A Conversation between Liu Zheng and Cui Yan
Cui Yan: Mr. Liu, could you use some examples to tell us how your paintings are created, in terms of topic, conception, process etc.?
Liu Zheng: Philosophically speaking, a certain world view leads to a certain methodology. Same story with painting. Topics of my paintings come from my world view. In other words, my personal values dictate the selection of topics and means which most express my internal feelings. To be more specific, the unprecedented growth of today's material civilization with underlying environmental, energy, ecological and human crises is nothing more than a fractured landscape under superficial prosperity. My concern over such situation alludes me first to the attributes and nature of glass. Glass is glamorous while fragile. Its transparency reveals what comes behind it; its reflective nature mirrors what comes before it. Such feature is the best representative of today's world.
This is how glass is chosen for my work. Then I selected the image: chameleon. There are a few reasons why I chose it. First, chameleon is not as aggressive as human. They are creatures who retreat from the environment and survive by passive adaptation instead of proactive invasion, quite the opposite to human temperament. Second, they are like humans in their ability to disguise and pretend. Third, chameleons can be adapted to all colors according to the painting background without logical loopholes. Of course this is more of a technical issue.
I also have other works featuring women and chameleons or men and women, where glass is the constant symbol. Those are attempts to explore my topics more in depth, which will be continued.
Cui Yan: How do you decide the size and title of your works? Do you paint after you thought of a title or vice versa? Any other method?
Liu Zheng: Most of my works are 3:2 in proportion, e.g. 300cmx200cm, 210cmx140cm, 180cmx120cm or 150cmx100cm. I chose such proportion as most photos are made on such "golden section". I believe such proportion must have been studied and supported by data. Therefore there is no reason for me to change it. In fact, I feel very comfortable with such proportion. Though there is a fine line between arts and science, subjectivity and objectivity, the two are reconciled on this issue.
I am not particular about which comes first, title or painting. Some works are painted after a topic is found; others are named after painting is finished, like when you search your brain for a name of a new-born. However, though some paintings are not given names at first, the themes are there already. I would have clear idea of the painting-to-be instead of working on something I don't have any faint idea about. I don't want to "walk my way and let others talk about me". I don't want to start a new project the way I did my previous, with no idea or theme in mind.
Cui Yan: Glass is present in almost all your works. Is it your symbol? Do all contemporary artists use symbols?
Liu Zheng: I like glass. In real life, glass brings us insurmountable joy. They shine. They are flat and translucent. They block wind, water, heat and cold; but they let light through. They seem solid but in fact they are fragile. A little bit of negligence will lead to their crumble. Then all is lost - beauty to oblivion. Glass is such a tragic material! The most powerful tragedy as I understand is what starts with a comic touch and ends with a tragic downfall. Such contrast inspires out deep-rooted pain. Glass is superb for such attributes.
Glass is omnipresent in my work. I want to use glass to define the relationship between humans and animals, between men and women. Such relationship is harmonious and perilous, intimate and detached, romantic and crisis-ridden. If glass is considered as my symbol, then let it be. I simply want to use glass to express my artistic philosophy. I am not sure if all contemporary artists like to create their own symbols. But I believe viewpoints must be sustained by philosophy. It is ridiculous to create symbols for symbol's sake.
Cui Yan: What does chameleon represent in your works?
Liu Zheng: Chameleons are good at disguising. They are mild and slow animals, at the very bottom of food chain in a nature where the fittest thrive. In order to survive, they have evolved the ability to shift colors to blend into background. With such minor tricks, they went all the way from Cretaceous. But their numbers diminished (since humans are the number one enemy of all animals!). I lived on Madagascar islands for two years and chameleons were everywhere. This is the way they survive.
People are just like chameleons. We also disguise ourselves. We lost our innocence when we began to clothe ourselves. We cover our bodies and hence sexual desires. Later we cover our minds and hearts, our whole existence. In the modern world, disguise is the golden rule of survival.
Cui Yan: Is this why all figures in your works are naked? Is that man yourself?
Liu Zheng: Exactly. Human dignity is maintained by clothing. We take off our clothes and we are no different from all animals in nature. The essence of our lives is the same. I portray myself in my paintings as a means of human self-reflection.
Cui Yan: What about the female figures in your paintings? Some are lazy in bed; others are swimming effortlessly in water. Are they from your dream or mental fabrication?
Liu Zheng: I only want to illustrate virtual reality. In this modern world, internet is omnipresent. We find all kinds of things on it. Visible but intangible images can be spread throughout the world via this virtual space. They are dreamy and real. When Zhuang Tze dreamed of a butterfly and woke up later, he couldn't be sure which one is more true, the dream world or the real world. I believe this is why in A Dream of Red Mansions, there was the following line: "When the untrue is made true, the difference of the two is blurred; so are to-be's and not-to-be's".
Cui Yan: Your paintings are realistic. But your topics and representation deviate from the usual academic practice of narration and symbolization. Could you comment on that?
Liu Zheng: I respect academic works. I appreciate their seriousness in painting and adept skills. But I feel such is not enough. Works should reflect the ideas of their creators. The ideas must be clear and representative of the artist's values. Avant-garde or obsolete is not an issue here. Only such works are dynamic. Only such works can dovetail with the minds of the artists and impress the audience. In my works, I try to mimic the risky and unstable relationship between people, humans and animals with the fragility of glass. This is how I criticize the civilization crisis as a result of chaotic development of modern society. Such attitudes structure the conceptual expression of my works. Therefore, my painting style should be classified as conceptual.
Cui Yan: Most of your works are painted with a combination of varying degrees of gray. Only chameleons are presented in rather pure colors. Does this mean you want to portray human society as shadowy and the animal world as live and dynamic?
Liu Zheng: I love all kinds of shades. They are very stable. Shades and whites bring people a sense of restfulness and serenity, when colors are screened out. Shades possess a degree of abstractness and hence are purer and closer to the underlying nature. In addition, black and white images transcend stereotypical art-appreciation. They help the audience focus on the theme of the painting in lieu of the painting itself, which facilitates the expression of the topic.
The colors are concentrated on chameleons. They are the restless notes in a static symphony. Traditional Chinese paintings advocate "value of black ink" whereas I "treasure colors as gold".
Your question represents your understanding of my work. There is no right or wrong and in fact, participation of the audience is a feature of modern art.
Cui Yan: As a professional painter, what do you think is unique of you?
Liu Zheng: I am a very sensitive and exquisite person. I am not particular about my daily life but I am very sharp with my artistic conception and creation. Old saying goes: "Travel a thousand miles and read a million books". I've been to many places and my journeys enriched my experience. I was engaged in many trades and tasted all aspects of human life. All these are used in my paintings. Artists must experience many things to have a deeper understanding of the world.
Cui Yan: You have been working in Songzhuang since 2005. I know there are many artists. Does the place bring you many inspirations? What works were created during that period?
Liu Zheng: Indeed, Songzhuang is a place where many artists reside. We are very close. We would drink together and chat. But I am a timid person and love silence. I was only familiar with a couple of artists near my studio. I didn't go to see other people's works much. When I was free, I would read books or just daydream. Works in that period were almost all painted behind a closed door. But I did benefit from my residence there. Songzhuang is like an artistic magnet. Your blood begins to boil once you enter the village and you feel an urge to create when you are in the studio. That's the reason I was very productive during my two years there. I created my "chameleon" series and "men and women" series. Gradually, I developed my conceptualism style with glass as a symbol.
Cui Yan: Any new plans?
Liu Zheng: I think glass as an artistic material is rich in forms and content. I have only discovered the tip of an iceberg. There is much to explore. Next, I want to try some religious topics or world love. But of course the centerpiece is still glass. I will leverage its translucency and reflection to describe the call from God. I am still conceptualizing my new paintings but the basic framework has already been structured. When the ideas are ready, I will start to execute.
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