(Chinese, B. 1955)
Returning Home in the Rain
pastel on paper
69.8 x 49.8 cm. (27 1/2 x 19 5/8 in.)
Executed in 1988
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

Brought to you by

Eric Chang
Eric Chang

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Lot Essay

Property from a Private German Collection

Zhou Chunya's distinct fusion of Chinese painting with Western art's personal modes of expression has established him as one of China's most important and influential contemporary painters. Born in 1955 in Chongqing, Zhou belongs to the first post-Mao generation of painters who have based their work on personal dialogues between their Chinese heritage and their study of Western art practice. Zhou integrates Western art's expressive use of color and brushstroke with elements in traditional Chinese painting, bringing a unique new approach to that aesthetic tradition. Zhou's technique, coupled with his highly personal mode of expressionism, reflects the artist's desire to reach beyond the confines of his own culture for the stylistic and thematic freedom that is central to his sensibility.

In 1981, during his time as a student at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Art, Zhou Chunya and Zhang Xiaogang were invited by a classmate to visit the Aba Grassland in Sichuan, China. The grasslands, at once luscious, colorful, expansive and remote, made a deep impression on the young artist. Shortly thereafter, Zhou also traveled to Tibet, steeping himself further China's wildest peripheries in contrast to his classmates, who headed to flourishing coastal provinces. He chose to live among ethnic Tibetans and to explore the pastoral scenes of Tibetan life. This inspired him to paint a series on the nomadic lives of the Tibetans, The New Generation of Tibetans, where he linked themes of nature with spirituality. He recalls, "Back then I only wanted to sketch from life because in doing so I was confronting an immediate, living nature. This allowed my artistic expression to remain at one with my passions."

After graduating in 1982, Zhou gravitated further away from China's academic realism, and yearned for an understanding of the human form and spirit which he found in the grasslands. In a letter to Zhang Xiaogang in 1983, Zhou wrote, "I am very fond of dominating the picture with an agitated emotion these days, and I am also eager to pierce the smoggy weather of Chengdu with strong sunlight. When I left the pastures, many images faded from memory, but the bold, dramatic colors of the grassland and the warm, simple images of the Tibetans at home stuck with me." Zhou would return to the themes and imagery he found in the grasslands again and again, as he developed a visual language for his deeply personal, allegorical style, discreetly overturning the inherited aesthetic paradigms of Chinese academic training.

From 1986 to 1988, Zhou studied abroad at the Kassel Academy of Fine Art in Germany, an experience which further contributed to his unique synthesis of East and West. The collection offered here is drawn from this important period of Zhou's growth and development as an artist, extending from his earliest experiments as a student to the full blown expressionism of his works from the 1990s onwards. We can see throughout the collection Zhou's immersion in the study of Impressionism, Cubism, and, in particular, his affinity for German Neo-Expressionism. Soon Zhou began to paint with intense, somber, meditative, broad brushstrokes. These newly abstracted forms were a manifestation of Zhou's reflection on his Chinese cultural and aesthetic heritage and on the techniques and experiences he gained from studying in the West.

Throughout this group of works from a Private German Collection, we can see Zhou's eye for expression through movement and gesture, his insightful and romantic approach to the human form and spirit. These early works created from the late 1980s to early 1990s not only trace Zhou's early stylistic experiments but also illuminate the artistic directions that would take him into the next century. Recalling the atmosphere, mysticism and subtlety of Chinese literati painting, works such as Mask, Returning Home in the Rain, and Figure illustrates Zhou's use of a monochromatic palette and his gradual progression towards abstraction. He adopts figurative techniques such as linear abstraction, muddled colors, constraint in figurative forms with a soft, rubbed brushwork similar to that found in Chinese painting. These works exemplify a new personal Chinese expressionistic style, but also a set of ideas about the relationship between humans and nature that captured his impression of life in the grassland. The unique environment and images of the grasslands that appear throughout Zhou's works, like that found in Horse and Mountain demonstrates that the spiritual, uninhabited literati spirit can meander freely and unrestrained even in a contemporary context. These works also established Zhou's symbolic exploration of self-portraiture that came to full fruition in his later Heigen (Green Dog) series. These ideas, parallel with the philosophy in Chinese painting, resonate deeply with Zhou's persistent need to express his inner world. In works like Tibetan Houses in the Old Days, Zhou continues to hearken back to his experiences as a student, but, we can see in his extraordinary brushwork, lines and strong use of color, his painting abandons conscious attempts at conventional representation. Instead, this work turns toward a purity of painting, executed with sharp and weighty brushstrokes to suggest the rolling hills and houses of the native countryside, the type of scene and technique akin to the classical styles of Chinese landscape painting.

Throughout these early works, Zhou combines disparate elements of Neo-Expressionism with traditional Chinese ink and charcoal play, revealing his persistent exploration of these two distinct aesthetic and cultural worlds. Settling on certain Chinese iconographies seen later in his Rock series (and that later led to his Green Dogs), Zhou's work delivers his expressions of cultural sensitivity that reflects the impact of traditional values on contemporary art, endowed with a sense of history and a humanistic spirit with the means and techniques of Western oil painting. Upon Zhou's return to China in 1989, following the Tiananmen Square protests on June 4th, many artists in China moved to Beijing and began to employ ironic and distorted personal metaphors into their work as a way to address the major historical and social transformations of their times. For Zhou, searching for cultural and artistic alternatives that would redress the disorientation he felt towards China's accelerated pace of modernization, globalization, and economic growth, which he found had become a wasteland saturated with political and cultural disillusionment, meant the pursuit of a spiritual aesthetic, a renewed visual language that had its roots in China's contemporary cultural identity that could speak to both the individual and collective experience. Zhou has stated, "I have been deeply influenced by the Chinese tradition, which I never will be rid of whenever I am." Such an expressionist disposition remains constant throughout his artistic development, and his paintings reflect the dichotomy of his creative expedition in Chinese and Western aesthetics.

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