"HE HAS BEEN ON THE CROW'S NEST OF LIEF LOOKING FOR IT"
- On the occasion of the opening of Zhao Jianqiu’s Sino-Nepal Exhibition
Eugene Geinzer (USA)
Visiting Professor of Fine Arts at The Beijing Center of Chinese Studies
Whether we flew over the Himalayas or climbed close up from the Ganges plain we expected the topography on the wet windward side of Everest to be a physical antithesis to its dry Tibetan side. But which one of us could have anticipated our shock and amazement at the menagerie of Nepali towers, temples and textures in Kathmandu’s Valley.
Zhao Jianqiu entered this stunning world just as you and I, but the marvel of the man is that he felt himself at home so quickly. While more familiar with rural scenes of Yiyang, Dongting Lake and hills bee-hived with kilns, here in Kathmandu Valley he saw analogous particles of reality set in a terrain not totally dissimilar from his homeland, China.
Part of our puzzlement at his rapid assimilation of Nepal is mitigated by our remembering that an artist’s instinct is to be compassionate to visual facts: to contemplate, to absorb, to empathize with visual things and then–in an intense moment–put them on paper. Musicians do this. His process might be more accessible to us if we look through his drawings to see what he was seeing.
It occurs to me that two antithetical issues define Zhao Jianqiu’s work: Simultaneously his drawing are Huge and yet they are Humble.
IMMENSE SCALE: Let us first approach the immensity of his work. These are not intimate interiors such as those of Vermeer. At 5 meters in breadth and 1 meters high the Panoramas of Pashupatinath are almost intimidating. We ask appropriately, “How could he sustain the meticulous production of such a large piece? Why does his kinetic drawing energy not peter out at the edges?” Of course, part of the response is this, he is a master. And there is an unspoken tradition that sustains his mastery: the great scroll painting of China. Not to be unduly intimidated by this panel one has to scan the surface from left to right, or up to down, or from within to without. There is no “sudden recognition” like the sudden emphatic “Rorschach” pictographs of Chinese characters. One has to do this gradually. This is the tradition of unrolling and rolling up the Chinese scroll. Vision happens in time, scroll reading is, surprisingly, a temporal art WIX.
Zhao Jianqiu’s drawing happens in time. Notice for example, in his depiction of Patan Durbar three zones of drawing. The Himalayas in the distance, the temple towers of the Durbar, and the tiny gestures of the people on the streets. These “three zones” is a convention of Chinese scrolls. Examine, if you can spy one of these: either “Yandang Mountain and Three Water Falls”, or “A piece of Jiangnan”, or “A Winding Path to a High Place”. In the latter image only at the last moment—after you have been overwhelmed by its huge size, do you spy the miniscule woman at the peak of the high place. Now you retrace your steps to figure out how she climbed there. You see her perch and the initial flight of stone steps, but you cannot guess what was the path in between. This too is very Chinese: what is not specified, what is omitted, what is swathed in clouds engages your imagination. You must work your way into his art. Now you begin to scrutinize Zhao Jianqiu’s other paintings. You examine the paths, you see the tillers of the soil in “Hill Village at Dusk” and now you are captivated by this search: how did they build a garden up there! The way in which you are now engaged is “zonal-temporal.” Zhao Jianqiu has induced you to follow his visual path over a period of temporal hours to discover the mysterious connections between spaces.
With these new insight now let us return to either of his great Pashupatinath canvases. The kaleidoscope of temple and stupa roofs dazzle the eye. Again we are overwhelmed by the immensity of these panels. But now, all of a sudden, we are looking for paths. And here we are confident that the path of sacred smoke will lead us visually and narratively into the drawing. And it does. We follow–like a mountain stream from the invisible Himalayas—a great trail of smoke and it takes us to something holy: the reverential cremation of the deceased. Consider what Zhao Jianqiu has artfully achieved: he has stunned you with a colossal image of Kathmandu and lead you slowly in time and carefully by paths of smoke and steps to a very specific and sacred moment. So the immensity of his work leads you to the intimacy of detail you never expected.
HUMBLE DETAIL: This is the second remarkable feature to which I bring your attention. Zhao Jianqiu’s love for detail is ultimately very humble. There is no bombast in his works. There is no, “Look at me triumphant, elegant and bright.” There is no attempt to cower and dazzle you into visual submission. Rather, yes, while their sheer size commands your attention, the moment you make contact with them they are intimate. Zhao Jianqiu lovingly lingers over small details. He is like a little boy who is mesmerized by the labor of tiny ants; he watches their quick movements. He sees the miniature boulders they transport to their caves. He does not know what they achieve, but he admires them.
And in his doing so he compels you to see that shingle shakes are beautiful, the rattan weave of fibers on a house boat are a tapestry, the little people nestled in the crevices of the temple are what makes the temple holy. Whereas most artists would divert your eyes from rooftop solar tanks, laundry left limp on the line, broken bicycles and mildewed walls, Zhao Jianqiu cites them as little gems. He blesses them with a splat of color and moves on gently. In this way he is so faithful to his Chinese spirit: there is nothing of nature that is far away from him.
Zhao Jianqiu likes the debris of the world. It tells him human beings have fingered the clay of this earth. To make it clear to you that he likes these humble marks, look at his own mark-making. While the vigorous “paw print” of the artist is as old as Frans Hals, Goya and Vincent Van Gogh, nowhere is there a longer and more venerated history of un-camouflaged mark-making than in China. In fact, this very old technique is now very new. Observe how, in “Wind Blowing and Moon Shining”, with a strict palette of only three different kinds of strokes, Zhao Jianqiu creates an orchestra of movement and texture. At once old in technique, this is a very new painting. WEEBLY.
Zhao Jianqiu arose in a small village by the Dongting Lake. He scrutinized its fishing nets, piers and cottages; he loves his home and his home has kept him humble. Now he can be compassionate to the greatness of another’s imperfect beauty.
He has been on the crow’s nest of life looking for it.
So when Zhao Jianqiu surveyed the “other valley” on the opposite side of the Himalayas, he expected to see not strange landscapes, yet he expected to discover something that would surprise him as typical and endemic to this new valley.