Waiting for what is lost
he John Moores Painting Prize may still be rather unfamiliar to Chinese art lovers, but I’m certain you’ve heard of David Hockney, Peter Doig, Dan Hay… All of these artists, now big names in the contemporary art world, have stood on John Moores’ stage to collect their awards. The John Moores Painting Prize, the most famous of its kind in Britain, was founded in 1957, and is named after its founder Sir John Moores. In 2010, the John Moores Painting Prize left its home soil for the first time, and came to China, receiving much attention and plaudits.
Among the many outstanding works entered for the second John Moores Painting Prize in China in 2012, five emerged from the pack: one of these artists won First Prize, and the
four others received the John Moores Award. “Waiting”, a work by Zheng Jiang, one of the Award winners, particularly resonated with this writer.
Zheng Jiang has chosen an extreme form of visual approach, by depicting things seen through frosted glass, the rays of light transformed by the manifold ridges of the glass into fragmented, imprecise, unfamiliar images. Through the visual ‘protective screen’ of the patterned glass, the audience is forcibly distanced from the objects, and is even placed in the awkward position of feeling like a peeping Tom. This type of crab-apple flower patterned frosted glass was all the rage in China in the 1980s, the era when the artist was born and was growing up. Zheng Jiang seems to be deeply immersed in nostalgia for his childhood, and the frosted glass not only becomes a kind of extension of our line of vision, it also becomes a vehicle for transporting him back into his memory.
Behind the frosted glass, things of beauty become empty, foreign, a heavy atmosphere seeping through Zheng Jiang’s highly restrained technique. In his artist’s statement Zheng Jiang says: “The emptiness which this kind of vanishing brings with it contains a subtle, nagging pain.” This nostalgia for the past still does not seem sufficient to fill him with confidence in the present. Zheng seems to be drifting away in this kind of subtle, imprecise mood. The only certain message expressed by the painting “Waiting”, whether in its title or in the image itself, is this kind of uncertainty. We have no way of knowing the source of the artist’s ‘nagging pain’, but from “Waiting”, we can also read our own emotional response to the memories and atmosphere conjured up by the artist.
Zheng Jiang’s style of painting reminds this author of the later works of the photo-realist artist Chuck Close. Seen from close up, he [Close] uses an abstract style, which involves condensing the pixels of the image. But when you look at his work from a distance, it has the air of a mosaic representation of reality. Zheng Jiang’s approach to painting, though, seems to be precisely the opposite: every detail of the picture is an absolutely concrete pattern on the frosted glass, but when you look at it from further away, these are transformed into imprecise objects, which are open to interpretation. Through this approach, the artist moves smoothly between the abstract and the representational. In comparison with other young artists of his era, he has made the rare choice of a highly restrained, even difficult approach to painting, and every detail emphasizes the great patience and effort which the artist has devoted to it. Rather than saying that his paintings construct memory through their brush-strokes, it would be more appropriate to say that he uses each moment and each drop of time and effort to make his peace with what he has lost.
In ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, Alexandre Dumas wrote that “All human wisdom is summed up in these two words: Wait and Hope.” In Zheng Jiang’s work “Waiting”, it’s as though he is not waiting for the future, but is rather waiting for a past which has already gone. “Waiting” aside, this writer hopes that the honour of winning the John Moores Painting Prize can serve as an encouragement to Zheng Jiang and the other winning artists, and can become a starting point for them to move forward together with other artists, and each demonstrate the individual, unique value of their works.
Writen by WU Shengzhi
The Essay Won 2012 John Moores Critics Awards
“Blue Rope" by Zheng Jiang, 2013