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What's new in Chinese art?


Tom Zhang:What’s New in Chinese Art.Mollie Kay Smith(English writer)


Tom Zhang: now recognised as one of China’s most brilliant and innovative young painters, talks here of his philosophy and methods and describes how, whilst holding fast to the traditional requirements of a good Chinese landscape painting, he now adds additional elements of design, materials, and use of colours into his work.

The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing did more than stimulate interest in sport, they also renewed interest in China's rich cultural heritage. As in the 18th and 19th centuries, all things oriental are again becoming ‘a la mode’.

This renewed interest must have been especially highlighted in those many western artists who over the years have immersed themselves in the paintings and sculptures of the ancient Chinese masters, and who in most cases are still attempting to create something akin to their essential calmness and beauty for themselves.

Every artist knows how important it is to study techniques employed by the finest painters of old, searching to discover how they achieved their masterpieces. Hopefully modern artists are equally as aware of the need to be conscious of up to date trends, new materials and advances.

In order to find out exactly how art in China is developing and what is new there I spoke to the artist, Tom Zhang, who’s atmospheric and challenging landscapes are now finding their way into the private collections of discerning buyers world wide.

From his early days this young man knew he wanted to paint, that he was determined, despite all odds, to make his mark in that field. As a boy on his parent’s farm in Shandong province his days were spent weeding amongst rows of vegetables. At night he painted, winning at the age of 8 years a prize in an open competition.

Even then his artistic ability and imagination were ahead of his years. His entry, based on the traditional story of the monkey king, challenged all others and won.

At the age of 17 he moved to Beijing carrying with him the princely sum of 700 yuan (the equivalent of £50) donated by an uncle, and nothing else - other than high hopes for the future. He told me he did not seek fortune, merely an opportunity to develop as an artist.

Finally managing to fund himself through University in 2003 by working in restaurant kitchens, car parks, and museums, his artistic future is now without a doubt assured.

Two of his University teachers were well know Chinese artists: Wang Ming Ming and Wang Wen Fang. Tom told me how grateful he is to them for introducing him to a different approach to his work and for providing him with an opportunity to integrate new ideas. Beside these teachers he found his chance to experiment and develop his own unique slant on traditional Chinese painting.

Now, he lives by his painting. Recently he branched out to paint murals/frescoes in bars and restaurants; his most recent in the Happy Dragon Bar in Beijing, His gallery and studio are located close to Tiananmen Square in a traditional Hutong in Beijing. The gallery is ideally situated in a typically animated Chinese street with food sellers, a Beijing Opera restaurant, small shops and restaurants.

Yet despite his busy gallery Tom travels frequently throughout China, mounting exhibitions and continuing to paint his dramatic landscapes on site or taking photographs which he then translates into paintings back in his gallery. He has painted many areas of China: Xian, Nanjing, Yunnan and Shangri-La which is near the borders of Nepal and Tibet, and also the Eastern Chinese coast.

On his return to Beijing he enjoys chatting to people who visit his gallery and tourists staying in the hostel. He is happy to demonstrate his methods and explain his philosophy to them. At the rear of the gallery is an area where he serves tea to prospective clients.

Last year saw a breakthrough in his development when he was invited to exhibit in Europe. First at the prestigious Gallerie MétemorphOZes at the Domaine du Prieuré in Valaire and then a one-man exhibition in Tours. Both these exhibitions were outstandingly successful and later he spent time in Paris where he painted his 'Paris By Night' using for the first time what I tend to think of as his 'fusion' style of painting.

Tom explains:' Traditional western landscape painting, unlike Chinese style painting requires a unified perspective; it does not use realistic shadow. Western art nearly always depicts where light falls and uses shadow. Traditional Chinese painting requires that the ink effects are good, the composition is good, the artistic conception is good. But, the perspective is not the most important part of the painting. Now I sometimes like to use a little shadow because it adds depth, which diverts from tradition.'

Still he believes that before experimenting western artists must understand the basic rules of what makes a good Chinese landscape. He uses the phrase Shan shui hua, which translates as mountain, water, picture.

The composition should be an elongated Z or S shape and should have right and left symmetry, branching out from the centre. Many of his paintings are large and square, though he does also paint scrolls, fans and smaller pictures which are snapped up by both Chinese buyers and visiting tourists.

'The paper should be full,' he told me, 'though it is important to balance space with painted area.' He talks about black as being the bones of his pictures, while colour is the meat. Sometimes he feels a subject only needs bones so he uses no other colour. His choice depends on his feeling for what he is painting.

'Most important', he says, 'is that a good Chinese painting holds the essence of its subject. You should have to use your mind to look at a painting properly. You need to look at a painting and think horse, mountain or water. It should not be like a photograph, it should leave room for some imagination, it should evoke feelings.'

He told me he thinks his paintings demonstrate the relationship between thought and existence and between spirit and matter. 'They do not need to be realistic because the painting contains the essence of its subject, therefore it is real.'

Again he quotes a traditional Chinese Proverb: 'The personality decides the quality of the painting'.

When first starting to paint he tells me he used traditional natural unbleached rice paper, but he discovered this type of paper can only be used for certain colours and limited what he could do with his paint. Now he prefers Xuan paper made in Xuanchen and Jingxian in Anhui Province. It is soft and tensile in texture and resistant to insects, absorbs ink or paint evenly and is good for long preservation. It is made from rice straw, tree bark, and bamboo pulp. His extremely wide collection of brushes vary in size, shape and bristle material and are used dependent on what he is painting. Some are made from wolf hair, sheep wool, bear hair, horse hair and mouse hair. He even owns a brush made from a baby's first hair! Unlike in traditional Chinese paintings he uses strong colours for his work He describes clothing the pictures in beautiful colours, in the way the some people need to be clothed in beautiful clothes.

His manner of using colour is well illustrated in one of his latest projects. This is what he has called his China Red series. These painting are inspired by the red walls to be found in Beijing's Forbidden City and temples. In China red is considered to be a lucky colour, though at one time only the Royal Family and temples were permitted to use it. Red was a symbol of authority; it can depict a part of Chinese culture. Today Chinese families use red for good luck, especially when celebrating the Chinese New Year. They use red lanterns and decorations, give money and gifts in red envelopes and dress in a red coat or jacket. Many people use red on their front door to attract good luck.

And speaking of good luck. Tom feels he has been very lucky in his life because each time he has been in a difficult situation somebody has turned up to help him continue with his painting. He also believes that those who work hard and have heart will eventually reach their goal. 'This is a Chinese tradition,' he says.

His goal is not to make money, though he does not despise it. He wants people to understand his philosophy, and his own understanding of the subject, when they look at his paintings. His need is to develop his work into something totally individual and internationally recognisable as Tom Zhang.

TOM ZHANG: Art Diploma: Art College Weifang.

Certificate of Completion : University of Art Beijing