“Spirit Above All,” Zhao Yao solo exhibition
Pace Gallery (6-10 Lexington Street London, UK) Feb 12 – Mar 16, 2013
Painting is difficult and is getting more difficult. Most of the most interesting and provocative art of recent decades has not involved paint at all. Challenged first by photography and then by the rise of conceptual art in all its forms, including performance, the potential for painting, perhaps the most ancient art form, to contribute to new thinking now seems exhausted, condemned to be a talent of social instruction, an middle-class pedagogic discipline, like piano playing or sonnet composition, redundant and effete.
And yet its power to hold our gaze remains compelling. So what are we to do? How we expand its definitions now, our understanding of its conceptual registers, historically and as physical action, must be approached in unexpected ways. Its basic definition of the application of pigment to a surface must be challenged. Painting may even become a practice that may not involve anything we traditionally understand as paint at all (look, for instance, at the work of Katharina Grosse, Ann Veronica Janssens or Wolfgang Laib)
In China, a small group of diverse artists are addressing these issues in addition to the vast Chinese painting legacy, rooted in writing, poetry, politics and social discipline. The most compelling among such artists are Zhang Enli, Shi Jing, Liu Wei, and now also Zhao Yao.
Born in 1981 in Luzhou, Sichuan Province, Zhao attended the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, where he graduated from the Design Department. He has participated in major group exhibitions at Tate Modern (2010) and the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in Michigan (2012-13) and enjoyed three very successful solo shows in China, two at Beijing Commune and one at Taikang Space, a prominent non-profit organization funded by Taikang Life, an insurance company. In 2012 this magazine controversially awarded Zhao’s “I Am Your Night” at Beijing Commune exhibition of the year, over Liu Wei’s “Trilogy” show at the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai. Recently Zhao had his first solo exhibition in the UK at the Pace Gallery
“The attention should never be on the paintings themselves, which I deliberately repeat in different series to deconstruct their visual power, but the concept behind the forms. I am interested in the way we look at exhibitions and how our pre-existing knowledge, whether cultural, religious or political, affects our perception of art.” (Zhao Yao, 2012)
“Spirit Above All” comprises seven large-scale paintings from 2012 in a scenographic display of walls covered in black & white photographs of the Himalayan landscape. The paintings are very flat, geometric arrangements in black, white and grey on denim. The use of denim as opposed to canvas is a reference to the cloth’s strength and according historical background of labor and work. However, the blue has been partially bleached-away, an acknowledgment of how the ‘work’ purpose has been literally effaced but also chiming with the cloud-marked and intense blue Himalayan skies – the skies of heaven. Some of the paintings, refer to smaller-scale works from Zhao’s “I am your night” exhibition, whose images were based on “brain-teaser” puzzles, such as the titular “Spirit Above All I-10” (2012) to “A Painting of Thought I-10” (2011) and “Spirit Above All I-259″ 2013) to “A Painting of Thought I-259″ (2013).
Zhao took the finished paintings to Tibet to be blessed by a “Living Buddha”, a reincarnation of a previous Buddha, and documented the pilgrimage with black and white photographs, some of which were used as the backdrop to the paintings in the exhibition. The full series of photographs were displayed in albums left on straw mats on the gallery floor, inviting visitors to sit in meditation, even prayer.
The references to previous work and exhibitions and the staging of the exhibition with the photographs and mats, its scenographic design, are key. Zhao wants the audience, including himself, not to passively accept seemingly modernist formal designs as art, but to reflect upon the becoming nature of the work – and to reflect upon the reflection. Here a painting only exists with an audience. And each audience – each iteration – of display is unique, because the thoughts entailed by each experience will be different. Inevitably this approach is anti-hierarchical and yet philosophically also classically Chinese too, wherein the artwork is not the end-point of interpretation but a stepping-stone in an ongoing process of enlightenment. Zhao is offering us a tool for living. And the “painting”, as noun and verb, exists only in our mind. The painting is in the sky.