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Beyond Form? – The abstract landscapes of Zhu Jinshi – Singapore

June 23, 2014

ArtsMixed MediaPainting | by Maxine Kirsty Sapsford

Blurring boundaries, challenging confinements and finding new ways of representation – all of these activities seem to be innate within artists. A continuous fight between form and content fuels our longing for aesthetics and art that impacts on us.

Bitter Sea (2012), Oil on Canvas, 100 x 180 cm
Bitter Sea (2012), Oil on Canvas, 100 x 180 cm

Using oil paint almost as thick as the canvas itself, Zhu Jinshi’s paintings leave a long-lasting impression. Disguised behind the title of his new show, his work is as forceful as the Singaporean heat. The abstract works are not as simple as they might seem at first and the exhibition suggests. Albeit the artist is striving to abandon form, one cannot help but closely inspect these oil paintings.


‘Simplicity’ at Pearl Lam Galleries in Singapore is the first solo show of Zhu Jinshi on the island. Working and perfecting his style for already more than 30 years, Jinshi is one of the most valued contemporary Chinese artists. He moved to Berlin in the 1980’s, his early influences being Beuys, Arte Povera and the Fluxus movement.


Throughout his time in Europe, he became interested in Western art theory and explored possibilities of extending art into physical space. This theoretical interest has perhaps become reflected in his style of painting. Instead of using traditional brushes, he applies his paint with spatulas and shovels. Resulting in immense and impressive strokes, the paint on the canvas transforms into an object itself: The quantity of applied oil paint seems to become the desired extension into physical space.

Li Bai Falling Down Yueyang Tower (2013), Oil on Canvas, 180 x 160cm x 3 (three canvases)
Li Bai Falling Down Yueyang Tower (2013), Oil on Canvas, 180 x 160cm x 3 (three canvases)

Formed in 1979, Jinshi belonged to the Chinese avant-garde formation Stars. The group, which also included the dissident Ai Weiwei, sought to challenge aesthetic conventions and to establish an individual creative force. Idealistic like many avant-garde artists, Zhu stated that his “idea is to go beyond the limitations set by form and break free”.


The paint is applied so thickly that it almost advances towards the spectator. Although the texture of the dried paint creates a landscape-like appearance on the canvas, it unties itself from form. The vividly and swiftly painted works draw the viewer’s eyes in. Wanting to see a resembling form, a visual engagement has the opposite effect. The more one searches, the less recognisable forms appear. The paint no longer represents a particular form or landscape, but is the landscape itself. The thickness of the paint, the abruptly changing colours and discontinuing patterns and strokes are the most fascinating and attention-grabbing aspects of Jinshi’s work.


Although he is primarily a painter, Jinshi has also produced performances, explored conceptual art and created installations. His most recent exhibition ‘Simplicity’ also includes an installation called ‘Work’. 8000 sheets of rice paper form a 30-meter wall though the gallery. Specially created for this particular space, each piece of the so-called Xuan paper is hand rolled and partly drenched in black ink.

Work (2014), Ink on Xuan paper, Dimensions variable
Work (2014), Ink on Xuan paper, Dimensions variable

Being the first ever writing paper, the Xuan rice sheets were traditionally used for calligraphy. However, Zhu employs them to reconstruct something that seems to be a wall, but is called ‘Work’. Coloured in black and white, the simulated wall winds fragilely through the gallery. The wavy surface of the installation evokes landscape connotations similar to the paintings. However, examining the Xuan paper up close, one is lost in an ocean of paper.


Zhu Jinshi’s work is not avant-garde, but aims to push boundaries. However, his paintings are beautifully abstract. The composition, shapes and colour do not reference or simulate anything outside the painting. However, by abandoning any resembling form he paradoxically manages to create landscapes. Despite the perhaps theoretical influence on the artist, the exhibited works do not falsely pretend to be conceptual.


It is the aesthetic sense that prevails. Although abstract forms are key to his work, the viewer is not instantly drawn to question what he or she sees. An avant-garde irony is totally absent, and therefore confirms the artist’s expression that is so genuinely as abstract. Jinshi himself described these landscapes as ‘mind images’. Aesthetically attractive and visually pleasing, one could wish for these images every day.


Words Peter Schimke.

Zhu Jinshi: Simplicity is on at Pearl Lam Galleries, 9 Lock Road, #03-22, Gillman Barracks, 108937, Singapore until 13 July 2014.

For more information visit – www.pearllam.com/artist/zhu-jinshi