Zhu Yingying | Impersonal Space

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By Zhu Yingying

When you stand in front of a painting, you are also standing in front of words.

White pieces from a face that is a little abstract. The upper area is blue. A blue back. Some fruit in white and blue. Pears next to a blue line. Five bananas and a few bunches next to the black line. A sleeping girl with a purple head. Like an orchid. Like five flowers. Like two bowls. Two profiles joining together. Half a body and two circles. A light blue tree without leaves. A dark blue tree without leaves. Like the details of a woman. Amidst a blue background…

Matter and Space

“Reality would no longer be constantly situated elsewhere, but here and now, without ambiguity. The world would no longer find its justification in a hidden meaning, whatever it might be, its existence would no longer reside anywhere but in its concrete, solid, material presence.”

The world within Tang Yongxiang’s work can be divided into three dimensions: material reality, photography, and the canvas. Photography and painting shape his awareness to the material world. Photography is used to filter the complex information situated internally and externally to a material, whilst simultaneously refining its volume, form, and its color. Even when a photograph is blurred, the information retains a certainty and clarity compared to the real world, which then lays the ground to set the foundation for his paintings to further elaborate on. Hence, once the painter decides to use the compositional elements of a photograph as a foundation, an exploration of materiality emerges that opens up a two-way exchange between these realities.

What does he seek to gather from this process? Materiality comes into being within a mode of existence that is in continual transformation as situations change. Spaces shift and with the flow of time, experiences form within their fluctuation. Moreover, the existence of a state of awareness influences these a priori conditions. For the artist, awareness for the large part is itself also subject to these changes. In other words, awareness can be considered as something fluid, a concentration of an otherworldly energy that perhaps might lay hidden in one place, while appearing somewhere else. The more frequent these forms are unbalanced, the more this balance increasingly becomes fragile. Either excessiveness or a deficiency can become a destabilizing force. Yet on the other hand, these factors also contribute towards a new equilibrium, aligning his painting to each change that occurs with the subjective conscience.

What does he want to discard? The concepts imposed from the outside world, which includes motives tied to an aesthetic and system of categorization used to define materiality. When materiality is enabled to exist without a fixed notion of its concrete attributes or concepts, how does one connect back to the specific medium of painting again? It is from this standpoint, where the painter persists in the process of reshaping relationships of temporality and space through the language of painting.

Perhaps the unique attribute that painting has is that the painter’s gaze can be directly projected onto the canvas. Practically with the borders of almost every painting, the painter brings awareness to the edges of an image. He uses a composite of colors with a muted but saturated palette. Alongside reduced grey tones, he limits the contrast of light when it appears in the painting, and he suppresses the tone and ambience of the entire canvas. There is also the predominance of large swathes of grey-blue that often appears within the background. This is used not only to establish the scene or site for something to happen, but the integrity of color functions like a river, controlling the dispersal of forms and filling the small cracks within each one. All the negative forms are pulled onto and foregrounded within the space of the canvas. This creates a counterpoint to the positive forms and establishes a subtle balance.

In the predominant areas found in many of his paintings, the artist uses a line to pass through the center of the canvas to break up the composition space. He also emphasizes the separation between different colors, sometimes to indicate traces where a boundary might have changed – or perhaps the line between figurative and abstract elements will be worked onto more. The work A Pile and a Few Buckets, Below an Area of Blue (2017) features overlaps between blocks of color, contours, or lines used to demarcate different areas of space within the canvas. Sometimes the objects appear as if from within the folds of a transparent membrane that covers the painting. A fragmented mixture of colors illuminate from the edges. This seemingly reminds us of their presence, which has now become submerged within the work, paradoxically affirming more to us in comparison to its original completed version. They recall the empty space of a parenthesis waiting to be filled with an idea, but albeit not limited to a single definitive answer. There are visual forms that are evocative, while others remain ambiguous. The indicators within the paintings are indistinct, much like consciousness itself. The moments of thought that rush through the mind with countless possibilities – what matters is the transformation of consciousness that occurs as it turns into a concept or mode of expression, a lexicon, a material world, into emotional awareness, and even consciousness.

A Hypothesis

“Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants, willing to be dethroned.”

The concept of a folding space is one way to discard the axiom that foregrounds the predominance of line within a composition. Folding a piece of paper in half allows for two points to meet together – meaning that these two points are then able to relinquish the confines of two-dimensional space. Like the Back of Three Figures with Pink and Green (2016) and The Backs of Two Girls Stroking Their Hair (2015) present the same image, which are almost entirely identical to one another. They both have origins from the same photographic space. An external force has bought them together within the same fold to become unraveled again and then restored back into the painting. Consequently, the changes through displacement and perspectival changes in time and space are left within a preserved state. Here, I can only make a conjecture as to what experiences lay in the space behind the photograph during its transformation, and it will forever always be impossible to determine this with certainty.

There are four paintings produced in 2014, which each depict a spatial change. That Asleep Head Portrait (2014), Asleep Woman Has Green Aside (2014), An Arcuately Placed Painting (2014), and An Arcuate Frame (2014) represent a gradual process like the forward movement of a long lens moving into a close-up. Parts of an image begin to expand towards the edges of a picture. Eventually, the content of the picture completely vanishes and all that remains is the distorted form of an object’s silhouette. She is in a deep sleep and it is hard to say what time it is or to locate where she is. She subconsciously appears to guide the body within the space. She seems to dream her existence as if it is a piece of paper, which is then cast out from the spiritual realm and into an unknown time and space.

This circular, sunken space is like a point in the third dimension. These folds happen within consciousness too. What will then happen next? A water basin appears as a subject in Like Two Bowls (2013), Like Two Basins, There Are Red Edges, Also a Black Line (2015), where the basins retain some realistic detail. However by the time of Three Basins (2015), the perspective shifts increasingly into an angle taken from above. The basin surface turns into a full-rounded elliptical shape and treated as if a black hole in pure white. We are only barely able to distinguish its everyday features because of the faint shadow and lines outlining the contours of its structure. It is as if we have seen this before, but with no way to verify whether it is the case. They are like objects where it is impossible to grasp where they are from due to their indistinct appearance as they alternate between figurative and abstract.

The Texture of the Spirit

“By day, they grew humble, and even took pride: the whole coarse existence of the world, found refuge in them, abandoning for a time the blossoming cherry, the sorrowful hearts of the dying.

Upon recognizing the limitations of perception, it is a sign that one must further transform a method of working. According to the artist, the departure and end point is crucial. When looking at a blank canvas, it might be customary for a particular form to appear due to sheer habit. It is precisely in instances like these where the artist requires extra vigilance, because this is the very moment when awareness first makes an appearance. It is impossible to rationalize or ascertain where the impulses that drive consciousness originate. Typically the reaction might be to simply avoid the issue altogether, then offering a subjective explanation or conjecture about the object. When looking at a canvas filled with a state of full awareness, he removes certain parts or replenishes aspects of his own consciousness. With these repeated alterations, he tries his best to remove areas where meaning can be locked into. This search from the outside in is a reversal of conventional methods. When consciousness turns towards these objects, the subject and object appear together, and the onus is on how the artist manages their point of convergence.

In Like a Hand on a Light Background (2015) and One Hand, Pink Background (2015), a fragile hand belonging to a woman and a wilted flower float limply within the space as if all desire has been lost. Polarized by the pink dusk, the body gives off a cool light similarly to the reflection that emanates off of an object. It appears as if it extends from the cracks in the surface, concealing itself as it expands to the outlines within the composition. Out of the discarded photographs, the scenes, actions, and places within these images retain no intrinsic meaning by themselves. These are simply events that occur within a specific point between time and space, past or future, and memory or prophecy – it is a state of mentality that corresponds and then eventually transcends the structure of reality. Once they are emptied of their features and details, there is a state of equivalence established between the posture of a figure’s neck, the curve of an arm, the line of the calf, a pile of fruit or flowers on a table. They increasingly become analogous to one another, so much that it requires the viewer to pay further attention towards the contours distinguishing the outline of each form or object. This indeed attests to the raw nature of reality, an abstract one, which gives rise to the constitution of an impersonal space – it is precisely here and within this situation that the permutations of life itself were formulated and subsequently developed from.

In the gaps between painting, overcast skies, the glow from an incandescent lamp, dust, the moisture from the air, the taste of salt, and slither of bitterness – like the froth on sand as the tide recedes from the shore – the gifts of things left behind comes from a deep blue abyss. Through the translucent pink flesh of skin, we hear the sound of blood as it flows through the veins. The spirit dampens and the faculty of thought moves into the nebulous realm of the subconscious. The solid objects in front of our eyes look different from before – they change as they become enmeshed with the spirit. Disorder arrives to us sometimes in solid form and at other times a liquid. In other moments, it’s a viscous object, which then evaporates and disappears out of our sight.

Published in the Tang Yongxiang (2009-2017), 2018, Hong Kong: Horizontal Rivers Press