Friday, December 27, 2013

Print master of Manly Maneuvers: Zhang Minjie

China's Zhang Minjie - b.1959, in Tangshan, in the northeastern province of Hebei.
Minjie’s art is impacted by real-life events; the first of which was the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. It completely destroyed his hometown, causing untold tragedy and devastated the region. Minjie himself became trapped in the ruins of his home, but was miraculously saved, and now describes the experience through his work. Haunted by this episode, Minjie turned to painting and later worked on the theater as a stage designer and actor.
Later, he went to study printmaking at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Minjie has gone on to exhibit his work throughout China, Japan, Korea, and the US. His work is well-regarded as one of the more dominant in the field, and his mastery of scale further impresses itself upon the viewer. We feel the overwhelming weight of his stone walls and masses of male-dominated imagery, the breadth of power and expanse of Chinese symbolism tied to physical perfection, working in unison and coordinating massive groups of characters toward one goal.
Minjie’s prints follow his vision, following complexities of M.C. Escher’s twisted perspective prints. His crowds, normally covering the entire composition, create abstract patterns, which at time relate to the incredible intricate and fascinatingly inventive pen and ink drawings of Vincent van Gogh. Maybe because of his visual complexity, Minjie chooses to work in monochromatic-colored relief, often making it appear somber and serious. It’s not about reducing color to achieve structural integrity, it’s more about achieving unity, commonality. The result is a sense of great orchestration, but with no joy, no individuality. Then, after witnessing the opening ceremonies of the Chinese Olympics, one realizes a strength of the Chinese people is their ability to unify into one; the concept of expressing one’s individuality or something unique isn’t always desired, or needed.
Minjie presents compositions of stiffly-moving, rural-dressed people; some performing everyday chores, dancing or moving in sync. His unified masses appear to practice battle formations, but their physical activities seem futile to achieve any meaningful results. Always practicing for a war, but never seeing any action. Frequently stone walls are seen in his works, which seem to represent barriers and futile efforts to conquer large obstacles. Some could say the wall represents the thousands of people who suffered during the building of the Great Wall of China, but it seems more attuned to his own history surviving the collapse of his home upon him during the Tangshan earthquake. Additionally, the monumental scale of his work overwhelms the viewer like a tsunami.
Minjie’s bizarre surreal scenes of crowds following some mystic symbolism are ranked among the most powerful among Chinese modern artists. His access to international artists work in Japan and elsewhere has brought some western influence to his work, but the principles of Chinese hard work ethic and pride come through even moreso. Today, Minjie is the director of the Chinese National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou. He also is founder of the Masses Art Center in Qinghuangdao. Since his career is in full swing, we can only enjoy what this printmaker will bring to us in the future, and we will look forward to seeing more western exposure for this work.

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