_edited.p

Five Definitions, 2012

Ink And Acrylic On Xuan paper

292 x 287cm

negative exponents,2016_edited.png

 

Negative Exponents, 2016
Ink And Acrylic On Xuan Paper
150 x 102cm

Four Corners,2015,180x191cm_edited.jpg

 

Four Corners, 2015

Ink And Acrylic On Xuan paper

292 x 287cm

Eclipse,2019_edited.jpg

 

Eclipse,2019
Ink And Acrylic On Xuan Paper
122 x 150cm

Zheng Chongbin works

 

Distanced Light, 2024

Ink, Pigment And Acrylic On Xuan paper

101.6 x 121.1cm 

 

Ecliptic Moment A, 2024
Ink, Acrylic And Pigment On Xuan Paper
149.9 x 129.5cm

image_edited.jpg
Homepage - 2-min_edited.jpg

Layering Views, 2019

Light and Space Installation
at Gallery149

An Interview with Zheng Chongbin

Interview with Zheng Chongbin X Gallery149
Conducted at Gallery149, Hong Kong, in February 2024

ZCB-interview-lighttraces_edited.png

Let’s start with the new works we've just opened. You are using colour for the first time in more than 30 years. Why colour and why now?

ZCB: Over the last two years I've began working on prints, periodically. Of course, you could be working in black and white. But I very much wanted to use colour to convey a spectrum of light and space. The very smooth surface and transitions of the print medium [allow different effects] of hue - metallics, shine, iridescence. And, of course, each colour and colour mixture has its own material

character and light properties.

[For the paintings], at the beginning, I had no idea how I was going to do this group. I prefer not to pre-think a series in my mind, like, oh, I need to do colour pieces. And so, I need to find a reason. As I started it, I felt I should try to integrate what I had been working on in my prints, by using colour, and to continue working on the light and space themes my print making had opened-up. And so that's how the works evolved.

Was colour a necessity for the print series?

ZCB: I felt there was a necessity for colour in the prints - it allows me to perceive light and space in a different way, [given the surface characteristics of the medium]. So, for the paintings, I starting thinking of how to shift from prints to painting and back from painting to prints, alternating and pollinating between the surfaces and processes of each medium. This dynamic was integral to the process.

Could we say that your print work has unlocked a new dimension?

ZCB: Absolutely, that's definitely the case. For someone like me who has long expressed the world of colour through an essentially black and white medium, the prints represent kind of a reversal or opening-up. In the past, colour had seemed unnecessary, given the rich range of tonalities in the ink medium. Additionally, for me, using colour is a way of conveying the perception of time, as we experience colour transitions in natural phenomena.

How did the process of creating these paintings unfold?

 

ZCB: Well, I think it's exciting…after the fact. I like the way the media penetrate the paper and the way the colour particles can form layers on both sides, almost like a sculpting process. I was really curious, especially since the pigment doesn’t exactly behave in the way I expected. It’s interesting. You think you know, but you, don't really know until you do it.

 

Going through different stages, working on this colour series, I was thinking about inclusiveness rather than being selective. The unfamiliarity prompted reinterpretation and new dimensions-space, transparency, how to work with the materials.

But [the works] can really only come fully to realisation after mounting. Because even [when] finished, before mounting, [the] surface is always somewhat dynamic, until what’s beneath comes through. This is also how the natural world functions, in constant flux. So I’m more excited afterwards. I feel the agency of the materials resonates with the processes of the natural world and, in a sense, takes me beyond painting.

 

Essentially, I didn't make the process different, but using colour on the same level with black and white, for me, prompted a new [mode] of perception - like I'm learning another way, seeing if it’s possible [to create a] unity of light from visible to invisible. Of course, I kind of anticipated that would happen. [The result] is like having a whole new vision.

These are also smaller scale works, did that require a different approach?

ZCB: Well, I usually do larger pieces. That’s because I want to integrate my artwork into architectures, volume, gravity, space and scale, beyond the paintings. For years I hadn’t thought about smaller works other than drawings or sketches. However, [in these paintings], essentially, the size made no difference. I’m still thinking about placement within each space [in the gallery], pairing works, [and presenting them] as a whole rather than as individual works. And I feel the approach here has huge potential to expand on a much larger scale.

What possibilities does colour create?

 

ZCB: I think the light effect is something very different, very luminescent. Anything I do lately on my paintings, my first thinking is about light. So I can see when [we were] opening the paintings [just now], your eyes kind of “popped” and lit up. I think is because [of the] radiant glow out of the pieces. And again, that’s also coming from the prints. I do want to create a kind of “agential” intensity, whether its from a very smooth surface or heavily textured one, and thereby heighten viewer’s sensory experience.

 

You briefly mentioned the material properties of the colours earlier, can

you give a couple of examples?

ZCB: With the red cinnabar ink, I actually did colour paintings using this red some 30 years ago. I wanted to use it again for this new context. It's unique because it's bright and vibrant, you can see [it] from a far distance, and at same time, its very heavy, visually, with a lot of substance as a material. I didn't use yellow pigment as yellow. I mix it with acrylic which gives it interesting

properties. Because of the pigment, the particle is so heavy, and they're relatively bigger, the paper became like a filter. Which is interesting, because [on] the other side, you can see the paper fibres, still white and then specks of colour. So front can be back and back can be a front. It reminds me of an interaction in which one set of bodies reacts with another, in a causal iteration. [And if] I want to use both sides I use folding. So you get a whole, round experience. The membrane is something that things can “grow” on, cling on, you can go through it, or stay in the middle. It has a time quality. So it became a [new] dimension, almost like sculpting (as I mentioned earlier). And we can look at the surface as a space, and understand surfaces totally differently. And it's how the material behaves in a living way. Like a living phenomenon.

 

This is a big shift, because you haven’t used colour in you painting for more than thirty years.

ZCB: I had for a long time rejected that, because I felt that ink is something much richer than colour, and so relevant in contemporary art. The world of contemporary art [often] doesn’t see ink painting as a [major] category, like many of the “isms” we know. And so for my whole life I have wanted to break that pigeonholed [view], to change people's view [of] how to see ink painting, [and] to unleash [its] potential and relevance. 

 

Of course, there are whole periods in Chinese art, which don't use colour at all.

 

ZCB: In Chinese art, colour is always secondary - other than the Blue and Green shan shui style - but they are not really the main style in the history of ink painting, just one of the branches.

 

But I don't really think much about tradition, in my view towards the ink medium. It's how I trained, and so it's in my cultural DNA, in a way. But I deliberately shifted [my approach to] ink to negate tradition and reconstruct [it] as a whole new territory.

 

How important is the representation of nature and the natural world in your

work?

ZCB: Presentation, the presenting of nature's presence …not representation. I think art is the way we understand the world, how we experience the world, how we perceive the world. So the process of this [for me] is always the presentation of nature, what our surroundings mean - how geometry forms, how living elements interact in their own ways…to break through Euclidean geometry to present rhizomatic [root-like] patterns, to explore connections and causal relationships in the natural and physical world, patterns of growth, what constitutes our life, the evolution of physical change. For example, bacteria, or fungi mapping horizontally… And [to present] human/non-human interactivity with the natural world.

It's the living characteristics of the media, both presented and manifested, and their material agency that carry me on here. I feel that not only is this media relevant to the contemporary world, but it also is actually very much mirroring how nature performs. And so, the presentation of natural phenomena through this medium, is just really the embodiment of the agencies of the natural world.

I feel like [my work is] very much connected to nature, not because I'm sitting there, looking at a beautiful landscape, but [because] I’m breathing the air, walking on the ground, and I see all these evolving living things, pick-up an empty plastic bottle, smell the decay of dead leaves, underground and above ground, all changing through the seasons. It’s something that you are living with and experiencing. [This is] the kind of tangible connection I feel when making paintings. 

And this approach extends beyond your painting to your workshops and video work and installations…

ZCB: Very much in my video work and light installations. But I also do workshops, both with adults and children, [often with] scientists, or people in the medical field. And there’s often a fascinating moment, when they [spontaneously] say, oh, you know, this reminds me of what we do, or we can think in this way. It’s very exciting to hear this. We have to break out the notion of just art.

 

I used to be heavily influenced by minimalism, German expressionism, abstract expressionism, but I'm kind of tired of falling back onto art “isms”. I think this cross disciplinary world is much more relatable. 

 

Is your presentation of nature and the natural world similar to Xie He’s (painter and critic, Southern Qi, 479-502) concept of qi, the first of his “Six Canons” in Chinese art (about which you have written)?

ZCB: In some ways, yes. For Xie He, qi is the resonance of life and without qi, nothing holds together. But this is a very poetic notion and applies in a within a particular set of [traditional Chinese] ideas. It’s not so much an empirical or biological view, or a view of how nature operates. 

 

So you're extending or applying that idea in a different way and into a completely new dimension.

 

ZCB: Exactly.

Can you talk about some of your early influences? You have elsewhere mentioned the impact of the Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) exhibition in Beijing in 1985.

ZCB: Well, we didn’t really know much about Rauschenberg or where his ideas came from. We just went to see it… coming from America, this very big figure. It was our first encounter seeing an artist so liberated, for whom anything was possible. And frankly, that was a very superficial understanding of his work. But at the same time, it hit profoundly. It left me with a very strong desire, like, oh, I’ve got to do something - break [with] what I [was] familiar with. Because this was nothing like it - his world, his video performances, paintings, sculptures, the daily objects, industrial [elements] …his three dimensional surface. It’s just, basically, turning everything into his work …Of course, I didn't really understand the context of his response to his life experience at the time, how he reflects his time, his political, social, historical meaning, his background and [influences], his time at Black Mountain etc. But at the time, it was explosive. China was stagnant in the water and someone just threw big rocks in. And you know, it's like, whoa, wakes you up. So that's how we started, without knowing, without fear, too.

How did your early approach develop?

ZCB: In the 80s, I was very dissatisfied with traditional ink painting. And my first dissatisfaction was because of the medium. [It was] lacking physicality, lacking immediacy, the forms copied through tradition, with no distinction other than repetitive, stylised expression. It discouraged reinvention. Anything foreign was considered “trash”, so they always say, ‘don't “trash” your painting’. So I wanted to “trash” [my] painting.

Was this when you introduced Acrylic into your work (which you have used ever since)?

ZCB: Yeah, I think that is, like, my invention and breakthrough. It was a physical intrusion to break what I [had] been used to. Acrylic [allows] different surface textures, and has a tactile interplay and interaction with ink. I was looking at the time at Jean Dubuffet’s work, with the sand, and gravel, even.

 

Was this also when you started using the broad paibi mounting brush (which

is never used for painting in Chinese art) instead of traditional ink painting

brushes?

ZCB: I started just to break through - paibi is a good [example]. The minute I pick up the traditional brush, my finger goes in [a certain] way to hold it, it says ‘I don't know any other way to hold it’, and [holding it another way] doesn't work, it's pointless. So, throw it away and use a paibi and break your habitual act. And so, your act has to be very different and that changes the whole of your behaviour - your stroke and your line. And so paibi can be repetitive, can be [used for a] large

surface, can be flat. Flat in the classic standard is failure, but, in a sense, why not? flat is volume, it is space, and so [allows the] whole abstract element to come in. So I took it on while studying and shifting to a semi-abstract [approach].

Then you stopped painting when you went to the US in 1989 and shifted instead to conceptual art, installations, set design, performance.

 

ZCB: I stopped painting [after moving to SFAI in the US] because I was in a different culture and in a school environment with other artists. I wanted to touch different media and get into different practices. By shifting to a different environment and different life, I had no reason to [be] against traditional Chinese painting. [It was not] because I felt a limitation in painting. It wasn't like that. It was turning my head to look towards many directions.

 

And then you came back to painting in the mid to late 90s…

ZCB: [In] the late 90s I started to feel reason to paint again, [to explore] materialities of media that I was familiar with. Somehow a new language emerged out of my dissatisfaction with painting in general. I started with the Blot series. I wasn't thinking about painting [as much as] building layers and creating depth between the surface and the hidden trace underneath. Ink, clear ceramic sealer and paper were the main media I was using at the time.

 

The layers of sealer are transparent, but when they dry, they create an effect like membranes, transparent layers on and between the ink and paper. So the Blot series is purely media, showing the connection from the visible to the invisible. I started with a single blot. And then multiple dots. And then I kind of expanded, magnifying the dots. Its like anchoring the space or field, if I can call it that. And then I thought, hey, I'm just gonna do the blots so. So that's how I started there.

 

You have said that the black paintings by Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) were an important trigger at this time. He was only interested in materiality of the object – ie the painting itself. He famously said, ‘art is art, everything else is everything else’.

ZCB: Yes

For him it was the ‘end of painting’, but for you it was a beginning.

ZCB: Exactly. For me it is a beginning - to see painting as a living ecology. I could see the materiality of the painting reflecting my surrounding environment. To see the penetrable, water-absorbed paper, travelling particles of ink, all emerge as a dynamic, “living” entity that I can facilitate and collaborate with, forming the surface, streaming, the effects of evaporation, of vapour and mist. The trace of residues. Particles running through the surface, branch patters that might resemble neural pathways…

I think for Reinhardt, based on the Western tradition, he took painting, especially his black paintings, to a point where there was nothing further you could actually see.

I was [also able to] take a turn, after seeing Malevich’s work (Kazimir Malevich, 1879-1935) - for example, his White on White (MoMA, NY), the white square on a white background. He said, in his abstractions, ‘my surface is the bacteria. And they grow. They are live, they are poetry’. And that really hit me. So it's square. But if you look at it, it's like crackles and many little things going on. That's how he defined the surface as a living thing. It's for me, a sort of beginning, something I

started to see.

And around this time you made a connection with the work and theory of the early Qing artist Shi Tao (c.1642-c.1707).

ZCB: I think Shi Tao’s demand out of ink is a lot more substantial than any other ink artist in history. Because he simply looked at ink in itself, very much like Ad Reinhardt. For him, ink is something that is nothing else. And so he's elevated the materiality of this medium. The 10,000 Ugly Dots [Lingyan Temple, Suzhou], you look at it, is like a crazy, chaotic [series of] lines with dots all over the landscape. Almost like, looking at a distance, one of Jackson Pollock's paintings. That's why I feel like the physicality of his painting conveys explosive action. So I think of him as the “father” of contemporary Chinese ink painting. Of course, he uses a different [artistic] vocabulary to conceptualise his “code” of dots. But he expanded the definition of the ink form. [In revisiting his work and theories] I was eager to find the connections.

Is there an end-point to painting for you?

ZCB: I am interested in presenting our experience of the living world, our relationship with visible and invisible phenomena, our concept of the self and our perceptions of our experience, [our] understanding of what we have learned or have been told, the way [our understanding of] nature is constantly [being] toppled, constantly gone, because we constantly have new understandings as the environment changes, and as our knowledge base keeps renewing (just think of any field of science). I still very much want to [continue to] tackle [these themes] through painting, and I feel the unique form of the medium I have evolved, and am still evolving, gives me more or less unlimited scope. But I’m also doing workshops, which are so important to gaining a collective perspective, and working in other media (eg video, installations) that are pursuing the same query and investigation. These approaches synergise, and centre around similar ideas. And so I see painting sort of shifting away from [the context of] art history to be part of a much broader cross-disciplinary enquiry. To me, it is almost irrelevant [to be] still discussing the end of the painting or not.

bottom of page