AN ADMIRABLE ART AMBASSADOR
Zhiyuan Cong is fifty years old. He was born in Rudong County, Jiangsu Province, China, in 1955, and painting has been part of his life since his childhood. When the so-called Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, he was at the age of eleven and kept on practicing painting whenever he was free. The revolution era demanded paintings that satisfied the needs of the era. Thus he made many large portraits of Chairman Mao out of small prints based on the checks that he drafted on both as a way of catching likeness. In this way he surprisingly made himself a name. In 1972 he was selected into a fine arts class held by the culture bureau in the county after he had graduated from the high school. Only then did he realize that sketch and drawing were the foundations of painting. At that time instant result was demanded and students were required to do creative work while learning. As a result, his work Happily Welcome the Harvest Season was selected into the National Fine Arts Exhibition in 1974. That was like a golden phoenix flying out of a small county and he became a local star overnight. He was rewarded to fly to Beijing and visit the exhibition together with the director of the bureau. A kid with a limited view thus experienced the gigantic national stage of art. The trip not only broadened his horizon, but also further strengthened his resolution to scale the heights in painting that he had long dreamed of.
In the spring of 1977, he was admitted into the last class of the students directly recruited from workers, peasants and solders in Nanjing Arts Institute, a school that has the longest tradition in modern Chinese art education. The institute grew out of Shanghai Fine Arts School that was founded in 1912. The principal of the school, Professor Liu Haisu, had been the president as well as the honorary president of the institute. Liu set up an excellent culture for the institute by advocating Magnificent Simplicity and Profound Beauty as well as a spirit of Incessant Pursuit. In fact, this culture was partially initiated by Mr. Cai Yuanpei, the outstanding educator and the first education minister in modern China. In 1922 Cai served as the chairman of the school board in Shanghai Fine Arts School. He inscribed the school directive as Honesty and the study directive as Magnificent Simplicity and Profound Beauty. He even wrote the anthem for the school, which was later inherited by Nanjing Arts Institute. Resulting from principal Liu's policy to attract able teachers, a large number of established Chinese artists in the early 20th century had taught there. The school also attached great importance to discovering young talents and many of the first generation of Chinese painters had taken lessons there. So a school with such a tradition doubtlessly helped Zhiyuan lay down a solid ground for his career.
The students directly recruited from workers, peasants and solders were special offspring of Chinese contemporary education history. During the so-called Cultural Revolution, all studies in colleges and universities were disrupted and students were called to carry out revolution. Thus Chinese higher education at the time became void and no students were admitted into universities until the later period of the Revolution. Since initially all students were selected from workers, peasants and solders based on the recommendations made by their working units, they were called worker-peasant-solder students. This college admittance policy was ended in 1977 when the entry examination system was restored nationwide. Nanjing Arts Institute started to recruit worker-peasant-solder students in 1972 and ended in 1977, and Zhiyuan was of the last class. Special times, however, shape special talents. Zhiyuan became the class monitor as soon as he was enrolled in the institute. His personal experience made him capable of seizing every opportunity to learn. For instance, as the monitor was expected to hand in all students' homework and thus had more opportunities to have personal contact with teachers, he became a frequent houseguest of a few well-known faculty members such as Chen Dayu and Shen Tao. In this way he attained more personal instructions from those masters and made a greater progress in painting than his classmates. Further, he is such a person of persistence and a ceaseless seeker. He joined the faculty after his graduation with distinctions. He was later admitted to the institute's graduate class, advised by the honorary president Liu Haisu as well as the famous Chinese painter Ya Ming. Yet all of these accomplishments seemed not to his satisfaction. Once more he had another dream, a dream of studying abroad. Where there is a will, there is a way. In 1988 his dream turned to reality with the help of his teachers and friends; he flied across the Pacific and became a graduate student at Indian University, Bloomington, USA.
A Chinese restaurant owner in Bloomington signed on the financial affidavit in Zhiyian's application in exchange of six paintings made by his teachers including masters Ya Ming, Chen Dayu and Kang Ping. In this way he got his admittance. In the United States most graduate students need to work while learning. Zhiyuan, however, refused to follow the same path not because working in restaurants would be low to him, but rather because he wanted to seize every moment to focus on study. He pinched every penny in his pocket and tried his hardest to catch up his English. His life at the time formed such a simple triangular pattern from dorm to classroom then to library from early morning to the midnight. He even created a record of making his ends meet for three months with only a hundred dollars. Though he was perhaps the poorest of all 38,000 students on the campus, as a result of his hard work, he was awarded the C. V. Starr Scholarship as well as the Irving and Lena Lo Scholarship from 1990 to 1994 for four consecutive years.
At the outset, Zhiyuan majored in art history at IU. Though he studied rather well, he felt that he did not take advantage of his earlier trainings in Chinese painting. His strongest areas were those traditional types with fine brushwork and full colors. He was also advertised at making images by lines. In addition, he had studied intensively the use of colors in traditional Chinese paintings and was rather insightful in the circle. In order to bring his potentials into full play, he decided to switch to printmaking from art history. In the western pictorial tradition, printmaking encompasses etching, lithography and serigraphy. Its techniques are a combination of both art and science. Its skill sets are so rich and varied that it is not merely an excellent genre for artistic creation, but also a convenient type to spread out one's work by replicating copies. Therefore many western painting masters are also good at the genre; for instance, Rembrandt, Goya, Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso are all great printmakers as well. Through the genre one thus could see many characteristics as well as the essence of western art. In actuality Zhiyuan's decision has been proven correct. This decision has not only let him take full advantage of his skills in Chinese painting, but also helped him find a key to understanding western art, thus opening a door for him to combine the two traditions in his later career.
Hard workers will always be paid off. From 1992 to 1994 Zhiyuan finished a series of lithographs on basketball, including Basketball Passion, Owe to Basketball and The Melody of Life, and made his debut in the circles of American printmaking. In 1993 his Chinese painting Paradise won the first prize of the American States Arts Competition Exhibition. From 1990 to 1994 he started some workshops on Chinese painting while learning printmaking. At first he devoted ten hours a week for teaching and his students were from various universities in the mid-west. Later he began to hold extended lectures and, in 1992, his seminar in Chicago Art Institute had lasted for seven days. He made lots of demonstrations while lecturing and the total attendants amounted to 2,113. In July of 1994, while he was giving a seminar at University of Oregon, he received the acknowledgement of his application to William Paterson University, New Jersey. After an intensive competition he was employed as an assistant professor in the Fine Arts Department at the university. From then on he moved to New Jersey with his family, gradually becoming an active and established Chinese professor-painter in the east coast.
After having a stable job, Zhiyuan began to attend to cultural exchanges between East and West. He initiated his plans with his alma mater. Under his careful arrangement, Nanjing Arts Institute started its first exchange with William Paterson University. At the beginning, over-twenty American students and faculty members came to Nanjing for workshops, having had their first experiences with Chinese art and the achievements of Chinese construction. Then Nanjing Arts Institute hosted an exhibition for the faculty of William Paterson University. Further, a delegation from Nanjing Arts Institute went to the United States and successfully held an exhibition for both students and the faculty members of the institute. All those events were new to both schools and the exchanges have thus made a great impact. Personally I received a cordial reception from William Paterson University when I was the leader of the delegation from the institute in December 1996. In the university faculty exhibition prepared specially for our visit, one of Zhiyuan's paintings in fine Chinese brushwork with multilayered full colors, The Sun in my Heart, occupied in a compelling place. Dr. Speert, President of William Paterson University, who took me to the exhibition, told me with excitement that the basketball in the painting was depicted as red to symbolize the sun; that the dynamics of the basketball players embodied American characters; and that the audience was portrayed in the resemblance of oriental Buda. In the painting, well-depicted details of the collar style, hats and haircuts of the audience readily invoke an association of a common saying on human relations in show business; that is, the audience is God. It appears that Dr. Speert especially admired the touch of American humor that the painting revealed. And Zhiyuan's paintings had prevailed American viewers and even impressed the president of the university. Probably it is owing to these factors that he has such a high credibility to repeatedly organize his students and colleagues to learn Chinese culture in China. All these activities have succeeded to disseminate Chinese culture and have enhanced cultural communications between East and West, making him an admirable culture ambassador.
Zhiyuan has lived in the United States for seventeen years. During these years he has joined more than a hundred of various art shows. He has also had over-twenty solo exhibitions. This is a remarkable achievement for a foreign artist. The most successful solo exhibition of his, in my opinion, is the one held in the United Nations on July 28th, 2003. The exhibition was entitled Beyond East and West. Even though it had only lasted for five days, it achieved a tremendous impact. Thirty-four works in medium or large size were displayed in seven sections, converting the general hall of the building into a graceful art palace. Many dignitaries and officials attended the opening reception, including Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Chen Jian, chairman of Starr Funds Ta Chun Hsu, Dr. Speert as well as diplomats from over-thirty countries and hundreds of guests from various circles in the New York area. Ambassador Zhang Yishan, Deputy Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations, made the opening speech. He said: "People tend to emphasize economic differences from north and south between rich and poor countries as well as cultural, philosophical differences between east and west. One of the tasks of the United Nations, however, is to reduce such differences and bridge the gaps. Cong Zhiyuan's work has shown us a convergence between eastern and western cultures as well as a general spirit of the humanities, a spirit that is exactly of the United Nations. This is why we Chinese delegation in the United Nations decided to host this exhibition and this celebrating party." One of the main sponsors, President of the Chinese Cultural Foundation in New York City, Ms. Elizabeth Wang later made such comments: "This exhibition is very successful. The audience commended it as master-minded judging by the quality of the paintings, the themes they have covered, as well as the scale and the layout of the exhibition. I've worked in the city for years and sponsored and visited many exhibitions. This one is certainly one of the best." In the exhibition Zhiyuan's landscape paintings revealed a peaceful harmony, and his basketball series was full of speed, rhythm and energy, making viewers exited and jubilant. While his prints on Chinese history were evocative of thinking, his Chinese paintings on September 11th event were rather reflexive and soul-stirring. Altogether these thirty-four pieces have covered various subject matters and their artistic richness and power have amazed many visitors. One visitor left such a comment on the guest book: "Incredible ideas, absolutely charming and beautiful!" While numerating those successful records of this exhibition today, one must foremost admire and solute Zhiyuan for his hardworking and productivity.
This catalog of Zhiyuan's paintings is a retrospective summary of his career. It includes his painting series on basketball, history, landscape, September 11th event, nature and spirit as well as lotus. It is very comprehensive of his artistic characters and accomplishments. Back in China when he artistically matured, a paradigm of fusing revolutionary realism and romanticism was in vogue. Zhiyuan was excellent in using this model and made himself a name at the age of eighteen. He attained the first prize in an inter-states fine arts competition only four years after he went to America. Indeed, he is quick and resourceful in utilizing what he has learned. When he wrote his graduate thesis in Nanjing Art Institute, On National Psychology Revealed in Colors of Chinese Paintings, he followed strictly as his guidelines the traditional principles such as learning from Nature outward and attaining sources from mind inward as well as reading thousands of volumes and traveling ten thousands of miles. In order to have a thorough understanding of his topic, he traveled extensively to many well-known museums, pictorial caves, mountains and Buddhist temples. He even traced the Road of the Silk from Xi'an, Mountain Maiji, Pass Jiayu, Dunhuang murals to Kemir and Keser to investigate how the use of colors in Chinese painting was influenced by the western pictorial tradition, and vice versa. All of his analysis in the thesis is based on his first-hand knowledge on tomb and cave murals in Qin and Han periods (B.C 221- A.D. 220). The famous Chinese painter Ya Ming commended his thesis as the most profound discourse on the use of colors in painting since Xie He of South Dynasty (d. A.D. 249). After his arrival in the United States, Zhiyuan quickly acquired the key to exploring western art and American culture with the help of his keen eyes and thoughts. He established his pictorial vocabulary by learning western printmaking as a breakthrough point. He also made a great shot into the heart of American viewers by using basketballs in his paintings because to him basketball is not merely a beloved sport but also a cultural symbol, a sign and a religion. This explains why his basketball series has become many viewers' favorite in the United States. From his success, therefore, I found that art could really go beyond political prejudices. If only it is utilized well, the fusion of revolutionary realism and romanticism could make a hit in the West as well. In his history series Zhiyuan uses the traditional Chinese genre of contemplating history to express his thoughts on oriental traditional cultures. In his landscape series he presents some beautiful sceneries of rural landscape in America from a unique perspective of Integration of Nature and Humans, thus calling people to love nature and earth. In his series on September 11th event Zhiyuan shows a shock resulting from a clash between oriental and occidental cultures by an abstraction in representational images from a Chinese painter's viewpoint. What he tries to elicit, however, is an expectation as well as a vision to have more cultural exchanges so as to obtain a convergence of various traditions. In his series on nature and spirit he displays us retrospectively his paintings from 1982 to 2004. Some were selected from his work when was in China while others were made abroad. But they all have embodied his artistic characteristics with a touch of fusion of realism and romanticism. Still, his strong area is to express ideas and feelings via figure depiction. It seems that he is always able to find the subject matters that he loves wherever he is, painting originally with a great appeal. Some group paintings about volcanoes, oceans, forests, religious dances painted in 2002 are well indicative of his new ideas. When I visited America second time in 2003, Zhiyuan invited me to his house and showed me these works in an exited manner after the dinner. I found that these figure paintings were made with a great ease and skill and they had reached a new level of techniques and proficiency. As for the series on lotus, its inclusion resulted from his last decision. Lotus is one of the major themes in the genre of traditional flower and bird paintings. The plant grows out of mud yet keeps itself pure, thus symbolizing a human character. His teacher, Professor Chen Dayu, is a well-known master of lotus painting and many of his paintings were inspired by poetic ideas found in traditional Tang and Song poetry. The lotus series by Zhiyuan, however, is all composed in monographs. It seems that he tries to interpret the traditional Chinese subject with latest printmaking techniques in an American manner. Since lotus, along with traditionally called Four Gentlemen or Three Friends of Winter such as plum, bamboo, orchid, chrysanthemum and pine trees, has a layer of ulterior meanings in Chinese literati tradition and thus requires viewers to have a certain understanding of Chinese culture, I am not sure if they would be fully appreciated in the United States. Yet I sincerely hope that, living within a dazzling and compelling American material culture, Zhiyuan could keep himself a virtue of self-fulfillment as lotus has symbolized. Only in this way will he have a bright future.
Finally, I would like to make a few more comments on his series on basketball. In my opinion, the best are these three works in traditional Chinese fine brushwork with extreme details and multilayered colors, Paradise, The Sun in my Heart and The Guanyin Budhisattva with Thousands of Hands. The date of these three paintings has spanned eleven years. The first one, Paradise, was awarded with a Golden Prize of a national fine arts exhibition in USA. But later ones seem getting increasingly better with regard to conception. Especially the last one, The Guanyin Budhisattva with Thousands of Hands, it was painted in a style typical of religious compositions found in Dunhuang cave murals. Here, many seemingly polar or even contradictory elements, such as sport and art, power and beauty, East and West, modern and classic, uproar and solemn silence are well interplayed in a harmonic theme. American MBA basketball players are depicted as male Guanyin and the basketball rack, as Buda's canopy and the penalty shot area, as a mysterious Buddhist paradise. A holy glorious circle, formed by thousands of hands and basketballs, carries us away in his extraordinary artistic imagination. It is no wonder that many viewers of this painting commented this painting as incredible. Coincidentally, the gold prizewinner of the 2005 Spring Festival evening party in China is a dance also named as The Guanyin Budhisattva with Thousands of Hands. The dancers were all disabled girls without hearings, yet they rehearsed the dance with incredible diligence and hard work. With the help of their dactylology trainers, they presented a beautiful magic performance that moved billions of people all over China. When interviewed by a journalist from Chinese Central Television, one of the leading dancers mentioned touchingly that their success resulted more or less from affections given to them by thousand hands of people around them. What a marvelous yet appropriate similitude! It seems to me that what is most needed in the current world is exactly this mutually respectful and loving spirit of thousand hands. In addition to understandings of eastern and western cultures as well as languages, being an able art ambassador also requires this spirit of thousand hands for building a happy and peaceful world. Perhaps it was motivated by this intent that Zhiyuan started to devote his painting as well as his time to promoting cultural exchanges and their ultimate convergence.
September 10, 1992
ABOUT JIANQIN FENG
Jianqin Feng, the President and Professor of Nanjing Arts Institute, Nanjing, China, is a well-known painter and educator in China. He also was deputy to Ninth Chinese National People's Congress and is a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People's Political Consultative Conference.