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Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks. Simonides

Guan Ze Ju

Times of great upheaval often produce great artists. This seems to be a truism for the Twentieth Century. Its two world wars created environments rich with constant reevaluations of the role and purpose of art. Powerful movements, such as Surrealism, altered the way people view the world and communicate with each other. Similar contributions to the world of art from Asia have thus far not been wholly appreciated, such as the legacy provided by China's Social Realists. One of the greatest of these Social Realists is Guan Zeju.

Guan Zeju has lived through some of the most tumultuous times in China's five thousand year history. He has become a masterful painter and a great teacher through intense discipline and effort and obviously a great deal of inherent talent. As a teenager, people called him the "painting ox" for his single-minded focus, both in Western and in traditional Chinese modes of expression. Again and again, when he is asked about his experiences, his birth in 1941 in a small village outside of Guangzhou (Canton), his formal and informal education and apprenticeships, he returns to the same word in Mandarin, meaning roughly "effort."

Through the Cold War and the Cultural Revolution, Guan continued to paint, whether his surroundings and possessions were, by current standards, lavish or incredibly spartan. His efforts produced some of the finest Social Realist artwork in China, artwork now being understood for its influence on the social and political course of the world's most populous nation. His numerous portraits and murals of Mao Ze Dong, paintings and drawings of ethnic minorities, images exalting the glory of the Han Chinese, collections in the National Museum of China, significant works in the Museums of Nanchang and Henan Provinces, as well as numerous prestigious private collections, stand as important testaments to the times in which he has lived.

Guan began at a very young age with graphite and watercolor as well as traditional Chinese ink. At the age of fifteen, he was recognized as a prodigy and awarded by his junior high school with an exhibition of more than two hundred works of art in at least three media. He later graduated first in his class from the Guangzhou Institute of Fine Arts. His teachers at the Institute passed on to him knowledge of techniques and trends both within and outside of China. One of his two primary instructors spent a number of years studying in Russia. The other spent time in America, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

After art school and much success in the public sphere, Guan moved south with his wife to live in relative isolation on the large South China Sea island of Hainan. The work of this period includes many quickly executed studies of common people all over the island, many fishermen, women working with crops and government employees. For Guan, this was a communion with the fundamentals of painting, a technical mastery of which he had already achieved. The tropical light was more intense than any he had yet captured. And the colors, particularly reds, greens and blues, were richer than those he had thus far allowed himself to explore; this became the foundation for his great ability as a colorist. He lived with the people he painted, developing an empathy for particular individuals evident in the deepening expressions on their faces. Even the elements became part of his labors. Often, Guan would work by the sea, suffering terrible sunburns from days or weeks of sustained painting. Strong winds would blow sand onto his canvases, sticking on the oils and becoming part of the texture of his paintings. This place was his sanctuary, and he feels it represents the most peaceful and joyful fifteen years of his life to date.

With the entire history of art, with an emphasis on academic and Symbolist painting, as his inheritance, Guan possesses the skills to realize any flight of his own imagination. The subtle influences of Surrealism are also evident, particularly in earlier paintings, and clearly still inform aspects of perspective. He can paint like the most expressive of the Impressionists, or render people's features with a crispness similar to America's "hyper-realists." Technical virtuosity, however, is clearly not an end in itself. Rather, technique is the beginning from which the artist creates the imagery he desires. For Guan, that imagery is now dance, specifically the ballet.

Qian Xiao Ling, Guan's wife, is a successful choreographer of traditional Chinese folk dance, though she also studied ballet. As childhood friends, she first introduced Guan to the world of dance. Currently, Xiao Ling is the artistic director of the "Chinese Folk Dance Association of San Francisco." Guan counts among his close friends many excellent dancers. One of them is the San Francisco Ballet's principal dancer, Yuan Yuan Tan. Guan believes Tan is the most formidable dancer he's seen since his first experience with the ballet in 1958. At the time, he was seventeen, and one of the former Soviet Union's greatest dancers was making her first appearance in China. The young man was captivated by the dignity, grace and power of this dancer, Galina Ulanova, a woman many consider to be the greatest dancer/choreographer in the history of Russian ballet. It was a production of "Swan Lake," and it remains with Guan to this day. Interestingly, at a competition in 1992 in Paris, it was Ulanova who judged Tan's ability flawless and gave her a perfect score.

Guan's passion for dance is not an emulation of past artists such as Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec. Rather, he is working from his own unique and reverent love of the ballet and of theater in general. As previously stated, his technique, both painterly and well-defined, but always highly expressive, is entirely his own. His paintings are complex in narrative content and not afraid to be essentially beautiful. Choosing almost sylvan backdrops for his portraits, nature invades the dancer's studio with generous light filtering through trees and curtains to catch a woman often in a moment of ease. These images convey the experience of watching an accomplished dancer float and spin about the stage, whether there is motion or stillness. Guan's work eavesdrops but does not invade upon the private moments of these dancers. They can be deep in contemplation before a recital, lacing a slipper or celebrating together a successful performance. When there are several dancers, the viewer finds in their distinctive expressions the camaraderie, jealousy or stage fright associated with their world.

A painting can require as much as several dozen preliminary sketches, investigations into both light and composition. These are sometimes preceded by many hours in the audience, backstage, in the studio, even in the orchestra pit, taking photographs. Once he makes it to canvas, a painting may take several weeks to several months to complete. He employs 18th and 19th century techniques, both in the preparation of the surface he will work on, and in the complex alchemy involved in utilizing thin glazes of translucent oil paints. Guan's palette ranges from subtle hues used to create the transparent folds of a dancer's costume to luminous red lips, indigo blue curtains and emerald green leaves.

When asked which artists Guan himself most admires, he responds not with his contemporaries, but with names like Alfred Sisley, the great Impressionist. He speaks with deep respect for the deceptive simplicity and powerful movement of Monet. Isaac Levitan, a Russian academic painter of landscapes is a favorite. But Guan's greatest admiration is reserved for the late nineteenth century Russian master Ilya Repin, a man who produced dramatic nearly monochrome canvases, scenes from the theater and portraits of friends like Leo Tolstoy.

With such great depth to his abilities, a willingness to learn and experiment, to "instruct" himself, Guan Zeju's greatest achievements are clearly ahead of him. Weinstein Gallery is deeply honored to be a part of his future, and to present his work to the public in America, in China and throughout the world. As this extraordinary artist continues to develop his own voice, his own visual language, one which combines all his disparate learning, he will undoubtedly produce wholly unexpected and new imagery for a world refreshingly enamored once more with representational art.

source: Weinstein

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