Liu Zhen (b. 1970) is an exciting young Shanghai-based artist who, like the literati painters of past centuries, has a deep respect for tradition while pursuing a new form of artistic expression. Liu Zhen specializes in abstract lacquer paintings, often on a large scale in screens or triptychs, and his mastery of this medium is taking one of the most ancient art forms in Chinese culture to an unprecedented level of modern aesthetic expression.
Chinese lacquer ware has a long history dating back to the 5th millennium BC. Lacquer is a natural substance obtained from the sap of the lacquer tree (Rhus vernicifera), which is indigenous to China. Through the centuries lacquer was used for vases, trays and cups, as well as for screens and furniture. Moisture-proof, resistant to heat, acid and alkali, it was practical and durable as well as beautiful. Lacquer painting, however, was only formally recognized as a painting form relatively recently. For a painter like Liu Zhen, the challenge is to go beyond the technique of making lacquer as a decorative craft, and to develop it as a medium in which to express himself as a contemporary artist.
Born in Jiangsu Province in 1970, Liu Zhen practised traditional Chinese ink painting and oil painting at high school in Suzhou. Later, while training to be a teacher at the Central Academy of Art in Beijing, he studied mural art and began to focus on lacquer painting. Liu Zhen has traveled widely in China, developing a love of natural landscapes. “I am particularly drawn to the remote areas of Western China, with its wide open spaces,” he says. “I have gained a lot of inspiration from there.” He also has a strong interest in ancient Chinese culture, in particular the surface texture of antique objects and old walls, and Chinese seal carving. These two sources of inspiration come together in his work.
In his lacquer paintings, Liu Zhen achieves a fluidity and vividness of colour reminiscent of the “splashed ink” paintings of the late master Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), whose technique he greatly admires. Zhang Daqian traveled widely in Europe and America, where he came into contact with Western art movements. He believed that abstract expressionism could be combined with Chinese painting and the result was his unique splashed ink and colour style. Liu Zhen’s painting has the same feeling of freedom, the vivid hues flowing into each other in beautiful colour harmonies to evoke great expanses of sky and ocean, mountains and forests, or whatever the viewer chooses to see. His other favourite Chinese artist is the contemporary abstract master Zao Wuji (b. 1921). What makes Liu Zhen’s work unique, however, is the way that, into his very contemporary abstract compositions, he integrates fragments of ancient calligraphy and seal carvings that date back thousands of years.
Liu Zhen explains how the most ancient written characters in China were written on oracle bones, or inscriptions on bronze vessels and stone steles dating back to the Shang (c. 1600-1100 BC) and Zhou (c. 1100-256 BC) dynasties. Seals were first used in China to validate the documents of high ranking officials and followed a set standard, but by the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties there was greater artistic freedom and a new “literati seal engraving” developed, closely linked with the calligraphy and painting of the period.
“I find this subject fascinating and I research it constantly in books and museums,” he says. “I like to use different kinds of seals, from abstract calligraphic patterns to figurative seals with symbolic references, such as the phoenixes in my painting Abstract III, which of course are a traditional Chinese symbol for good luck. I also use my own seal in my compositions.” Not only is the relationship between ancient and modern an intriguing feature of Liu Zhen’s work, the contrast between the smooth coloured surface and the seals delineated in gold leaf or etched into the surface, results in a interesting variety of textures and completes the colour harmony.
Producing a lacquer painting is a time-consuming, meticulous task that may take weeks or even months to complete. First, a piece of wood is prepared and polished, and then layers of coloured lacquer are painted on with a brush. Each layer must dry before the next is applied. In between, clear lacquer is also applied. The artist sometimes applies up to ten layers or more. Liu Zhen also uses other materials, including sand and crushed ceramic tiles, between the layers of lacquer, while silver or gold leaf is used for the seals. Liu Zhen explains, “From custom making lacquer paint tools to smoothing, sprinkling, setting and polishing…lacquer painting is a complex process in which no step can be omitted.”
Though still a young artist, Liu Zhen handles this difficult medium with apparent ease. After experimenting with other media, he finds lacquer the most suitable for his artistic expression. His aim is to express a distillation of his thoughts and experiences in what he terms “landscapes of the mind”. “I have liked lacquer painting since high school, and I love the effects I can achieve. For me, lacquer is shiny, rich and beautiful. I am interested in the fusion of old and new – a traditional Chinese medium, a modern expression. With lacquer I can match a traditional artistic skill with contemporary aesthetics.”