Throughout his thirty-year career, Zhou Chunya has always stood apart from artistic currents. He was absent from the Scar Art of the late 70's and early 80's, the '85 New Wave, and post-90's Cynical Realism and Political Pop. Lü Peng says of Zhou that "unlike many artists, he does not quite participate in movements and trends. This is related to his exploration of an artistic individuality. He is concerned with personal feelings and modes of expression. The disadvantage is that he is not necessarily the focus of attention. The advantage is that he can think about artistic questions without external influence. As trends pass and fade, an artist who cares about his or her inner world and personal perspective will stand out all the more. This has allowed Zhou to become, after his long-term artistic explorations, the artist with the most freedom and the strongest artistic individuality in all areas of painting." It is precisely because of his insistence on his inner world and personal perspective that Zhou can create such diverse yet distinctive icons, immediately recognizable as "Zhou Chunya style," as the Green Dog, Red People, and Rock series.
Although Zhou Chunya has always been engaged with oil painting—he often borrowed from the techniques of Gericault and the German Neo-Expressionists in his early years and studied in Germany in the 80's—he is in his inner being a traditional artist with literati sensibilities. His family is a source of profound influence. Zhou Chunya was born to an intellectual family in Chongqing, and both his parents were highly learned. The elder Zhou, who passed away at an early age, left his son a collection of books on Chinese and non-Chinese classical aesthetic theories as well as some original works of Zhang Daqian, which all affected Zhou Chunya in important ways.
In 1980, the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute attained national renown with Scar Art, and Zhou's classmates there all tried to capture a sense of historical trauma after the Cultural Revolution by infusing socialist realism with humanitarianism. The 25-year-old Zhou Chunya, by contrast, chose to live among ethnic Tibetans and painted The New Generation of Tibetans, which he submitted to the Second National Youth Arts Exhibition. Asked why he did not participate in the mainstream of Scar Art, Zhou Chunya says that "at the time I also made many attempts to understand the subjects of Scar Art as narratives, but ultimately I did not paint them. Perhaps I could not personally find an entry into that kind of overly complicated thinking. Back then I only wanted to sketch from life because in so doing I was confronting an immediate, living nature. This allowed my artistic expression to remain at one with my passions." In The New Generation of Tibetans and other works depicting Tibetan life, Zhou Chunya dissolved the subject matter into the painting surface. Through an idiosyncratic perspective and weighty brushwork and modeling, he presented individualistic feelings directly—the "scarred" background faded away. He was exploring the formal logic and rhythms internal to painting itself, not verbal narratives with political baggages. As Li Xianting writes, "Zhou Chunya's The New Generation of Tibetans was in fact earlier than Chen Danqing's "Tibetan Group Paintings." Moreover, Zhou was not interested in Tibetans as social subjects with the political overtones of sufferings and so on, but rather in their unique rusticity and other aesthetic matters. Whether Zhou realized this or not, his later Sheep Shearing served as an inspiration to emerging artistic movements."
The critic Yin Shuangxi believes that the essence of Zhou Chunya's art before 1986 was "the pure remembrance and frank expression of personal life." If in the early 80's Zhou was still grasping for a personal style and molding his inner world, then his classical sensibilities became especially pronounced in his post-Germany Green Dog and Red People series.
As the '85 New Wave began to rage across China, Zhou Chunya decided to study at the Art Academy of Kassel in Germany, where he witnessed the height of Neo-Expressionism. A piece of classical Chinese music, however, inspired in him a desire to return home. In the late 80's and early 90's, Chinese society was saturated by political disillusionment, while forces of commercial economy were upsetting the planned economy in place. Artists reacted immediately to this situation, engendering trends that critics have termed "Cynical Realism" and "Political Pop." Zhou Chunya did not similarly respond to the external situation, but rather began to delve into traditional Chinese painting and aesthetics, searching for cultural and artistic alternatives that would redress the disorientation he, living abroad, felt towards China's contemporary situation. As he reviewed classical Chinese paintings, he felt the beckoning of the past—or rather he found within himself a need for a different expressionism, one that would come from Su Shi, Ni Zan, Dong Qichang, Shitao, Bada Shanren, and Huang Binhong. He settled on the theme of "rock," treating a Chinese iconography endowed with a sense of history and a humanistic spirit with the means and techniques of the Western oil painting medium. Besides the "Rock" series, Zhou Chunya also continued his experiments with the human body that had begun already in Germany. He painted a number of portraits and nudes, adopting figurative techniques similar to the "Rock" series: linear abstraction, muddled colors, a charged restraint in bodily forms, and a texture-rich touch of the brush that recalled Chinese painting. At the same time, Zhou Chunya discovered the human body within the internal structures of rocks, often painting "human bodies fused with rocks." He discovered that the sinewy make-up of certain rocks closely resembled human musculature, such that the rock and the human body became one. This was without doubt the first inspiration for Zhou Chunya's Red Hugging Lovers (Lot 166) in the late 1990's. At this time he had already "established the basic vocabulary and artistic characteristics of his personal style, which I would like to call 'a flesh-and-blood nature, a condensation and distillation of inner passions.'"
The fruits of his explorations of rocks and human bodies were not only a new personal vocabulary and a Chinese expressionistic style, but more importantly a set of ideas about the relationship between humans and nature. These ideas cohered with the philosophy of traditional Chinese painting and, as well, resonated with Zhou's persistent need to express his inner world. Since the 1990's, Zhou Chunya's iconographies began to multiply exponentially: green dogs, flowers in vases, red people, and so on. These series happened concurrently and sometimes intersected. From today's perspective, Red Hugging Lovers, which Zhou created in 1998, deserves the most attention among these series of works. It not only summarized all of Zhou Chunya's stylistic experiments in the 1990's but also shed light on the new directions he would take in the next century.
In Red Hugging Lovers, Zhou Chunya relies on a single color—red—to express his mental state. The picture is dominated by abject oversized nudes that are entirely blood-red except for a cluster of pubic hair. Their awkward, bulging postures are marked by lewdness. Next to their feet is a flat, red horizon that cuts the composition in half. In a faint black Zhou Chunya has drawn miniscule human figures seemingly engaged in a kind of sexual warfare. Zhou magnifies the visual attributes of the human body: the bodies seen here possess sculptural mass and volume, recalling the rock-like density of his bodies of the early 90's. Clearly, such an image has a soft-core pornographic flavor, with an undercurrent of violence and desire beneath its ostensible sentimentalism. But it is also suffused with the subtlety, sensitivity, and mysticism of literati painting. The use of a monochromatic palette seen here echoes the contemporaneous Green Dog series and reflects Zhou's mental state at the time. The sketchiness of the drawing formally resembles literati bird-and-flower painting and, again, coheres with the Green Dog series' gradual progression towards abstraction.
Here is Zhou Chunya's own description of the motivation behind Red Hugging Lovers: "In 1998, at the same time as I was painting green dogs, I also began the Red People series. As a timeless subject of oil painting in China and beyond, the human figure is difficult to innovate, and yet innovation is necessary. I had to incorporate my own observations in life to create this series of works, which are to an extent autobiographical formally and thematically. In these works my life lurks in the background; it is just that I exaggerate the visual forms and purposefully compress the concrete details. To achieve the universal and timeless symbolic character that I am after, I must sacrifice the details." Red Hugging Lovers is a demonstration of human nature at its most natural and vital. Here Zhou Chunya combines the disparate elements of Neo-Expressionism, traditional Chinese ink play, and the philosophy of human-nature unison. He proves that the otherworldly, uninhibited literati spirit can roam free and unrestrained even in a contemporary context, and that this spirit belongs neither to the East nor to the West, but to Zhou Chunya himself. In showcasing humans' carnal desires and primitive animal aspects, Red Hugging Lovers goes even further than the Green Dog series. Abandoning conscious attempts at iconic effects, this work turns instead towards a purity of painting, which in turn becomes precisely that which fills the viewer's imagination completely. In Red Hugging Lovers we notice traces of Zhou Chunya's tireless pursuit of an inner world in the 1980's as well as continuations of his Rock series of the early 1990's—it is a grand summation of both. After 2000, Zhou Chunya began to paint "red people in a world of desire," developing the primitive carnality of Red Bodies to a profound extreme. In this way Red Hugging Lovers should be recognized also as the source of Zhou Chunya's creative endeavors of the new millennium.
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