Having been deeply influenced by Expressionism, Zhou Chunya- after returning to China from Germany- began casting about for an innovative technique whereby painting could serve as an accurate input of self-expression. In the early 1990s, his quest resulted in the creation of Purple-red Portrait of A Man (Self-Portrait); an expression of how the individual's innermost feelings and intellectual concepts are subject to change. Set against a brown background, this series of self-portraits was a continuation of sketching experiments begun in Germany, and stood in contrast to the aura of rustic humanity prevalent in his earlier Tibetan Series. The artist's investigation into the interplay of expressionism and abstraction enables the viewer to appreciate his work at both a primal and spiritual level.
Zhou's aim is to express a sense of contemplative ideology as opposed to realistic portrayal, which calls for a manner of expression quite different from that of Realism. He makes use of bold, thick brushwork to roughly delineate the indistinctly perceived face of the centre figure, much in the manner of Lucian Freud's deliberate distortion of subjects in his own painting. The artist does not seek to capture a subject's likeness, preferring rather to render with precision some state of mind, mood, or illusory quality. Fanciful realism of this nature more closely resembles that of the Southern Song painter Li Tang in his quest for poetic lyricism. The degree of loneliness and stillness conveyed by the brown background indicates that the artist remained impartial and calm while reflecting on matters either known or unknown. Purple-red colour glimpsed in the layers of paint can be likened to the mind of the artist at the moment a new insight floods his heart to burst forth in creative energy.
Paintings enable the artist to constantly monitor his own reflections and considerations from multiple perspectives, rather than transmitting his personal thoughts and emotions directly to the viewer. This philosophical approach is similar to that of Existentialist artist Jean Fautrier, who, by means of expression, conducted self-introspection to emphasise his very own objective truth. The accumulation of impasto creates a sense of bas-relief texture, endowing the piece with a sculpture-like quality. Created with turpentine and paint, the abundant traces of every twist and turn echo the artist's train of thought, emotions, and his in-depth reflections on society or self, allowing the viewer to gradually discern the painter's inner world through the emotional brush strokes. The multiplicity of interwoven strokes, together with an undulating, rhythmical form, produce a rich, three-dimensional texture, just as during the process of intense concentration, where protruding blue veins when doing excessive thinking, or the inability to disperse the chaos of myriad thoughts.
The various positions of the head in this series of self-portraits; looking up, down, and lastly looking straight at the viewer ; documents Zhou Chunya as he ponders over the differences between Chinese and Western art: a precious record proceeding from initial admiration to careful consideration, and culminating in sudden realisation. This later served as inspiration for the artist when creating signature works such as Stone Series and Green Dog Series. The artist has focused his energy on combining the unique brush stroke techniques of Chinese ink painting with the characteristics of oil painting, thereby giving his canvas versatility and a texture of sculpture.