World Fine Art Professionals and their Key-Pieces, 232 – Zhifei Chang
I saw Zhifei Chang’s work at an exhibition in Schiedam called ‘Onbewoonde kamers’ (Uninhabited Rooms), moderated by Zhanghong Liao (see elsewhere on this site). They were colorful, modern paintings with details that referred to old historical stories. I wanted to know more and made an appointment with the artist.
A few weeks later I am in Utrecht, in a garden full of ferns and bamboo trees, a Japanese maple with red leaves, a pond with goldfish and small frogs and an old linden tree next to me. The tree is 75 years old, says Zhifei. He pours green tea from a cast-iron pot in our tea glasses. The tea is made from young leaves from his own village in China. In a bowl is a small bonsai-like tree. It comes from a seed of the Japanese maple.
Zhifei Chang is originally from Zhoukou, which is centrally located in China. Zhifei: ”It is 600 kilometers from Beijing, which is in Chinese terms close by." The Jialu River and the Shaying River cross here. Goods from the port of Zhoukou go to the Yangtze River in the south or the Yellow River more to the north. “The Yellow River is indeed yellow. That is because the water is mixed with sand. We people from this area are also yellow.” He points his arm. “God created the earth and also humanity. She created the first human by throwing a handful of clay. Yellow clay of course.” The Chinese god happens to be female. “After the first human being she made more human beings, in the same way.”
Zhifei was born in 1990. At the age of seven he went to a school that paid special attention to drawing. At a young age he received various prizes for his drawings and that gave him a lot of confidence. He then went to Art College in Chongqing. Because he was so interested in fantasy stories about Chinese history, he started to investigate the 11th / 12th century paintings of Zhang Zeduan, who drew and painted houses, rivers and landscapes.
Zhifei: “In my area several dynasties settled to reign the country, the most important one was the Tang dynasty. The entire Chinese culture comes from the Tang dynasty. Buddha was important, which was introduced by monks from Japan. They traveled back and forth between Japan and China and some stayed. They brought drawing and painting techniques with which they created imaginative mythological stories.”
This is how the famous book ‘Beyond the Montain and the Sea’ came into being 4000 years ago. Zhifei has made his own version with all kinds of sketches in it. Lots of monsters and fantasy animals. He shows his book. I see all kinds of fantasy animals and also a Buddha dragged in the air by dragons. “I made it at art college in Chonqing. It consists of three parts: about the human being, monsters and God. The animals represent good and bad characters. Sometimes a snake is a god, because Gods can also be animals.”
Five themes are important in Zhifei’s artwork: nature, mystery, fantasy, changed Chinese tradition and light. He developed his interest in the latter two themes when he continued his studies since 2013 outside China, in the Netherlands, Italy and Peru. He also started to make journeys, even in Africa, because he was fascinated by different cultures. In this way his old heroes Zhang Zeduan and Gu Kaizhi were joined by Henri Rousseau, Vincent van Gogh, Joan Miró and Lin Fengmi.
“I was influenced by Western modernism, in particular the use of color and the light. The approach in Europe and the rest of the world was a different one as I learnt in China. You didn't just follow the old masters, no, the idea was that you had to discover yourself. And discovering myself I came back at the classic Chinese fantasy stories. Apparently it was in my blood. ”
Does he have key works and, if so, can he indicate them? Zhifei has five works that can be called key works, he says. We take a closer look to these works. In ‘Flamingos, ape and masked monster’, which is in his Beijing gallery, we see a pond in a mountain landscape full of (fantasy) animals.The colors are pronounced and clear. The bright colors are there to neutralize the bad elements, he says.
In ‘Under the black sky’, mixed material on paper, the colors yellow, green and purple dominate. It is a further development of his magic realism. A Chinese mythological story with modern figures is depicted. “I used simple colors to have simplicity in the image and I used ink to express the old.” ‘Metamorphose’ is a more abstract work. He used chalk and acrylic on rice paper. Many details of the forms are plain. “Thus I created more magic and less realism.”
Key work no. 4 is ‘Casablanca’. He travelled to this city once. I see many cats and feline (tigers), plants and birds in the colors black/white, yellow and blue. “A Chinese buddhist story brings human beings into cats. The colors unite the whole. With the plain forms I simplify all the details.” Key Work no. 5, ‘Empty’[, is the most ‘European’ work. In bright colors we see a collage of story elements: a mountain landscape, a cat, a Buddha figure, trees, flowers and ferns. It shows his progress from telling Chinese stories to abstract work. “Details and simple forms are still there. However the color has more meaning than before. I used a combination of canvas and rice paper to have a balance between the modern and the traditional Chinese.”
Back to the Netherlands
After his academic year in Utrecht in 2013, Zhifei returned to China, where he established himself as an independent artist and illustrator. He made illustrations for labels, brands and clothing. At the same time he made his own artwork. In 2015 he came across a German artist, Charlotte. He became her assistant and she taught him everything about how galleries functioned.
Zhifei thought Being was very busy and hectic, the unstable situation of his studios made him uncertain, he had difficulty concentrating on creating new work. That is why he moved to the house where he now lives in Utrecht, where he can work in a focused way. Every year he is 8 months in the Netherlands and 4 months in China, where he now is permanently working together with a gallery in Beijing. The gallery expects a number of works from him every year. It is a famous gallery, also Ai Weiwei is one of the artists. There are a number of collectors around the world who buy Zhifei's work. In addition to a studio in the Netherlands he found a studio in Barcelona. He goes there in October (for a month). "The light is different there, that influences the work I make there.”
We go to his workspace. In the veranda that borders the garden, he has a large long table on which he makes a lot of work. I see a color box with real Chinese paint and a glass jar with many brushes. In a cupboard on the right is an African statue that he took with him on one of his travels. We enter the room. He makes his large dimension works on the ground. A large Buddha hangs on the wall above the mantel. There are also bright-colored flower paintings in which Chinese elements are housed partly made of silk paper and rice paper. I see large rolls of rolls of silk and rice paper. In the front room I see a traditional work that tells a very old story.
Finally: what’s his philosophical final word? Zhifei: “What inspires and influences both my artwork and myself is mystery and fantasy. I am fascinated by nature, the purity of the forms and the sunshine of the light. When I finish a drawing this inspires me to do another.”
1) birds 60 x 42cm acrylic on canvas 2015, 2) under the black sky, mixed material on paper, 2017, 3) animals hiding behind human masks, 4) by tell, 50 x 50 cm acrylic on canvas, 2015, 5) Casablanca, 155 x 55 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2017, 6) empty, 7) flamingos, ape and masked monster, 50 x 50 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2015, 8) flowers in the garden, work Zhifei, 10) metamorphose, 136 x 68 cm, mixed material on paper, 2016, 11) Protea, 118 x 84 cm, mixed material on paper, 2015, 12) underful, 50 x 50 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2015, 13) Untitled, 14) 14, portrait Zhifei