Carol Yinghua Lu | Youwei: Duan Zhengqu’s New Works

Since March 1987, when Duan Zhengqu and his artist-friends went to the northern part of Shaanxi Province (shan bei) for the first time to draw from life, Duan Zhengqu did not interrupted his visit to shan bei during every Chinese New Year in the following decades. He collected and sketched, drank, talked and spent the holiday with the local villagers, and then he came back to paint the people and the landscape of shan bei. Such method of creation became an intrinsic part of Duan’s artistic style. Duan’s affinity with shan bei relates to his personal experience of growing up in the countryside. In 1958, Duan Zhengqu was born in Duanwan, Henan Province, when the village was building a large canal (qu). In the family, he belonged to the generation of “zheng.” Therefore, “zheng qu” became his given name. In 1983, Duan Zhengqu, who was studying at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, returned to his hometown, Yanshi, to prepare for his graduation project. While wandering around the countryside, he felt “back to the real life again.” [1] Compared to Guangzhou, the city at the forefront of the Reform and Opening-up, the life in the countryside —people gathering and chatting in groups, the colorful country fairs, the livestock markets filled with people and donkeys, all made him feel affiliated with the language and behavior of the villagers. He could relate to and blend into them effortlessly. He began to doubt the René Magritte-like works he had imitated during his studies at school, finding them pale and pretentious. We can continue to see the grotesque, mysterious and bizarre quality of surrealism in his subsequent works. It is reasonable to infer that at the time he was not satisfied with the bourgeois taste in the living scenes and paradigms shown in Magritte’s pictures. For the first time in his life, he thought concretely about the relationship between life and art. Though it had not been clear yet, he urged to paint “out of the feeling of the land” in his graduation project, to paint what he was familiar with, “to paint into the ‘earth.’” [2]

When he went to shan bei , Duan Zhengqu did not just gather sources for his paintings, nor did he use the local peasants as merely temporal models. He sincerely made friends with the peasants and internalized their characters and local lifestyle in his own mind. Such transformation infused his paintings with genuine emotion and spiritual meaning. Duan’s artistic creation also unfolded gradually in the process of constantly experiencing shan bei. The high degree of integration of emotion and spirit with his subjects enabled his paintings to reflect both the lifestyle of specific historical period and region, as well as the artist’s own unique life experience.

In the 1980s, the “emancipation of the mind” brought return to humanity and humanism. The art world witnessed the “scar art (shang hen mei shu),” which expressed the damage of ideology on soul, and a variety of explorations borrowing from the Western Modernist art. Soon, the “Tibet” group paintings by Chen Danqing, the “Loess Plateau (huang tu gao yuan)” series by Ding Fang, and the “Sketching in the Mount Gui (gui shan xie sheng)” series by Mao Xuhui were examples of “life flow (sheng huo liu)” and “rural style (xiang tu feng)” that liberated art from the ideological plot of scar and the formal plot of formal beauty. Whether with realistic or surreal and expressive expressions, those creations with the rural theme attracted much attention for their genuine, simple, gentle, heavy and cohesive pictorial quality. Those creations were introduced to the nation by important media such as the “Fine Arts (mei shu)” magazine and “China Art Newspaper (zhong guo mei shu bao).” In 1983, artists such as Ah Cheng and Han Shaogong proposed the “literature of searching for roots (xun gen wen xue),” which using the rural area as a carrier of returning to the spirit of the East (dong fang jing shen). Such proposal invoked a “rural wind” in the literary world. In 1984, Chen Kaige directed the movie “Yellow Land (huang tu di).” The cinematographer, Zhang Yimou, later followed up with “Red Sorghum (hong gao liang).” In the 1980s, during the cultural fever (wen hua re), as Nietzsche, Henri Bergson and existentialism became the watchwords, the crazes such as “Tibetan craze,” “adventure craze” and “action craze” emerged one after another. One can feel the enthusiasm of artists to experience the strength of life and the power of human being. As a result, the ethos of xi bei [editor’s note: literally means the “northwest,” referring to the northwestern part of China] was imbued with a sense of resilience and hardship. The ethos of xi bei became a symbol of Chinese culture and national history. However, such “rural style” was quickly reproduced extensively and conceptualized and typified, thus gradually losing its vigor and context.

Around 1991, Duan Zhengqu‘s feelings about shan bei were refreshing and passionate. Imbuing in such feeling, his expressions were fervent and appealing. The deep emotional compatibility between the artist and his subject matter infused new energy into a genre that had been “exhausted.” In 1991, he exhibited his paintings of the people, the living and the nature on the Loess Plateau in Beijing, which received considerable publicity. Such success strengthened his determination to continue his work. The young artists emerging around the time of the “85 New Wave” looked for artistic references on the one hand from the West and explored themes from their own cultural terrain on the other. As one of them, Duan Zhengqu borrowed the language of Georges Rounault, especially Rouault’s unique and charming thick black line frame and bright color block. Duan also learned from Chagall’s figurative interest and emotional feature, to create the image of living in the villages among mountains in shan bei. Duan’s figurative language conveys the affinity for the rural simplicity while forming his own applicable force of form. At the same time in Beijing, the “New Generation” —the figurative paintings that use photorealistic and expressive technique to candidly represent the street views of the emerging urban life, the people in the ordinary life, including pedestrians, artists themselves and their friends— became a major tendency.

In fact, until the years of reform, the “three rural issues (san nong wen ti)” remained a major issue of the fundamental concerns in the national economy and social life. Such realistic context led Duan to delve into the rural area and to translate the specific experience into a creative way of painting. Duan “actively participated into the growth and development of modern oil painting with Chinese characteristics.” [3] Duan represented the rural area closely and in a spiritually and emotionally resonant manner. He captured the linguistic charm of the countryside aesthetically. The rusticity in his work was, to some extent, a counterbalance to the prevailing contemporaneity in the early 1990s, which defined by urban experience. He studied the chiaroscuro from Rembrandt’s paintings, especially the use of dark shadow. He embraced Neo-expressionist forms of expression, and intentionally developed a coarse and robust style of painting, which also counteracted the delicate and feeble style of merchandise paintings, mainly those for gallery retail and images of beauty, that he saw in the official art world at the time. The popularity of those commercial paintings was inseparable from the impetus of the burgeoning art market in the 1990s.


After 1987, the Chinese art world witnessed a fission in its own. The various trends of thought and creative orientation that had emerged since the mid 1980s showed an increasing sign of rigidity.

The 1980s witnessed the rapid reorganization and recovery of the official system of Chinese art after the Cultural Revolution, along with the re-formation of the system and the formation of its own system of value. After the 1990s, one the one hand, the Chinese society rapidly involved into the process of globalization. On the other hand, as the domestic economic system reform progressed, the force of both the domestic and international art market grew. The two factors combined to accelerate the definition of “contemporary art” in the Chinese art world. The consequent opportunities, validations, and commercial opportunities have made participants more anxious to identify an artistic category with international contemporary art remarks. It, to some extent, created a system of contemporary Chinese art system that implicitly used the attitude and position of the opposition as a label for self-reference. Throughout the 1990s, a sense of tension fulfilled the gap between the system that generated the contemporary art and the official one (mainly refers to a set of mechanisms for displaying, disseminating, evaluating and collecting formed by artists’ associations, official museums and institutions, fine arts academies, fine arts publishing houses, etc). In response to such divergence, from the middle to late 1990s to the early 21st century, Duan Zhengqu made several attempts to change his own works to converge with the creative trajectory of the so-called contemporary art in the Chinese art world. However, he continued to primarily display his art works on the national art exhibitions, and within the official and academic system.

By 1995, Duan had made about thirty to forty trips to shan bei. Later, he no longer visited shan bei to sketch as often and as regularly as he used to. Although he no longer felt the impulse to do so, he recalled and visualized a “sounder and more meaningful” shan bei in his mind—the night roads in shan bei, the ruins and collapsed castles in City Yulin, the debris on the ground, the bonfire during cold winter, and the sharp and fleeting songs in the middle of the night. In his paintings, he continued to examine and express the enlightenment and intention brought by the somberness and darkness of the shan bei nights. As his age and circumstance changed, his pictures became more peaceful. He consciously removed the emblematic things, leaving only the people and the mountains. He “hopes to blur the concept of region and to place the people in a broader space to represent. That’s the ‘man.’ The man in a broad sense, at most ‘the man from north’ will be enough.” [4]  By this point he had realized that in fact those things were irrelevant to him. The most essential part was his praise of the primitive vitality and his awe of mystery. He thus internalized the feelings brought by the shan bei experience, captured the expression of shan bei more subjectively and subsequently strengthened the symbolic meaning in his paintings. For example, he painted the Yellow River carps in increasingly larger sizes, and repeatedly polished the heavy waves of the Yellow River. All those pursuits originated from his personalized understanding and interpretation, integrating into his personal stories and experience to capture a profound sense of history and mystery. Such a turn is not only a result of his middle age, but also a result of his tendency to individualize history under the wave of reform that deepened in the 1990s. The diverse imageries of shan bei are the façades that Duan Zhengqu has given to the history, as well as a corridor that he built between the history and himself.

In addition to turning from the portrayal of shan bei to the understanding of living experience, Duan Zhengqu has been making some modifications to his paintings, including emotions, perspectives and expressions, in an attempt to broaden the scope of his creations. The “almost obsessive” loyalty to the subject matter comes from his affection and respect for peasants, his desire for simplicity and purity, and his preference for strength. He also admits: “In fact, I made the decision of ‘persistence’ after hesitating without confidence and after numerous attempts.” Against others because sometimes other things are so powerful and tempting. Against self because the self can be often attracted to his surroundings. [5] The deep commitment and strong awareness of the same subject matter has built a strong fortress for Duan. Living in the fortress, he can effectively resist the external impact as well as various vacillations in his heart.

The “obsession” in the subject matter has to some extent obscured other sides of Duan Zhengqu. He is always an enthusiast for experiment in painting and artistic innovation. He is extremely enthusiastic about the innovation in form and style. Duan’s paintings vary considerably across periods, and even across works from the same period. He initiated panoramic landscape around the mid 1990s. Those paintings have gray tones and a sense of grandeur, packed withvisual tension. The images of using people and nature as narrative elements are not uncommon in his works. Portraying in a magical realist manner, Duan employed the exaggerated shape of figures and thick, saturated colors to fulfill the painting with paradox, absurdity and theatricality, while remaining an exciting tonality. He also portrays group activity as an object, often in imaginary scene based on real life. In those pictures, he used geometric composition to provide a sense of stabilization. When modeling figures, he borrowed from Balthus’ method, bringing symbolic characteristics into figures through geometrical and clumsy shapes, and exaggerating and dramatizing their gestures and demeanors, thus shaping figures into unique features. He constructs the whole picture with black, dim or dark background to reinforce the sense of ritual and stage, highlighting the alienation from reality. In 2010, Duan’s works again emphasize landscape and working on paper. He creates a murky atmosphere in his images with a new material, the tempera. Due to the change of pigment, he applied fine brushworks and a soothing atmosphere to his works. The special shine of tempera, a special material, makes the dark color in the painting more transparent. He follows the technique of magical realism, more depriving reality out of the content, highlighting the absurdity and mystery in the paintings.


After he no longer using shan bei as his only destination, Duan Zhengqu went to the regions in Gansu Province and Shanxi Province to sketch and create. Since 2001, the Town Youwei, which locates in the City Shuozhou, County Youyu, Shanxi Province has become a destination for him. Duan has visited there more than a dozen times. The Town Youwei became a creative center for him outside Beijing. Youwei locates in the hilly area of the Loess Plateau, with high terrain in the west and lower terrain in the east. The central terrain of Youwei is plain as the town is surrounded by mountains. Although it is only about an hour’s drive from the County Helingeer of Inner Mongolia, the temperature in Youwei is significantly lower than those places. Once October arrives, Youwei will be rather cold. With slight wind, it is impossible for people to put their hands out. Sometimes even heavy snowfall is not unusual, and the temperature can drop to minus seventh degree Celsius. Speaking of Youwei, Duan Zhengqu puts that “for me, the most attractive part of Youwei is not the nature, but the sense of the solemn frontier fortress. No need to mention the city walls and ancient pottery segments everywhere, just from the names of nearby villages, such as ‘killing tiger mouth (sha hu kou),’ “broken tiger fortress (po hu bao),’ ‘mighty far fortress (wei yuan ying)’ and ‘horse camp river (ma ying he),’ it is enough to imagine the dour atmosphere around the area during the ancient times.” [6]

Today, the Town Youwei has decayed, the past glory can only be recalled in the imagination. In a short essay about Youwei, Duan Zhengqu wrote, “In the nearly ruined village huddled up shepherds, perhaps a descendant of an ancient general? A corner of the collapsed ancient Great Wall, could it once be soaked in blood? As time flies, heroes are gone. The cold breath of the frontier is still distinct. In fact, there is more than that. In Youwei, such breath is everywhere, diffusing in ravines, hills and fields. During windless daylight only pheasants sing around serene mountains and fields. A few white smokes drawn by jet planes look like lines in the sky. When the wind occurs, sand and rocks carrying darkness obscures human trace a few steps away. At night, the ancient town of Youwei is like an ancient tomb, the streets are totally empty and the whole town is shrouded in deadly silence. Only one or two street lanterns scattered out dim light; several night cats are hesitant about moving in the shadow; a few barking, being harsh for a while, was blown away by the wind.” In fact, Duan Zhengqu did not generate the same deep affection for Youwei as he did for shan bei. Yet, even during the pandemic, he found ways to travel to Youwei regardless all sorts of impediments. He said that the convenience was his first concern. Since Youwei was close to Beijing, less populous and quieter, he felt that he was able to paint there in peace.

From July fourth, 1845, to September sixth, 1847, American writer Henry David Thoreau started a twenty-six-month residence in the forest at Lake Walden, two miles from Concord, to immerse himself into nature, from which to obtain the capacity of living and to find the truth of life. With the rise of political protest and environmentalism in the twentieth century, the book Walden, which was based on Thoreau’s experience, brought the author to fame. As a result, he was classified as a transcendentalist. The important movement of liberation of thought in the American intellectual history advocated the ability of human being to transcend sense and reason and to know the truth directly, emphasizing the importance of intuition and believing that everything in the human world is a microcosm of the universe. For readers of Walden, Thoreau’s life and living experience by Lake Walden helped us celebrate the most ordinary things in our lives. For example “a medium-sized pond, a path worn through the woods, the animals who share our domain, the night sky, our hometown, a few friends— have an in infinite number of aspects, forever renewing themselves with the change of seasons, in different times of day, in response to the permanent inconstancy of our own fluctuating moods.”[7]

When talking about the decision to go to Lake Walden, Thoreau used the expression as positive as possible: ”I went to the forest because I wished to live discreetly.“ The other motivation, in fact, behind such move was the career crisis Thoreau experienced at working. In contrary to the image of a hermit as in the public view, Lake Walden was not far from the secular world, and Thoreau did not live in isolation. “The pond was only a mile and a half from Concord’s center (less than a twenty-minute walk), and Thoreau not only had frequent visitors (including his mother and sister, who brought him home-cooked meals); he also went into town almost every day.” [8]

I’m reminded that in Duan Zhengqu’s journey of self-discovery beginning in 2001, Youwei played a role almost similar to that of Lake Walden Lake to Thoreau: an “experiment” that was both intentional and unintentional at the same time. From the choice of location to the mode of writing, Thoreau conducted a conscious experiment. He disorganized the contents of his diary, which had been inspired by the touch of everyday life over the years, and put them back together to revise and embellish. He described this mode of writing as follows: “These inspirations, from every inch of the ground beneath the compass pointing to the sky above the head, came as promised …” In the past decade, Duan’s repeating returns to Youyu also seem to be a journey of self-examination and self-discovery. Duan turned Youyu into a starting point for his own observation of the world, thus opening a creative space that is detached from his daily life and allows him to withdraw from reality. Since he repeatedly returns to the place, Youwei becomes a familiar “enclave,” which allows Duan to carry out his creative experiments. What Duan Zhengqu tries to detach is not only the interference of everyday life, but also the attempt to break free from the inherent experience of painting. In Youwei, he carried out experiments that constantly wrestle with his experience of painting, daubing, overlaying, self-denying, muddling, rearranging, releasing, and then returning. The self-examination, entanglement and  reluctance also keep flashing in the images of the period, giving a glimpse of the familiar Duan Zhengqu, as well as the new possibilities of Duan Zhengqu.


Until 2015, Duan Zhengqu has frequently conducted experiments and explorations in the past six years. His strong desire of transformation has driven him to constantly engage into dialogue and to break through various boundaries and limitations of himself, including his dependence on certain types of subject matter and certain habits of pictorial language. Duan is never lenient with his unsatisfied image, he will repeatedly change and revise them, or even completely recast them. To roughly summarize his recent works, he presents several different working directions, which are different from each other while with some intersections and overlaps. One of the directions is the large group portraits formed by scattered perspective, such as the series “North by West (xi pian bei)” (2022) and “Gathering (ju ji)” (2022-2023), etc. Each of those images depicts dozens of people, with occasional animals such as rabbits, night cats, donkeys and horses, and carps. There is no longer a center on the canvas, nor is there a need for any kind of contextual reproduction to assemble the figures in the painting. Although clustering together, those figures differentiate from each other in expressions and postures. The faces of the figures are generally abbreviated, orienting in opposite directions. Such treatment confuses the viewer with the circumstance of the figures while reminding them of the group sculptures of luo han (Arhats) in Buddhist temples. The way of portraying is mostly flat painting, with different brushworks and use of colors. With a variety of treatments, some of [the figures] are expressed only in outline with coloring, even intentionally remaining in schemes and linear drafts from the painting training such as modeling. Several faces are left unfinished.

As early as in “Heng Shan” (2018), Duan Zhengqu has painted only the outlines of all the figures in the painting— a group of people dancing with ribbons. Compared to the relatively schematic figures in Duan’s previous works, the colorful silhouettes that fill the canvas are lighter, more transparent and more graceful. The gradient background with mild lime green color also differentiates the painting from the deeper and heavier tone in Duan’s other works. It presents the rich transparency, delicate texture, and serene harmony as in the fresco that Duan Zhengqu is so fond of. It is natural to remind the viewer of Duan’s reference to the “The Han Dynasty Tomb Fresco of in Harlingeer” in his graduation project.[9]

In the painting “Gathering,” about four-fifths of the canvas is covered by figures and animals. The illuminated crowds reflect the dark sky on the upper level of the painting. The small area of the painting reveals artist’s efforts to paint multiple parts. The different shades of gray-blue and deliberate brushstrokes mask the warm base, but also highlight the two yellow patches and scattered patches of bright color, making the night sky appear so vivid and charming. In contrast, the earlier group portrait “Folk Ballad (min yao)“ (2020) is more like a transitional exploration, which not only continues the previous scene of villagers waving colorful banners on the festival, but also adds the disproportionately-drawn-villagers, thereby extracting the realistic nature from the painting. The figures weaving banners are not the main characters in the scene. Instead, the wide, bright banners are dragged into the foreground, where Duan Zhengqu set a challenge to make banners look transparent while granting a sense of volume and weight. The result is the super-stable structure of the painting filled with several soft, low-hanging banners in a dynamic manner.

In the paintings such as “Secret World (mi jing) I, II, III” (2022), “Trance (huang hu)” (2022) and another group of similar but distinctive paintings, such as “Love (ai qing)” (2019), “Blue Solitude (lan se gu du)” (2020), “Snow Falling in Silence (xue luo wu sheng)” (2022), “Snow Falling on the River Wu Ding” (2022), and “Homeland (jia xiang)” (2022), the “Youwei” (2022), Duan dealt with frozen flowers, dense forests, ruins, and various graffities left on the city walls, constantly moving toward into more elaborate, detailed and microscopic objects in terms of content. He also forced himself not to rely on the use of large brushworks, which he had long been familiar with, to construct the figures in his pictures. Duan Zhengqu’s choice of the content forced him to reintegrate the existing experience of painting. He portrays the painting part by part, thus creating a complex and varied pictorial language. The content of the painting contains imaginary elements, which mostly relates to what he saw and experienced in Youwei.

The temperature in Yuwei is low. After autumn, there is often hail and frost. When the temperature suddenly drops overnight, the flowers on the ground will be frozen and wilted. Although the color of the flowers is still bright, the leaves and flowers have withered and drooped. The flowers withered, but still charming. “Frost (shuang jiang)” (2021), “Secret World (mi jing) II and III” and “Trance (huang hu)” all portrayal the flowers and herbs in the garden after the frost. In the paintings, Duan Zhengqu uses expressive brushworks to meticulously shape the buds, the leaves, and the transitions between flowers and leaves, resulting in full, lush, and rich images that are both dynamic and impressive.

All created in 2022, “Rain (zhou yu)”, “Arrow Cluster (jian cu)”, “Land without a Lord (wu zhu zhi di)” and “Windless Night (wu feng ye),” the new works share similar composition. He combines  more generalized distant views with more specific and close shots, as well as the flatly painted figures across upper and lower frames. Those different painting techniques are realized through different objects in the same painting, cleverly juxtaposed within the same frame. He remained his previous portrayal of the figures, except they no longer appear as peasants, but based on the image, dress and behavior of the students and family members around Duan, more city dwellers. The settings in the paintings are drawn from the unique landscape of Youwei, with its gentle terrain, open horizon, sorrowful and pale field often with a quiet and grandiose mood, as well as the ruins and the collapsed and wind-eroded ancient city of Yulin in shan bei. The scene of the collapsed walls of Yulin city with stones all over the ground was recorded by Duan Zhengqu in the “Land Without a Lord.” Duan Zhengqu’s sense of identity with the geographical landscape of shan bei and Youwei is also a conscious cultural choice, which is based on the observation and reverence of the humanities and history of the region.

Although the works span over a period, we can still consider “Golden Waves (jin se bo lang)” (2020), “Dreamland (meng xiang)” (2022), “Big Wall (da qiang)” (2022), “Big Wilderness (da huang)” (2023) and “Dusk (huang hun)” (2023) as a related series. Each of those works has a dominant color scheme, ranging from white to earthy yellow to indigo. Underneath that, the whole picture is divided by the artist with different objects, forming multiple mini universes of expression. These specific objects are almost like brushstrokes themselves, self-contained and can be viewed individually, while at the same time engaging into dialogue with each other. The language of the paintings is rather rich, with some tight and carefully treated parts, and some rather casual and free details, complementing each other with a strong sense of integrity, fully demonstrating Duan’s superior control in mastering multiple painting techniques at the same time.

In addition to those highly intense, exuberant images, the artist also expresses some relatively peaceful and introspective content. With the works such as “Fable (yu yan)” (2019), “Snuggle (yi wei)” (2021), “Starry Night (xing ye)” (2022), and “Sunset (ri luo)” (2022). Duan portrays solitary and quiet images. The language of the paintings is gentle, like whispering and contemplation, alluding to artis’’s inner desire for solitude and introspection.

During the phrase of transformation, Duan Zhengqu’s paintings gradually diminished the content of the 1990s, which carries multiple cultural meanings. When Duan Zhengqu began to establish his personal language and style, the expressive paintings carried the epochal spirit of artistic freedom. His subject matter, the customs and practices of shan bei were related to the mentality of national and cultural subjectivity. Now, the complex and diversified pictorial contents replaced those specific cultural symbols, and made the choice of subject matter extremely inclusive. Everyday life, everyone, animals, plants, and materials without meaningful reference can all be included into the painting. The complexity of the painting supports a persuasive integrity, and breaks the dependence of subject matter and spirit on the integrity and grand narrative. Then, the creation gains autonomy and independence, free from the shackle of obtaining meaning through the choice of subject matter or style.

The multiple attempts at the period did not form a coherent language. The subject matter also changed, not resembling a sense of stability as in the 1990s. The oscillation and dilemma, from the other side, reveal the many artistic issues that Duan Zhengqu has thought about and confronted since the 1990s, such as the tension and distance between his landmark style of rusticity and gravity and the prevailing tendencies in the contemporary art field during different periods. In contrast, “Love” and “Blue Solitude” use more vibrant colors, responding in part to the impact of Pop Art in the early 1990s and Vulgar Art (su yan yi shu) in the mid-1990s. He also intentionally reintroduced the secular experience and living insight from the 1990s, such as the portraits of his friends, students and familiar public figures, familiar subjects such as festivals and living scenes from the xi bei. In his paintings, he pursues both subtle and elaborate expression, and sometimes does not give up the pursuit of free sensation. He wants his images to be peaceful and striking at the same time. Although recreating the fragments of the experience from the past, he also tries to grasp and transform them with the present vision.

The sense of problem drove Duan to continue traveling, to return to “Youwei,” to his “Lake Walden.” When talking about Youwei, Duan would talk about the barrenness and decay of the area, with its former glory no longer there. He would always mention the old people squatting in the sunlight at the entrance of the village, while all the young people went out to work. The elders remaining behind soon would be pass away one by one, which was the everyday life he witnessed in Youwei. Among the active exploration of the period, the images of blackness, night, tombs and ruins always haunt his canvas. The motivation came mainly from a more internal need: to find an accurate and powerful expression for the overall heavy experience, the sadness and the deep humanist consciousness, the spiritual introspection of the “self.” In his waning years, Duan Zhengqu understood that adventure and excitement do not need to originate from the outside, but from the dissatisfaction and desire of the inner world. He firmly believes that painting can make even the most ordinary life an adventure, no matter how bland and unremarkable it seems to be. 

February to April, 2023

[1] Duan Zhengqu, “Young Story,” in Garden Village Art Talk:Duan Zhengqu Volume (Chengdu: Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2016) 56.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Zhong Hanyu, Duan Zhengqu, Tai Wuqi and Zhong Han, “Three People Talk Before the Exhibition,” edit. Yang Feiyun, in Stories and Legends—Thirty Years of Duan Zhengqu’s Art (Changsha: Hunan Fine Arts Press, 2012) 18.

[4] Wang Qing and Duan Zhengqu, “Asserting Yourself —Interview with Duan Zhengqu,” 2003

[5] Ibid.

[6] Duan Zhengqu, “Youwei,” unpublished, 2012.

[7] Robert B. Ray, Walden X40: Essay on Thoreau, trans. Liu Jing (Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2022) 15.

[8] Ibid, 3.

[9] Preparing for his graduation project, Duan borrowed several catalogues of ancient Chinese fresco including one of Dunhuang and another of “The Fresco from the Han Tombs in Harlingeer,” which inspired him to adopt the flat style of fresco for his final project. In this painting, which takes the marketplace as main theme, Duan Zhengqu used very pale earthy yellow as its undertone and then adopted a scattered perspective, sketching out peasants and livestock randomly, loosely distributed across the canvas in a realistic manner. Most of those figures and animals come from the sketches Duan made during his stay in the countryside. Most of the figures with different motions and have no connection to each other. Throughout the painting, they seek to look at each other in a way that evokes the viewer’s imagination.

Zhong Shanyu | A Provisional Presence

“By engaging with memory, intuition, and the subconscious, Tang Yongxiang endows his work with an ethereal quality of estrangement. Material is culled from photographs and repeatedly function to extract information through engaging with the memory of the artist. The visual image is approached as an inexhaustible resource that offers unlimited possibilities of permutation – this also explains why similar icons frequently appear throughout his work. Suggestive of a compulsive tendency – when the back of a figure, the leg, or a still life appears, they each evoke a bewildering sense of déjà vu to the viewer. Yet these familiar archetypes and objects are merely the entry point into his paintings. They begin with a photograph, which becomes reconfigured via the artist’s own memory before appearing on the canvas. From there, they gradually begin to diminish – reaching a point of defamiliarization before eventually the painting becomes a record of sorts, capturing an instantaneous moment similar to the function of a camera. Perhaps in this way, his paintings can be regarded as the second take of the original photograph. Relinquishing the warmth of the body (although this does not entirely disappear), they become removed from the common attributes tied to the quotidian everyday object.”