You smell the paintings in the back of your throat and try to take shallow breaths. The three 16-foot-tall oils strive upwards to the ideal of unsullied negative space. On average, the paintings weigh half a ton. The canvas at the top of the frames is stretched gale-taught. At the bottom, the weight of the paint has distended the surface to a slack edema. And while the triptych has the undeniable outline of a 山 (shan), the simplified character for mountain, the artist insists that it be displayed 3-2-1, with the peak still centered and the slopes switched. This choice, coupled with a palate of broad swathes of green littered with more muted industrial hues, evokes the cities surrounding the Yangtze that were abandoned and submerged during the earth-moving Three Gorges Dam project.
Zhu Jinshi, who painted these works with spades and shovels, was born in Beijing in 1954. When he entered art school in 1973, China was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, and when he graduated in 1977, the country was about to enter the equally deracinating process of reform and opening. Under Deng Xiaopeng, special trade zones were set up and the Chinese variety of state-controlled capitalism was introduced. By the time Zhu was 25, Chinese painting had seen just as many ruptures and changes. Socialist Realism had given way to Scar Painting, which deflated the tropes of proletariat idealism to a wrinkled, maudlin portrait of a damaged society. Abstraction, viewed as counter-revolutionary since Mao’s 1942 Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art, became a dogberryism of western art and the subjective experience. It is this peculiar moment of history—the hiccup between Maoism and global capitalism—that saw the rise of avant-garde groups in China. Zhu Jinshi is associated with Beijing’s the Stars (Xing Xing), a group that exhibited several times starting in 1979 and is best known today for the membership of Ai Wei Wei. History will lend a level of cohesion that at first didn’t exist with these fractured movements. But by 1985, there was a solidified avant-garde in China, and when Zhu moved to Berlin the following year, the once-simple gambit of dominant aesthetic vs. contrary avant-gardism was kaput.
Beginning the 1980s working in the vein of Emil Nolde and other German Expressionists, Zhu soon realized that his paintings were decades out of date. This was not uncommon at that time, for the art history books and postcards that had educated Chinese artists in Western schools offered complete decontextualization. For Zhu, an attraction to the communal aspects of Joseph Beuys (who, not unlike Mao, sought to erase the line between aesthetic and social movements) caused a shift to social sculpture using common materials: stacked piles of rice paper, teapots, bicycles, and soy sauce bottles.
These paintings need to be read with the same emphasis on materiality. It isn’t Greenberg’s Paint, but paint that is made on an industrial scale by combining linseed oil and pigment, mixing them in vats, and shoveling them on massive dispersion rollers that, through great pressure, isolate each particle of pigment and coat it with oil—paint that is normally sold in palm-size tubes that Zhu buys in 35 kilogram buckets. Yve-Alain Bois, in “Painting: The Task of Mourning”, sums it up. “Even at the outset, industrialization meant much more for painting than the invention of photography and the incorporation of the mechanical into the artist’s process through the readymade tube of paint.” Once more, these paintings weigh half a ton: their sheer weight critiques not just the materiality of the paint, but a system of consumption and industrial production.
We can say that the mid-century action paintings that these respond to were in some way received as the dance of the body and specific ideologies. Similarly, Zhu’s recent suite can be seen as the effects of massive industrialization on the human form. The relationship between skyscrapers and the ten-fingers-ten-toes of the migrant worker is still explicit in China, where it is normal to see blue-jumpsuited men hammering away atop bamboo scaffolding. When taking the massive size of these endeavors into account, it is simply startling to consider the basic manner of construction. The body of the worker is stretched to construct these forms, and in that there is trauma. There are many accidents, but also more indirect forms of violence: wholesale destruction of homes and traditional buildings, the endemic isolation of the worker from his hometown, and the waves of suicides in the more advanced sites, such as the 14 deaths at Foxconn factories in 2010. Likewise, this violence is acted out on the land, be it strip-mining, or the many Chinese towns whose water supplies have been poisoned by fly by night e-waste reclamation sites. Neon skies, cadmium blue rivers—these are not metaphors, but carcinogenic truths.
If the modern industrial turn in painting acts out the anxiety about the survival of art in the presence of commodity, the scale of Zhu’s paintings places the same fear between the survival of the entire world and the face of industrial production. The unsustainable nature of this relationship is coded into these paintings. They are over-made. There is too much paint. The canvas cannot hold. Now they are trying to find equilibrium through mortification. Slow tears reveal subcutaneous coagulation of linseed oil. Whole sections drop like mange. The artist has said that he wants to see these works in 15 years. Will the support have given way?