This major series of 18 oil paintings combines traditional Chinese painting and Western realism to present a complex portrait of contemporary life. Like a scroll, the figures are painted against a monochromatic background, moving together in a single direction while seemingly lost in their own thoughts and actions. A motif of cascading golden chopsticks unites the figures in a kind of net, as if dragging them along toward an unseen destination. Unlike the traditional approach of rendering idealised figures, the characters here are all individuals, some beautiful, some not, of all ages and sizes, absorbed in their music, their shopping, their iPhone, their work schedules, or as we can see in the final panel, their own bodies as they age and fail. It’s a compelling picture of everyday life, which travels so quickly and relentlessly.
Zhi Peng, or Jack, as he likes to be called in Australia, studied in China at the end of the 1970s, at a time when art schools were reopening following the end of the repressive Cultural Revolution. Western art styles were allowed to be taught and Western art magazines and books were circulated amongst a dynamic generation of artists, who explored new possibilities in art. Fujian, where Zhi-Peng studied, was a key artistic centre, birthplace of Cai Guo-Qiang and Huang Yong Ping, who established Xiamen Dada, an important group that Zhi Peng also belonged to. It was here that he learned the techniques of traditional Chinese literati art, such as brush and ink painting, as well as Western realism. This rigorous study laid an important foundation for his distinctive style, which takes in portraiture, landscape, and still life.
Zhi Peng emigrated to Australia in the late 1980s, a time when a number of significant Chinese artists made their home here – Shen Shaomin, Guan Wei, Ah Xian and his brother Liu Xiao Xian. It was here in Australia that he was able to view original works by Western artists and their diversity of styles, with their ability to render emotions and subjective experience. Like many Chinese artists in Australia, he found the freedom and access to different artistic approaches a suitable framework to explore not only new directions in art, but also consider traditional practices in fresh and significant ways, expressing cultural connection and a way to be in this new place from one’s own perspective. The complexity of the migrant experience is powerfully reflected in this fusion of styles and approaches, while adding immeasurably to both traditional practice and to Australian art, broadening our sense of what being Australian can mean and enriching our cultural life. There is no one way to be here, and as the work ‘Moving forward moving forward’ shows – evoking not only the idea of progress but the empty and sometimes dangerous rhetoric of political sloganeering – we all occupy this space in different ways. As it also suggests however, in its moving final panel, we all have one thing in common – we all leave this space and make way for others.
Please join me in congratulating Zhi Peng on his outstanding exhibition, which I am delighted to declare open.
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