Zhu Jinshi produces abstract paintings whose surfaces are built up with thick, near-sculptural layers of oil paint. Resembling colorful landscapes, Zhu’s images range in palette and scale, but the artist is known to always apply his oil paint with spatulas and shovels. Producing dense lashings of color, the artist’s method recalls the style and techniques espoused by the German Expressionists, who Zhu was profoundly influenced by during his years living in Berlin. Zhu belonged to a group of Chinese avant-garde artists named the Stars, which formed in 1979 to challenge aesthetic conventions and exhibit their work publicly.
The group, which included the famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei, was granted an exhibition in 1980 at Beijing’s National Gallery, a breakthrough in Chinese cultural expression that helped to establish the creative force of the individual. “Although I operate within the realm of form,” Zhu has said, “my idea is to go beyond the limitations set by form and break free.” He has also produced photographic, video, installation, and performance works.
Red Mark No.4, 2021
Oil on canvas 50 x 45 c
‘Black and White 4’, 1990.
Oil on canvas (70 × 70 cm).
Disagree. Demolition Five Hundred Houses 2, 2020Oil on canvas
29.8 x 40 cm
Subduing the Eastern Wind, 2022
Oil on canvas
40 x 35 cm
Zhu Jinshi (b. 1954, Beijing, China) has defined his more than four decades of artistic practice with thoughtful explorations into the meaning of painting, abstraction, and the nature of reality itself. His early exposure to the works of Wassily Kandinsky and Immanuel Kant became his gateway to modern art and theory; the latter’s argument that the world has no subject and is wholly constructed by form solidified his commitment to the materiality of painting instead of image. From this foundation, Zhu’s paintings have evolved into dense and expressive bodies of color and texture, commanding a near sculptural presence. These works can be categorized as Zhu’s All Over paintings, where his ambitious mark-making and formations extend to the ends of the canvas. Another body of work, Liubai (liúbái, meaning “to leave blank”), employs thick dabs of paint in equilibrium with the surrounding bare space of the canvas, a key element in traditional Chinese ink painting. To achieve the richness and scale of his paintings, Zhu utilizes nontraditional tools such as spatulas, brooms, and palettes to apply paint—a physically commanding task that Zhu carries out with deliberation and control.
The labor involved in Zhu’s paintings recall the era in which the artist came of age: during China’s Cultural Revolution. In Beijing, he worked in a factory rather than receiving formal artistic training. At the time, the only sanctioned style of artistic production was socialist realism in service to the state. Zhu began exploring abstract painting as early as the 1980s, when the mere deviation from the propagandist style was a gesture of defiance. He joined the Chinese avant-garde group the Stars (xīngxīng huàhuì) and participated in the seminal 1979 exhibition outside the National Art Museum, a watershed moment in the history of contemporary Chinese art. Shortly after, Zhu migrated to Germany, taking part in the diaspora of Chinese artists to western countries. There, he was immersed in the European avant-garde and began to experiment with conceptual, installation, and performance art, all the while utilizing materials rooted in Chinese tradition such as rice paper and bamboo. While Zhu eventually returned to painting, these explorations into installation and multidimensionality deeply impacted his practice. Zhu eventually returned to Beijing in 1994 and set up his studios in the outskirts of the city.
“Although I operate within the realm of form,” Zhu has said, “my idea is to go beyond the limitations set by form and break free.”