“I’m a person who likes to walk alone, who likes taking his own path and thinking for himself.” Zheng Xuewu’s (b. 1964) statement appositely describes the artist’s personality. Moving to Beijing in the early 1990s to establish himself as a professional artist, Zheng Xuewu decided to break free from the pre-conceived parameters of the print medium that he was taught in the Art Department of Harbin University. Ever since, Zheng has solemnly pursued his highly individual approach to art production.
Woodblock print is an ancient art in China that has mutated and re-invented itself along with the country’s turbulent history. Due to its immediate and visually forceful effect as well as its embeddedness in folk culture – most notably New Year’s prints and other illustrations – the Chinese Communist party appropriated the medium for propaganda purposes early on. With the demise of the Cultural Revolution, the medium seems to have lost its appeal and luster for the government and thus created a space to challenge its strict impositions.
Zheng Xuewu has never been a print maker in the strict sense. Although his oeuvre is clearly rooted in the medium, the additive execution of the individual works and the inclusion of diverse materials don’t allow them to fit neatly into the preconceived category. This is an integral part of Zheng’s works, but also makes them difficult to exhibit in the museum context, as they do not fit the established categories.
Still, Zheng Xuewu persists and pushes further. His works combine the traditional and the modern as they emulate a cacophony of symbols and signages that saturate Chinese urban visuality: Chinese and Arabian numerals and glyphs, newspaper types, stamps, and seal imprints. The density and frequency of repetition pushes his works towards the ornamental and, lately, even towards the abstract.
Abstraction is a path seldom taken in contemporary art production on the Chinese Mainland. Not only do the artists find them much harder to sell but also they only rarely attract the attention of ‘big critics’. In that sense, the 2003 Beijing exhibition ‘Prayer Beads and Brush Strokes’ curated by Li Xianting – widely seen as the father of contemporary Chinese art - was seminal and of utmost importance to its participants. Zheng Xuewu was one of them: “We are really the first generation of abstract artists in China.” Looking at the included works, it seems that the form of Chinese abstraction is essentially one of repetition.
In his new works entitled ‘China’s Shapes’ (2004), Zheng Xuewu breaks away from this repetitive aspect and instead focuses on the use of the abstract symbol. He was inspired by the symbolic quality of Picasso’s and Miro’s works, Zheng says. Still, his compositions remain deeply rooted in the Chinese context and his approach remains as meticulous as before. In execution Zheng Xuewu moved away from the print medium in this series. ‘China’s Shapes’, however, still retains a strong visual and conceptual connection with his previous work.
“I leaf through collections of rubbings from ancient seal script carvings. If it were not for the annotations I could not read the individual characters. That allows me to focus purely on their form. Ultimately, I try to find a section of a character that I find visually interesting.” By only using a fraction of a character, Zheng Xuewu denies the original meaning to permeate while at the same time allowing the structures to retain their essence and take on new meanings.
Zheng Xuewu’s forms are not neatly contained within his compositions so that the space beyond the picture plane becomes equally important. It infuses the works with movement and enabels them to transmit the pulse of contemporary urban life in all its abstractions. Speaking in the open language of form, Zheng’s new works transcend the culturally specific and partake in universal artistic dialogues.
The physicality of Zheng Xuewu’s ‘China’s Shapes’ series is an equally important visual factor. The layering and interlacing of acrylic paint on the Chinese xuanzhi paper allows for the individual characters to literally protrude from the background. The resulting texture enlivens the otherwise secondary background characters. The topography of the picture plane echoes the multi-dimensionality of meaning.
Zheng Xuewu’s body of work is diverse and yet clearly shows the unfolding of his artistic endeavors. His strong drive for individuality leaves a distinctive mark on his works. Unfazed by the ‘big critics’ lack of interest, he solemnly follows his own path. With this new set of works, Zheng Xuewu resolutely embarks on the solitary journey to abstraction.
- Zheng Xuewu’s Lone Journey into Abstraction by Xenia Tetmajer von Przerwa
Traditional Girl Series
Mixed media on paper
97 x 70 cm