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painting by Zhao Zhunwang

From the shimmering summer haze that veils Northern California’s coastline to the pulsating energy that reverberates throughout the streets of San Francisco, the Chinese artist Zhao Zhunwang presents to the viewer in this series of paintings, images that are captured from the familiar Bay Area surroundings.

Since moving to the United States in 1991 with his wife and two sons, Zhao has constantly made sketches of the scenery around him. The sense of improvisation and spontaneity that is conveyed through the sketch-like quality of the paintings is important in Zhao’s work. It serves to assert the artist’s freedom from being fastidious and methodical. Unlike his earlier paintings of villages, grassland, and landscapes in China depicted in an idyllic mode, his images of the Bay Area are swift renderings of buildings, piers, bridges, and street scenes. Whether bathed in sunlight or mist, Zhao’s images are executed with great economy of brushstrokes and display a sense of naiveté. He has the ability to single out beauty from the ordinary by isolating the subject and by magnifying certain details. This can be seen for example in his painting of the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge, where by cropping off and focusing on a particular part of the bridge and shifting the perspective, the artist has created an imaginative and whimsical work of art.

In Zhao’s more abstract images, such as paintings of the misty San Francisco Bay and foggy meadows, the viewer finds an element of the ethereal that further enhances the feeling akin to looking at a scene in a dream-one that borders between the conscious and the unconscious. Objects transform and shift with the atmospheric changes in his paintings, and the viewer shares with the artist a desire to hold on to the image before it evaporates from sight. The images are a distillation of the subject, yet Zhao often transforms the objective physical reality into subjective interpretations with a dreamlike quality. The viewer can’t help but associate this style of his with a new kind of impressionism, in which scenes of the city and beyond are delivered to the viewer as perceived by the artist in the spur of the moment.

Under the tutelage and guidance of some of the most accomplished artists in contemporary Chinese ink and brush painting such as Ya Ming, Wu Guanzhong and Cui Zifan, Zhao’s artistic career is based on solid foundation. In his sketches, one sees superb draftsmanship. In his paintings, one sees the carrying on of traditional Chinese ink methods with a contemporary twist. More and more artists acknowledge the importance of reinvigorating traditional Chinese ink painting, and Zhao belongs in that group. He explores the potentials of ink and brush, western oils and acrylic, and creates works that have a refreshing charm without being pretentiously conceptual or alienating. In fact, his paintings have a strong down-to-earth warmth that makes one reminisce of villages in the Chinese countryside even though when one is looking at a painting of Lombard Street in San Francisco.

Zhao has produced a vast body of work throughout the years. In traditional Chinese art standards, he is considered a middle-age artist. A long career is still ahead of him, and given his drive to paint constantly and desire to sketch improvisationally, we will see for sure a prolific career from Zhao.


Updated: March 17, 2000 
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