Pearl Lam Galleries, Singapore (9 Lock Road #03-22, Gillman Barracks, Singapore 108937), May 28–July 13, 2014
Art movements don’t always name themselves; sometimes a pithy put-down is embraced by the artists involved—the Fauvists were so named by being disparaged as wild beasts, while the term “Impressionism” comes to us from a critic’s sarcastic remark. As far as pejorative appellations go, it’s hard to beat “Zombie Formalism”, which was coined by the artist-critic Walter Robinson to describe a trend towards market-friendly blandness in recent abstraction. It is what American Psycho’s identikit yuppies might buy, were the story to be set here and now.
The term casts its net far and wide. The American critic Jerry Saltz recently suggested that it might include paintings that look handmade but aren’t (and vice versa), or which are sent through the mail or left outdoors and so on, employing a “vocabulary of smudges, stains, spray paint, flecks, spills, splotches, almost-monochromatic fields, silk-screening, or stenciling.” Given that “Zombie Formalism” can command such a broad definition, perhaps it’s less a matter of market machinations by opportunistic artists and dealers (and unsuspectingly earnest fellow travelers) in concert with monied rubes than a more general anxiety about the place of the painted image in an image-saturated age.
As opposed to specific, singular artworks that fail on that count, Zombie Formalism might instead suggest diffuse distributions of generalized imagery: an unconscious echo of the dislocations of cloud-computing, substituting beauty with an aesthetic of the paralysis of choice. In a similar sort of distributive vein, the drive in some recent abstraction towards processes which place some distance between the hand and the canvas might be seen in the works of artists like Xie Molin, who uses a modified axial cutting plotter to produce his paintings, or Shang Yixin’s almost programmatic use of the airbrush.
Such practices seem to situate the painting as a singular, fleeting act; something like a performance-installation which traces its way through the operations of the art market. In other words, a specific painting is only a given instance of a larger whole, both of the artist’s process-governed methodology and as something akin to radiographic contrast agents, plumbing the depths of the art market’s interconnected machinery by itself passing through it.
However, with his lavishly thick impastos and varied colors—at times fostering the illusion of being a mote before a giant’s palette—this discussion seems at first removed from the work of Zhu Jinshi, a pioneering artist who moved into abstraction at a time when it was embattled on two fronts, with the Chinese “avant-garde” inclined to dismiss it as rather conservative, while the Social Realists suspected it of bourgeois deviancy. Unlike those accused of Zombie Formalism, Zhu’s concatenation of influences comes from his lived experience of going from post-Cultural Revolution China to the wider world beyond—a process of synthesizing disparate aesthetic traditions through a personal journey.
Though the exhibition’s title “Simplicity” might also seem at odds with the uncompromisingly lively textures and tones of his canvases, perhaps the simplicity here lies not in the immediate sensory impression, but in the underlying approach to painting that this impression alludes to. Without oversimplifying, it boils down to a man and his unbridled enthusiasm (perhaps verging on the indulgent) for paint. From this emerges depth, in much the same way that the simple rules of cellular automata can give rise to staggering complexity.
And while the installation “Work” might suggest an austere and elegiac counterpoint to this textural and tonal richness—a single swoop of white paper and black ink moving through the gallery space—its physical presence suggests more. Much as with the interplay between simplicity and complexity in Zhu’s paintings, the simple form of “Work” is founded on the accumulation of uncounted rolls of ink-dipped paper, suggestive of near-infinite differentiation at some minute level.
In addition to hints of fractal regression supplied by “Work”, the installation also comes to define one’s experience of the exhibition as a whole. By dividing the space along its length, the installation comes to prescribe one’s movements through it, and in so doing serves as some silent arbiter for how we relate to the images on the walls. It’s as if one of Zhu’s brushstrokes came to extend beyond the pictorial frame, sliding effortlessly into experiential space like some sort of integral element, binding apparently separate canvases into a greater whole—one which requires some tacit participation on our part, with our movements governed at least in some way by the physical presence of “Work.”