In the two decades of his career as an artist, Zhou Chunya has always maintained an individual style. His art is deliberately distant from concurrent popular artistic trends or established traditions, and he shies away from explicitly political and cultural symbols, and the appropriation of iconographic images. Unlike many of his fellow artists, whose works are mainly inspired by social and political events, from his early paintings of Tibetan subjects to the latest works of plum blossom, Zhao has been always been deeply engaged in his own world, in which only personal sensibilities and encounters inspire him. In terms of technique, not only does he fully embrace Neo-Expressionism, which he first discovered in Germany, but he is also profoundly inspired by the tradition and technique of Chinese literati painting. His unique eccentric style qualifies him without doubt as one of the most important and unpredictable artists in China today.
A graduate of Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, Zhou Chunya displayed his eccentricity from the very outset of his career. At the turn of the 1970s, while many of his schoolmates were engaged in the "Scar Art" movement, Zhou turned his attention to the exotic neighbouring province of Tibet. To Zhou, the primitive yet content way of life of the Tibetan people on their Eden-like plateau was far more fascinating that a retrospective of the "Ten Year Disaster" of the Cultural Revolution. After a trip with Zhang Xiaogang to Tibet in the early 1980s, he made a series of paintings featuring the beauty of its landscape and people. In these works, lines are given more attention than colour. Slight distortion, a very uncommon technique at the time, adds a great sense of wildness and passion to the figures.
Lot 732, Tibetans, was painted in 1990, after Zhou finished his studies in Germany and returned to China. A retrospective work, this painting pays homage to his early subjects but is painted from a new perspective, and clearly demonstrates a more mature mastery of colour and form. The simple profiles of the two Tibetans are rendered with bold lines and unconventional colours, successfully conveying a sense of naivety, primitivism, and grandeur. Meanwhile, the unconventional use of brown in the figures' costumes and an implicit preference of colour over form foreshadow the characteristics of his later mature style.
After his return to China after several years of study in Germany, Zhou not only continued his Neo-Expressionistic style, but also further explored his genuine interest in traditional Chinese painting. During the first few years after his return to China, he became extremely fascinated by traditional literati paintings of Dong Qichang, Shi Tao, Bada Shanren and Huang Binhong, and remained indifferent to the arts that tended to politicize or rationalize Chinese history and events. Just as he did when he turned his back on the Scar Art movement in the 1980s, during the heyday of Cynical Realism and Political Pop, he indulged himself in two totally different series of works-Stone and Floral series. Traditionally, bird-and-flower painting was the quintessential genre of Chinese literati painting. Zhou's Floral series looked to continue this tradition with expressive brushes seemingly influenced by Chinese calligraphy. Lot 731, and lot 730 are examples of such work. In Variation of Tree, Zhou renders the branches with a thick and cursive application of paint, reminiscent of the variation of brushstrokes in Chinese calligraphy. In the meantime, the use of bright colours in this painting also creates a tremendous sense of activity, in a style that is unprecedented in either Chinese or western flower painting.
Zhou's most significant sequence of paintings, his Green Dog series, was inspired by his pet dog, Heigen, a German shepherd, which was given to him in 1994. Lot 729, Green Dog, represents all the hallmarks of this series, which usually features large size of canvas with a monstrous green German shepherd resting on its hind legs. Zhou admits that Green Dog series carries symbolic meaning: the colour green is "quiet, romantic and lyric... it contains in it the tranquility right before an explosion." Indeed the co-existence of tranquility and dynamism are successfully rendered by the artist's use of green, while the animal's aggressiveness and formidability are achieved by the accurate yet expressive brushstrokes.
From Tibetan Subjects to Green Dog series, Zhou's art combines both western and Chinese elements, but the profound sensibility underlined in his art is without doubt attached to Chinese tradition. As the artist said himself in an interview with Jonathan Goodman, "The Chinese mindset is always complicated and contradictory, and I cherish this. Complexity of this kind is hard to be find in modern Western society. The art world will be enormously enriched if we can put those complex ideas into it."
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