— Zhu Guorong
Art Critic & Vice President
Shanghai Artists’ Association
I got to know Zhao Erjun through her paintings.
One day last autumn, I went to visit Shanghai Grand Theater Gallery located at Huangpi Road. Whenever I am in downtown area, I would like to visit that gallery as it has become my habit as leisure time enjoyment. That day I saw several newly installed large sized oil paintings, colored in black and white only, which accurately outline human figures with fine lines while light black colors in the background making the human forms more outstanding in three dimensions. All this with strong esthetics surprised me a great deal. On the display card I saw the name Zhao Erjun.
At an opening of an exhibition, Julia Yu, general manager of the Gallery, introduced me to Zhao Erjun for the first time. I was surprised to find out that the artist was a delicate and charming lady, not a strong man as I previously thought. As our conversation gradually went on with more depth, Zhao and her thought-evoking art came to me closer and closer.
Zhao Erjun was born of the Manchu minority. Her ancestors were generals of the Royal Blue Flag Division in the Qing Dynasty. So she is also named as Ergen Juelu Erjun. However, due to that family background, she was deprived of many opportunities in her childhood. That experience has hurt her deeply. After the Cultural Revolution, she took the entrance examination for higher education for Sichuan Fine Art Institute. Again, due to reasons out of her control, the chance evaded her. Nonetheless, Suzhou Silk Art & Crafts Institute accepted her for her talent, thus she entered the fine art field finally. After graduation, she started teaching drawing at that school. In order to further her art career, she went to America and soon got an MFA degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. Later she became a professor there.
Erjun once did paintings with self portraits in a series of Western classic artwork, in a way similar to the work created by American feminist artist Cindy Sherman. Sherman created “Untitled” based on “A Portrait of a Young Girl” by Raphael, one of the three outstanding masters of Italian Renaissance. She pretended to be the half naked woman under Raphael’s art. Sometimes she would pretend to be a man, playing the role of the God of Wine in the famous painting “Young Bacchus” by Italian painter Caravaggio of the 17th century. Zhao did the same as to put herself in classic Western paintings. In a colorful fantasy world, she returned to her childhood, playing with the “Maids of Honor” in Velazquez’s studio; as a teenage girl, she turned her head away as if ashamed of seeing the love scene between mother and son in “An Allegory” by Bronzino; she loved to be among the goddesses in Botticelli’s “Springtime”; and she was also seen pleased in attending “Sappho and Alcaeus” organized by Alma-Tadema. From those paintings, we can tell she is different from Sherman as she was not playing any role in a well known painting, but tried to be a friend of a certain art character, to demonstrate her yearning and respect for the ancient classic art. In those “Portrait Series”, the paintings are very skillfully drawn with beautiful colors, but not without concepts unique to her own. They won her high honor of Professional Artist Award from Virginia Art Museum.
In recent years, Erjun has chosen human forms as her art objects, which may have something to do with her experiences in life. The social environment she survived in her childhood may have hurt her deeply inside, which might have a direct bearing on the development of her personality. The introversion tendency of her personality may make her care more for herself. Reflected in her art creation is that she is much more interested in expressing human nature. The “Between Black and White Series” she has painted in recent years manifest a change in her style that differs from her previous portraiture, no more make-ups, no more fashionable clothing, and done with fresh colors, and the scenes of classic master pieces are withdrawn all together, leaving naked bodies standing alone. Most of the figures in the newer series are young man and women. They sit on ground, or in reclining gestures, or holding their up body, mostly in shrank and withdrawn status, seldom in a standing up position. Judging by their body languages, one can clearly seen these gestures disclosed their inner characters and depressed mentality of these figures: deep in thoughts, yearning with something, and undergoing the pains of failure; they are down in abyss of losses, but still cherishing with hope, quietly waiting for the judgment of fate. Those ghostly human bodies have trigged my thought of the fresco “Creation of Adam” and the “Last Judgment” by Michelangelo, and of the “The Gates of Hell” by Rodin. Michelangelo depicted characters from the biblical stories and demonstrated his humanitarian spirit. He sincerely eulogized the human figures while relentlessly criticized hypocrisy and crimes. Rodin created 186 male and female figures in his “The Gates of Hell”, with each powerful body gesture expressing human’s sexual desire and horror, hope and despair. Zhao Erjun draws individuals or groups of people in her “Between Black and White Series” in an attempt to expressing abstract human beings and human nature though these figures in her paintings look rather real. Seemingly the art reveals a sacred touch of religion, which may explain to certain extend why she has given the title “Adam” to some of her work. In Zhao’s black and white world, human forms are just a medium. What she really wants to express is human nature, desire, greed, and fragility. As far as this is concerned, we might take the “Between Black and White Series” as a modern “Creation”. These figures might be souls coming out of “The Gates of Hell”.
Zhao said that her creative instinct originated from her sketches on models, not paintings of models. She is used to develop her sketches and drawings into oil paintings. While in the process of painting, she intertwines her impressions of the models, her imagination and even her dreaming all together. During the cause of art creation, she throws away her original sketches, but puts her own life into the works on human forms, hence the paintings becoming alive with thoughts. In her handling of the background of such a painting, Zhao gets rid of everything which has forms or shapes, leaving only traces of brushes of ink splashing freely. As a result, a feeling of wildness and spirit emerges, which reflects the influence from the traditional Chinese art. In the wholeness of background, the paintings draw phenomena of nature: morning, night, mountains, seas, lakes, etc. adding more properties to the artwork. The vague background is coherent with the implied meanings of these paintings.
Comparing Zhao’s “Between Black and White Series” with her “Self Portrait Series”, I think the former seems to indicate that she has surpassed her walk in classic art and that she has walked out of the surface of the history of art, and that she has turned toward modernity, to explore more of the spiritual aspect of art. In other words, Zhao has actually stepped out of the American styled post-modern art, walked away from the commercialized culture, but headed toward the European Classics, starting to make inquiry of the fundamentals of human nature. Therefore, we could say, Zhao has not left the Classics, but instead, stepped deeper into the inner circle of the Classic art—into the exploration of humanitarianism.
January 29, 2007 in Shanghai