Growing at a Leisurely Pace Along the Margins —On the Formation of Tang Zhigang’s Painting Language

Each person’s awareness and behavior is fed or constrained by three forces: past knowledge, the trends of the times, and one’s own personal experiences. When a person can put these forces to good use, and break through their limitations, that is when creation takes place. This is especially the case with art. Yet we can never quite precisely explain what it means to “put them to good use,” or compile an effective set of methods anyone can follow to train themselves to become highly creative people. Even so, by observing an artist’s works, we can trace back through what was going on in the individual artist’s mind as his language took shape, and through that understand its specific significance within a predefined “epochal spirit,” and thus ascertain the value of these works in the present.

As a representative figure of the new painting in Chinese contemporary art, Tang Zhigang and his works naturally form an important object for scholarly research. There have already been many essays that have engaged in discussion on specific issues within this from various angles. Among them, Paraphrasing Memory—Tang Zhigang’s Paintings is the most systematic and thorough. The essay comprehensively sifts through Tang Zhigang’s painting career leading up to 2007, and through a great many comparisons of parallel figures, artworks and events against the backdrop of the times, reveals the conflict and entanglement between the artist’s individual memories and the circumstances of reality, providing a thorough interpretation of the source and deconstructive significance of the humorous attitudes within his works. Due to limitations of space, the essay left a series of topics up for further discussion, with one of the most important ones being the way in which Tang Zhigang’s painting language took form, and its inspirational value within the trends of contemporary art.

To generalize, Tang Zhigang’s painting language took form in a gradual progression, slow to the point of resembling that of a traditional artisan. Meanwhile, Tang Zhigang’s creations have always stood on the margins of artistic and cultural trends. Though he left Yunnan in the mid-1980s to study in Nanjing and then Beijing, he never quite stood on the leading waves of the times. But it is precisely this “slow” method and marginal state that has allowed him to grow at a leisurely pace. This is, on a fundamental level, due to his personality, but when this personality faced specific historical predicaments, the gradual progression within showed periodic bursts of action. One of the most striking shifts was in the emergence of the Chidren’s Meetings motif in 1999. In Sick Man Tang and His Thin Ice Fairy Tale, Ye Yongqing writes, “I had organized the first exhibition for the Upriver Club, which was also the first opportunity for Yunnan artists to test their mettle with top artists from around the country. Tang Zhigang sent over his new Meeting, and my eyes lit right up! This theme was something he had been doing over and over, and it was a reproduction of a condition that we were all familiar with from reality. But the difference was that it was a group of children pretending to have an adult meeting… I was thinking, ‘Great! Mr. Tang is a late bloomer; he has concentrated the essence of his life experience and risen up!’”

“Nirvana” is a quite fitting term that not only describes the formation of Tang Zhigang’s painting language, but also alludes to the difficulties he faced in his previous artistic explorations, even a kind death of the “past.” Before 1989, these difficulties were often outside of his awareness and control. Like many of his peers, Tang Zhigang began to learn painting within a very isolated environment. Realism was the only aesthetic standard he could come into contact with, and for that reason, the goals he pursued in his early painting practice was quite simple, amounting simply to using the most appropriate forms to represent a certain typical scene and image, and thus convey a certain “thematic idea.” But in the actual practice of painting, this awareness was unable to suppress another form of intuition about painting in his subconscious, that he should “set his sights on objects and issues that actually moved him personally.” This vague awareness was further affirmed by the Western modernist painting he encountered at the Nanjing University of the Arts and the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Art, and his own works grew increasingly out of step with the artistic standards of the mainstream. Though he was still painting military themes, his focus was more on the details of everyday life, the dark side of war, and the reality of human nature.

As the new artistic concepts grew increasingly clear, the conflict between the pursuits of his heart and reality wafted up to the level of conscious awareness. In 1989, “Tang Zhigang, who was then studying at the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Art, saw the China / Avant-Garde Exhibition… At first sight, Tang Zhigang felt that this was something he himself should be doing. If it weren’t for his status as a soldier, he would certainly have taken part in the China / Avant-Garde Exhibition. His paintings were always going in this direction. He felt that he had walked right past this era of history, merely rubbing shoulders with it. He was very jealous, and felt quite sour about it.” This feeling was doubtless an important turning point in his decision to turn fully to contemporary art, but if we take his works from this time into account, we find that his status as a soldier was not the only reason he missed this last artistic wave of the 1980s. It was also due to his independent personality. This is a laid-back personality, one that cannot bear the constraints of the military, but one that also does not chase after trends. His strong individualistic habits made it so that he would not view art from the same sweeping perspective of the hot-blooded youths around him, so even though he was often in Beijing after 1986, he did not get involved in the first waves of the cultural movement that was the “modern art movement,” but merely let his painting language grow along the margins at its own leisurely pace.

Regarding the situation at the time, Tang Zhigang recalls, “I was there during the China / Avant-Garde Exhibition. I went to see the exhibition, and when I was there, I felt lost. I felt that if I had held on and insisted on not coming to Beijing, and had continued to paint along the lines of the Soul of Soldiers paintings, I would have had the opportunity to take part in this exhibition. But the curators would not have come to see military paintings on their own accord. They felt that paintings by soldiers were part of the system. If Mao Xuhui hadn’t brought the people from Jiangsu Pictorial to see my paintings, I would not have any connections to modern art. The curators had no inkling that someone in the military could paint like this. I was always in a blind spot, but I always persisted. After 1989, I realized I had to get out of the military system. I couldn’t stay there any longer.”

In order to extricate himself from the predicament of his soldier status, Tang Zhigang diligently studied English from 1990 to 92 in preparation for the graduate school examination, but he gave up his plans for further studies in the emotional turmoil that followed the passing of his father and breaking up with his girlfriend. After returning to the military, he continued creating in his own way, and began to explore some new mediums. Group Portrait of the Times, a 1994 collaboration with Lei Yan, was selected for the Third National Fine Artworks Exhibition (People’s Liberation Army), where it won an Excellence Award. This artwork, which received affirmation from a mainstream exhibition because it fit with mainstream ideas, was created using Pop-style collage methods. In what appears to be an orderly schematic layout, the satirical tone is clearly on display. It successfully conveys the absurd state of Chinese culture in the years following 1989, marked by both the tightening of political controls, and the mutual penetration between mainstream culture and contemporary art. Of course, there were more and more signs that as the market economy advanced, the “New Art Movement,” which had originally been aimed at the liberation of ideas, was facing a new and total shift, having lost its unified opposition, but that also hinted at new hope. The 94 Southwestern Art Focus Exhibition, held that year in Kunming’s Southwest Commercial Building, was the embodiment of that shift in Yunnan, as well as the first sign of contemporary art playing a role in the local scene in Yunnan. Tang Zhigang used the creative approach behind Group Portrait of the Times to create a series of mixed media works titled AIDS for this exhibition. This series of works, however, did not meet with the same good luck as Group Portrait of the Times. It was condemned because of its negative subject matter, direct visual forms and the identity of its creator, and due to the political pressure in response to this artwork, Spring City Evening News canceled all coverage of the exhibition the night before going to press. Nevertheless, the novel artistic forms and the new exhibition setting had a powerful impact on the residents of Kunming and its art academy students.

Though some new opportunities had begun to emerge, in the first few years of the 1990s, Tang Zhigang had yet to find a clear artistic direction, and his works basically continued the hybrid state of before, with some of his works being army-themed works drawing from Post-Impressionist and Expressionist techniques, and others being marked by local Yunnan cultural traits. At the same time, we could also see the stylistic influence of the New Generation, Cynical Realism and Pop that were then popular in the center. When speaking of his condition at the time, Tang Zhigang recalls, “I didn’t leave Beijing until 1991. By then, the Yuanmingyuan Artists Village was already there, and Fang Lijun and the others were already red hot. I would often visit the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and often see all kinds of exhibitions, so I had an idea of a direction. For example, the Physical Examination works were already quite close to the works of Liu Xiaodong and the others.” Yet this influence on the conscious level did not copy over into his creations. After all, artistic creations on the military base could not engage in overt ideological satire. Thus, such works as Playing Basketball from 1990, Ah and Chess Battle from 1992, and After Class and Slaughtering Pigs from 1994, reveal tastes in line with the later Children’s Meetings: they all used a “pretense of seriousness” to present things from a child’s perspective. It is only through this perspective that those meaningless moments from the everyday lives of adults actually turn into paintings. The humor the viewer finds within does not arise from satirical intent, but is merely a result of the artist playing around with his own experiences.

Regarding his works from this period, Tang Zhigang says, “None of these works were selected for any army exhibitions. They may have been military themes, but the perspective was wrong, their hands hung below their knees, their buttons were unbuttoned, how could you paint soldiers like that? The creative approach was wrong as well. At the time, it was popular to paint from photographs. You would take photographs, base the sketches on it, and then create typical scenes and figures based on political themes. These works of mine were not based on photographs at all. I drew them completely from memory, painting whatever I could remember, however I could remember it. There was no intentional distortion. I cared only about the resulting picture. If it felt right, then that was enough.” This approach to painting is connected to his practice of drawing film scenes from memory when he was first learning to paint, but the goal was now different: the drawing of film scenes from memory was intended to train his representational abilities and cultivate his awareness of composition. Later, he was painting in order to express his impressions of life, which was perhaps the core concept driving the evolution of his painting language.

The works in which Tang Zhigang truly began to seek out a certain schema and language started in 1995 with Sexually-Transmitted Disease, Catching Mosquitoes, Day Trip, Mythical Beasts, Comrades, Secret Affair, Consolation, Horn, Rousseau, Perspective, and Stud. Aside from the first four works, which are relatively uniform in language, the other works are difficult to classify. We could say that Tang Zhigang was entering into a transition phase. These obviously scattered artworks revealed the anxiety about the constant new opportunities emerging amidst the explosion of information. That year, Tang Zhigang, Zeng Xiaofeng, Li Ji and Liu Jianhua took part in the exhibition Present Condition (Kunming) sponsored by the Columbia University Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange. Attention from the other side of the world showed these artists far from the center the possibility of decoupling from the official exhibition system, and they were all striving to find a linguistic method that would gain them entry into the ranks of international art. But excessive eagerness seems to have led these artists astray from their own experiences, hindering their progress.

In 1996, Tang Zhigang finally got his wish, and cast off his military uniform to begin teaching at the Yunnan Arts University. After extricating himself from his identity troubles, Tang Zhigang was able to create with more freedom. In this year, he painted many works of acrylic on paper, their styles evoking various modern styles from Post-Impressionism to abstraction. When it comes to his difficulties in that period, Tang Zhigang has no trouble frankly admitting that he was quite lost at the time, but advice from outside brought him to a turning point: “Yang Xiaoyan from Gallery magazine visited my studio and saw I was painting the Mythical Beasts series. He said it looked a lot like the work of Song Yonghong, not like my own work. The military theme was my thing. No one else in the country was painting soldiers. He said he wanted to publish a feature on my military-themed works, and asked me to find someone to write it.”

Tang Zhigang asked Mao Xuhui to write Soldier’s Song: “Tang Zhigang is the first person I have seen to view soldiers as ordinary people. Rooted in this humanistic attitude, his works have erased the modes of military themes already established in our minds, the massive military actions, the historic battles, and the heroicized image of the soldier… When it comes to these works by Tang Zhigang, we have every reason to place them in modernism for discussion. His simple realist style has absorbed many elements from modern and contemporary figurative art, setting him far apart from realism in the traditional sense… This batch of works is doubtless related to the trend toward a return to realism in Chinese contemporary art since 1989… It is just that what he presents are everyday states of soldiers as ordinary people… It is not strange for a painter and soldier such as Tang Zhigang to be able to so naturally capture these qualities. This is an inevitable outcome of so many years living on military bases. Such a painter could not be someone to play with formalism, which is to say that his works could never be unconnected to life. Throughout it all, universal life and things are the subjects he captures. He does not ask if that life is filled with the spirit of the epoch, or with great ideals and eternal value. He is just grabbing those interesting things from the everyday condition, as someone immersed within, and sharing them with others who have a passion for universal life and things.”

Mao Xuhui’s essay isn’t very long, but it precisely points out the most profound impetus behind Tang Zhigang’s creations, and its effect. At this point, Tang Zhigang became aware of the importance of his own experience, and began to look back on the military life he had given up. At this moment, what came flooding forth was not the soldier’s life, but a very un-lifelike activity of life on the base—meetings. This was obviously a very political subject, but now that he was an ordinary civilian, Tang Zhigang was no longer subject to those strict limitations. Meeting, created in 1996, continued with the painting language of the “Soldier’s Song” period—Impressionistic reconstructed scenes, Surrealist figurative techniques—but now there emerged something new, a satirical tone. This painting was evidently too direct, and was painted in an overly reserved fashion. The overpowering sense of space diminished the repressive feel of the “meeting.” But overall, the flash of sudden inspiration was enough to push Tang Zhigang to create a series of Meetings. In a series of works painted in 1997, the viewer has been quietly pulled down to the perspective of the listener in front of the podium, and the rich palette has faded, leaving only a zombie-like gravity… Of course, with his natural sense of humor, Tang Zhigang never forgot to add a touch of a strange expression to the eyebrows and mouths of the powerful people here, in a thought-provoking touch.

If the acrylic on paper works from before Meeting were quests for an outlet, then the many acrylic on paper works created as the individualized linguistic style of the Meetings series was taking shape are especially significant. This significance is fully revealed in the ink paintings Tang Zhigang has been creating in recent years. As Guan Yuda says, “In these paper works, the flow of consciousness is stronger, freer and more vivid. That is to say, the ‘messy painting’ he has always wanted to pursue is closer within reach. So called ‘messy painting’ is a sketch, a drawing, a steaming mess full of information… The sense of touch, for a person who works in the medium of painting, has extraordinary significance. Once a painter has that sense of touch, it is really hard to give up painting… Perhaps the artist’s scribbles and smears on paper stem from some inexplicable impulse and yearning for freedom, a wish to rediscover that original mind and sensation of painting. But his thoughts on the tools of painting and the sense of touch are actually the outcome of a rational construct. What is most astonishing is his keenness as an observer of human nature, and his clear logic that manages to retain its sense of touch.”

In fact, Tang Zhigang’s emotional complex about his “sense of touch” has been with him from the beginning. Before creating the Mythical Beasts series in 1995, his works were all painted as “sketches.” The works from the “Soldier’s Song” period were the outcome of this. As discussed above, the Mythical Beasts series began as a way of breaking through. The “official artworks” (oil paintings) of this period may have still served as a continuation of the earlier painting language, but the intentions of schematic exploration suppressed this “feel for the hands,” and that is why so many paper works, seemingly unconnected to each other in terms of either form or content, emerged at this time. After the Meetings series emerged, these works came to form various individual series, such as the Horses series, the Horns series and the Girlfriends series. As the language of the Meetings series continually matured, these sketches only continued to multiply in number, with the unbridled nature of the ink brushwork coming to rival the perfection of the oil painting “masterworks.” Was this not in order to bring “the ‘messy painting’ he has always wanted to pursue closer within reach”? In this way it is not difficult to understand why Tang Zhigang’s most recent oil painting “masterworks” have grown to increasingly resemble “sketches.”

As the sketches multiplied, and after a short period of “sketch-style” paintings of “leaders,” the Children’s Meetings made their shocking debut in 1999. As the children replaced the adults, did the meetings descend into play, or was play dressing up as meetings? In child’s play, power loses its luster, and the flavor of that cannot be simply summed up by humor, banter or sarcasm. This endlessly intriguing flavor seems to have swept up even the artist, to the point that in the intervening 14 years, the scribbled sketches disappeared, replaced by classical aesthetics: first by Western balance and harmony, then by Chinese literati refinement. It was not until the color tones and ink brushwork both reached an apex of freedom that we once again saw the emergence of graffito oil painting “masterworks” and ink paintings meant to “rediscover that original mind and sensation of painting.”

In this light, we can see that the thread of Tang Zhigang’s painting language formation does not begin with the Mythical Beasts series, nor does it end with the Children’s Meetings series. He has always been on the path, but the decade from 1989 to 99 was doubtless the most harrowing of his painting career. In the beginning of this phase, he “engaged in a singular confrontation with the disruptions, vacancies and rifts within a perceptual field.” When he applied his early artistic knowledge to its fullest extent, he made “discoveries about the indeterminacy of an attentive perception.” Then, in the years that followed, he discovered “how its instabilities could be the basis for a reinvention of perceptual experience and of representational practices.” Through exhaustion and repetition, Tang Zhigang completed the awakening of language. There was no lack of strategy within, but what really mattered continued to be the natural growth of painting language as an experience of the feel for the hands. Meanwhile, the temporal background that fostered this process was that “The political and economic trends of the late 1990s were full of possibilities. The measures that arose from China’s participation in the process of globalization suppressed the influence of old ideological standards, and people were no longer using the old accustomed ways to judge so many things, preferring to see freedom of thought and ideas as more legitimate. It was also against this backdrop that the new painting that had begun in the 1990s turned into a widespread trend: artists no longer accepted any outside guidance or admonitions. They wanted to give free rein to their own imaginations and judgments, and tried to break free of any form of shackles—whether Eastern or Western—to reveal all problems historical, current or personal they had perceived.”

Of course, the “problems historical, current or personal” revealed by these artists who “no longer accepted any outside guidance or admonitions” were all quite different in their methods, differences rooted in the inherent dispositions of each person, with different personalities leading each individual to make different choices when facing the shared historical predicaments of the group. Having come from a military background, having grown up in Kunming and its environs, and having plenty of the laid-back nature of the people of Yunnan, his rebellion appeared highly reserved and “introverted”—a tendency to respond to any problem by first questioning himself. It was because of this tendency that he hoped to meet his own needs through changes in external conditions, and to find methods that fit him within the limited conditions. This was not just adaptation, but a gradual alteration of his surrounding environment. This is why he was able to persist in free artistic exploration during his twenty years in the military, and why he was able to effectively transform this uncomfortable living situation into a wellspring for creativity. We could say that in his artistic practice in the 1990s, Tang Zhigang went through a process from regret to hope, to disappointment and on to joy. He did follow some trends along the way, but his faithfulness to individual experience and the perceptions of the body kept this following very limited, and allowed individual awareness to prevail throughout. In terms of the cultural criticality that contemporary art should possess, the formation process of Tang Zhigang’s painting language is quite inspiring, because only artistic practices that are able to avoid being swallowed up by the trends can have true enlightening value, and this requires the courage and ability to constantly negate oneself.

Xuan Hongyu

November 4, 2018, at the Shilipu Train Station, Mengzi