Shanghai—Pearl Lam Galleries is pleased to present WaterQuintessence, its first solo exhibition by Zhang Jian-Jun, on show from 19 March–28 May with an opening reception on 26 March, 2016. The exhibition centres on the subject of water—both its physical forms and connotations that flit through the kaleidoscope of daily life, and as the epitome of classical Chinese philosophy, which Zhang describes as yi—the true realm between reality and ideal, or the pursuit of quintessence (in Western terminology) in the most simplified and sensible way. The show features the artist’s latest oil and ink paintings, and it will also comprehensively showcase an array of mixed media works, sculpture pieces, and archival documentations dating from the 1980s to the present.
For the first time in nearly three decades, the Shanghai native, one of the representative artists for the earliest abstract art in China, will hold a solo show featuring current artwork in his hometown. Zhang Jian-Jun’s works pose questions about existence, the origin of the universe, and the eternalness and transformative nature of time. Deeply influenced by Daoism, Zhang approaches his art through a philosophical way of thinking and regards his practice as a form of “contemplation of the pure, and manifestation of the simple”. In his comprehension of Dao, Zhang instinctively implements the common metaphor of water that merges reality with abstraction in his art.
Zhang Jian-Jun will exhibit a piece from his acclaimed series Noumenon (Existence), which establishes his conceptual pursuit in art. Noumenon (Existence) is ultimately a conversation between the artist and the macrocosm on the essence of being. Monochromatic, circular, and made from natural materials, each piece from the series is subtle without abrupt shifts, just as Dao is “the form of the formless and image of indeterminacy.” Renowned art critic Gao Minglu considers Zhang’s works as “rational paintings”, which inquire into the origin, essence, and progression of metaphysics. This 1980s avant-garde movement is a crucial component for the development of contemporary art and culture in China.
WaterQuintessence debuts several new paintings from Zhang’s Flowing Water series, in which he applies ink with oil paint to symbolise the flow of Chinese traditions into the contemporary world, fusing together the physical flow of water and the idea of “Everything in and as a Process”. If Daoism advocates for opposing elements to operate in a mutually transformative manner, then the harmonious union of the mediums of oil and ink, representing Zhang’s lived experiences in New York and Shanghai, on canvas is a realisation of a Daoist way of life. Other new works are from the artist’s First Drop of Water series which encapsulates how he imagines the origin of life. The circular shape in his early 1980s work has extended into this series, but with its embodiment of ‘essence’ becoming more physically fluid and visible. The blossoming of a drop of water, a visualisation of the same spiritual connotation from Zhang’s Noumenon (Existence) series, is an elaborate moment that captures the diverse movements of water. The contrast between a singular drop and a boundless ripple is dramatic yet poetic through the instantaneousness and eternalness of time.
Accompanying the black-and-white Flowing Water series is Red Mountain (2015), a red-pink sculpture cast in silicone rubber. Shaped after scholars’ rocks, which have a history of being collected by Chinese literati since a thousand years ago, Red Mountain is artificial in its material and colour. The sculpture itself is a contradiction that sparks a dialogue between tradition and modernity, implying that society’s transition from the past to the present has not always been smooth.
Exploring the role that water has played in Zhang Jian-Jun’s artistic development, Water·Quintessence includes archival images of the artist’s various art installations and performances, as well as two series from the 1990s. The works in Zhang’s Pond series (1990) have added dimension and depth due to the veiling of a translucent layer on the abstract ink sketches. The delicate and rhythmic paintings seem to shift from stillness to movement. The minimalist composition continues in his Chinese ink on paper WaterFire series (1992)—painted with water and burned with fire—that focuses on two seemingly conflicting but rather complementary elements from the five substances in Chinese philosophy. The circles are yin and yang, which cannot exist without one and another. It is yi that keeps them interrelated.
The exhibition will also screen videos that document Zhang Jian-Jun’s creative explorations of the concept of time through water. In the documentary of his outdoor installation To Fuse (1994), Zhang adds water and dry ice to a pool of ink. Gradually, the fog rises as the man-made ink transforms into another physical state. The cultural and natural aspects of this work fuse together, and the performance itself is ultimately a way of Dao. In the video Rubbing Sun (2014), Zhang rubs the outline of the sun (the fire) with water instead of ink on a piece of suspended Xuan paper on the beach in Venice, California. The finished work is “pure”, as no trace was left after the water dried, while the process is a reflection of humanity within nature and the nature within humanity. Immersing himself and his art between the transient and the eternal, the small and the grand, the physical and the metaphysical, the simple and the profound, as well as appearance and essence, Zhang Jian-Jun balances and synthesises these polarities as his works flow through space and time.