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(Chinese, B. 1955)
signed in Chinese (lower right); dated '1988 June' in Chinese (lower right)
charcoal on paper mounted on panel
118.5 x 84.5 cm. (46 5/8 x 33 1/4 in.)
Executed in 1988
Acquired directly from the artist during his fellowship in Kassel, Germany

Brought to you by

Eric Chang
Eric Chang

Lot Essay

By taking Western art's expressive use of color and brushstroke, fused with elements in traditional Chinese painting, Zhou brings an unparalleled approach to that aesthetic tradition. Zhou's technique coupled with his highly personal mode of expressionism resonate his desire to reach beyond the confines of his own culture for the stylistic and thematic freedom that is key to his sensibility.

Born in Chongqing in 1955, Zhou belongs to the first post-Mao generation of painters who have based their work on personal dialogues between their Chinese heritage and their study of Western art. In 1981, during his time as a student at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Art, Zhou Chunya and Zhang Xiaogang were invited by a classmate to visit the Aba Grassland in Sichuan, China. The grasslands, at once luscious, colorful, expansive and remote, imprinted a deep connection on the young artist. Shortly thereafter, Zhou also traveled to Tibet, immersing himself further China's wildest peripheries in contrast to his classmates, who headed to burgeoning coastal provinces. He chose to live among ethnic Tibetans and to explore the pastoral scenes of Tibetan life. This inspired him to paint a series on the nomadic lives of the Tibetans, The New Generation of Tibetans, where he connected themes of nature with spirituality. He recalls, "Back then I only wanted to sketch from life because in doing so I was confronting an immediate, living nature. This allowed my artistic expression to remain at one with my passions."

Zhou descended further away from China's academic realism after graduating in 1982, and yearned for an understanding of the human form and spirit which he found in the grasslands. In a letter to Zhang Xiaogang in 1983, Zhou write, "I am very fond of dominating the picture with an agitated emotion these days, and I am also eager to pierce the smoggy weather of Chengdu with strong sunlight. When I left the pastures, many images faded from memory. But the bold, dramatic colors of the grassland and the warm, simple images of the Tibetans at home stuck with me." Zhou returned to the themes and imagery he found in the grasslands again and again, as he developed a visual language for his deeply personal, allegorical style, discreetly overturning the inherited aesthetic paradigms of Chinese academic training.

From 1986 to 1988, Zhou studied abroad at the Kassel Academy of Fine Art in Germany, an experience which further contributed to his unique synthesis of East and West. The collection offered here is drawn from his important period of Zhou's growth and development as an artist, extending from his earliest experiments as a student to the full blown expressionism of his works from the 1990s onwards. We can see throughout the collection Zhou's immersion in the study of Impressionism, Cubism, and in particular, his affinity for German Neo-Expressionism. Shortly thereafter, Zhou began to paint with intense, somber, meditative, broad brushstrokes. These newly abstracted forms were a manifestation of Zhou's reflection on his Chinese cultural and aesthetic heritage and on the techniques and experiences he gained from studying in the West.

Throughout this group of works from a Private German Collection, we can see Zhou's eye for expression through movement and gesture, his insightful and romantic approach to the human form and spirit. These early works created from the late 1980s to early 1990s not only trace Zhou's early stylistic experiments but also illuminate the artistic directions that would take him into the next century. Recalling the atmosphere, mysticism and subtlety of Chinese literati painting, works such as Head (Lot 287), Seated Woman (Lot 282) and Figure (Lot 281) illustrate Zhou's use of a monochromatic palette and his gradual progression towards abstraction. He adopts figurative techniques such as linear abstraction, muddled colors, constraint in figurative forms with a soft, rubbed brushwork similar to that found in Chinese painting. These works exemplify a new personal Chinese expressionistic style, but also a set of ideas about the relationship between humans and nature that captured his impression of life in the grassland. The unique environment and images of the grasslands that appear throughout Zhou's works, like that found in Sheep (Self-Portait) (Lot 289) demonstrates that the spiritual, uninhabited literati spirit can wander freely and unrestrained even in a contemporary context. These works also established Zhou's symbolic exploration of self-portraiture that came to full realization in his later Green Dog series.

Throughout these early works, Zhou combines disparate elements of Neo-Expressionism with traditional Chinese ink and charcoal play, revealing his persistent exploration of these two distinct aesthetic and cultural worlds. Settling on certain Chinese iconographies seen later in his Rock series (and that later led to his Green Dogs), Zhou's work delivers his expressions of cultural sensitivity that reflects the impact of traditional values on contemporary art, endowed with a sense of history and a humanistic spirit with the means and techniques of Western oil painting. Upon Zhou's return to China in 1989, following the Tiananmen Square protests on June 4th, many artists in China moved to Beijing and began to employ ironic and distorted personal metaphors into their work as a way to address the major historical and social transformations of their times. For Zhou, searching for cultural and artistic alternatives that would redress the disorientation he felt towards China's accelerated pace of modernization, globalization, and economic growth, which he found had become a wasteland saturated with political and cultural disillusionment, meant the pursuit of a spiritual aesthetic, a renewed visual language that had its roots in China's contemporary cultural identity that could speak to both the individual and collective experience. Zhou has stated, "I have been deeply influenced by the Chinese tradition, which I never will be rid of whenever I am." Such an expressionist disposition remains constant throughout his artistic development, and his paintings reflect the dichotomy of his creative expedition in Chinese and Western aesthetics.

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