HONG KONG -  Over the past three decades, Shanghai-born artist Zheng Chongbin consistently delights even the most traditional art enthusiasts with his innovative abstract paintings that stand out luminously in the contemporary art scene. Dividing his time between studios in Shanghai and Northern California, Zheng maintains a fiercely independent approach to pushing the boundaries of the ink medium. The unconventionally sculpted surfaces of his paintings and thoughtfully presented manner of installation with light and space require one to experience his works in person and not just view them in two dimensions.

Zheng's approach melds Eastern and Western theories and techniques in his paintings, such as his use of traditional black ink on Xuan paper mixed with acrylic or the three-dimensional geometric structures. In preparation for his exhibition Zheng Chongbin: Structures at Sotheby's Hong Kong Gallery, Zheng shares his approach towards abstract art, discusses the traditional versus contemporary Chinese art genres, and explains his ideas about ink and materials in his environmental video installation, Chimeric Landscape.

From an outsider’s perspective, when one looks at a traditional Chinese painting, one knows that there are certain rules and criteria used to evaluate the quality of the work. One may look at the tonality, brushwork, and expression of spirit in the ink wash. Or you can also evaluate the entire composition for elements such as inscriptions and seals. How do you see your paintings departing from or pushing the boundaries of this tradition when your works are completely abstract and hardly have evidence of the brush?


blog-self-portrait--Apr-10-01381397111892AM-2014Zheng Chongbin

In my early days of painting, I really cared about brushwork. Traditionally, brushwork structures the way that works are created. Jianbi is the notion of seeing the brush even without literally seeing it, meaning every brushstroke or non-brush movement is not wasted). Its traces are present in the ink’s tonality, the dry/wet, black/white relationships are the most important part of how you construct a painting. Most importantly, it is the living trace of mind and body. However, to me, the living trace in a painting – in terms of jianbi – does not necessarily have to reveal the gesture of the body.

In that early period I was very hands-on, whereas today, I am less so and focused on the ready-made ness of the material. I see the medium as merely a catalyst that aides our perception towards a meaningful discovery to be reified.  Then I was concerned with connecting with the art history of the brush, whereas now its about the spatial perception of viewing the work.

Even then, my proposition for using acrylic paint in my paintings was to push the boundaries of traditional, Chinese, painting. For me, tradition is a model for how to think about an art medium – ink – and how brushwork plays into general laws: the way you look at the ink from dry to wet, from light to dark, from lines to wash, etc.

One can look for either its conceptual meaning or see it as purely representational.  The core of calligraphy is to cultivate your consciousness in synchronization with the energy of the brush and line.  In painting, I was interested the deconstruction of its structure, surface, and physicality. Therefore introducing a foreign material, like acrylic, pushed the boundaries of how to expand the language system. In contemporary art, this may be like “trashing” tradition, but I think of it as innovation of intensifying the ink medium and painting in its entirety.


Are there any artists in particular with that you identify with today?

In addition to the Land artists that often inspire me, I always think about the California artists from the Light and Space Movement of the 1970s. Robert Irwin, John McCracken, De Wain Valentine, etc, have all been quite influential to me. Some of them work with acrylic, or purely with light and space. Their work is a combination of spatial art and concerns about the material of immateriality. For me, I see the way that light reflects off the acrylic surface, it may be translucent or opaque. And I like thinking of the spatial elements of engagement between the solid and the void – similar to the way Larry Bell’s glass panels intrude into a space.

On another hand, for my work, one can also perceive how I am reengaging with Chinese tradition, particularly that of the Song dynasty. The way that we perceive nature in a free, spatially engaged way is the core of the Song painting tradition.

From a perceptual perspective, the paintings were meant to engage the viewer in an active viewing experience. Mental engagement is an important way of cultivating an understanding how Chinese paintings are appreciated. The space is filled or compensated by images in the mind. Landscapes of the mind is an important concept for Chinese painting that moves beyond just the physical medium itself and into the cosmology of how we, as viewers, engage with the world. More poetically speaking, one can refer to the idea of mo yun – a myth of a living being and something that resonates energy (spiritually and physically). To me, mo yun is meant to define our spatial fascination and engagement. The living and perceptual aspects of painting are most important to me and can be tackled in abstract art.

Zheng Chongbin working in His Studio.

Looking at the Crystal Line series – one can’t help to see a resemblance of abstract art that refers to the graffiti-like drawings and paintings of Cy Twombly. How do you regard abstraction in your art?

My work is meant to be abstract. Abstraction to me is about the process of formation, and my work is trying to derive meaning from a medium defined activity. The absence of my direct hands-on in the artwork allows me to become the observer, facilitator and mediator of the medium. Painting to me is an act of observing. Since we’re facing the many concepts that have been exhausted in the last century, I am thinking about how I can push the boundaries of abstraction in our lives.  This process is fascinating to me – like exploring a myth of dealing with language, logic and experience.

What do you see when you look at your finished work?

The way that I look at art is not to impose my vision but to expose the vision of the medium. The material I use is of traditional Chinese painting. The paper is made from sandalwood, mulberry, or bamboo fibers so the paper itself is quite strong. In today’s paper making method, we might see a mixture of straw to add texture to the paper. But what is special is that water can go through the paper without ruining it. This is what I like to refer to as material as agent. Water flowing over and through a surface is like the interactions between solid and fluid forms. In my work, I am not trying to control the water, but to find its flow with its own meaning.


Using video or describing your work as sculptural, is not really what people would think of when approaching ink art. In your words, how do you introduce your art and what you are trying to achieve?

To me, the boundaries of the ink art category is defined in a material sense, its about the medium. But today, I think the criteria are much broader and include conceptual concepts. Painting is just one category. My contemporary ink work is not necessarily based on tradition, like classical Chinese painting, rather it expand beyond conventional notions of how one would literally define the ink category. No one today identifies an oil painter and then is surprised if he or she uses acrylic (a water based medium) on canvas. So why should it be any different for contemporary artists working with the ink medium today? Its all just contemporary art.

One thing I believe is that the medium defines the activity. I am taking the idea of the ink medium and broadening it into many different experiences. In fact, I would say that my environmental video installation certainly can be called ink art because it is visualizing a way of viewing the medium in its natural, flowing state.

In your video Chimeric Landscape, you document not only ink, but also use topographical images of land formations or other geological documentation to illustrate an organic world. How did you conceive of this project and why does it relate to the medium of ink?

The Chimeric Landscape video installation is about materials, and ink is a material compound of its own. In this video I am thinking about the phenomena of the material and how does it relate to our perceptual experience. Using time-lapse and video, I am able to expand the visual notion of ink and to explore the life of the material; there is a whole cycle of the living duration and entropy and regeneration. This concept is the basis of land art, as well as light artists, who share a way of thinking about how our minds engage with nature. And their intent is to bring a sense of order to the seeming natural chaos of nature and to reveal the logic of organic materials.

It’s like breaking down the score of music into various notes and components.In my video I attempt to visualize the components of the ink material and the formation of landscapes. You can see how cells move and create patterns, just like ink is a fluid material and creates movement into forms or landscapes.

Zheng Chongbin and Katherine Don co-hosted the opening reception, 21 April 2016, Hong Kong.

I’ve often heard Chinese painters who work with ink make this analogy between painting and music. They suggest that creating harmony in painting through the brush and ink is similar to the euphony that a musician must have with his instrument when making music. Is there a specific theoretical text that draws this comparison?

Glenn H. Gould, who is best-known for his amazing capacity to articulate the polyphonic texture of Bach’s music, once brilliantly said that some musicians focus on the instrument itself, while others go directly to the musical score. In these two different approaches, I see myself as the former, where I focus on the instrument of ink itself and not so much on the final composition.

Video allows me to freely add layers in a time basis that is more like the free associations of the mind. Whereas painting draws upon preconceived images and notions of your own past. Video versus painting provides different experiences of engagement.

The video is also an installation, so sound as well as light are equally important in the experience. The sounds are imaginary sounds of ink. No one knows what bacteria sounds like, or what sounds the earth makes. Its like the way that a dog can smell more types of smells than humans can; there are probably more sounds of organic materials in the world that the average human cannot hear. In this video I have included footage from NASA and their recordings of the earth from space.

How do you feel being described as a “contemporary Chinese artist” or as having your work defined as being “contemporary ink art”? Do you feel like you are a part of specific genre or movement that is pushing the boundaries of the medium today?

While I work with the ink medium and am constantly fascinated by ink, and it has unlimited possibilities that have yet to be realized, I am interested giving to the medium back to the medium itself – exposing it from an unimposing way.  It’s not necessarily about East meets West or about Chinese tradition. It’s all about how we understand what we see. To me, ink art or not, its not a worthwhile debate.

Click below and see more photos from the opening reception.