Artist brings island-inspired show to Beijing
Nanjing-based artist Zhang Lei has been described by his friends and art collectors as a “watcher” of Jiangxinzhou, an island on the Yangtze River in East China’s Jiangsu province.
Until recently, the 29-yearold artist, who studied at Nanjing University of the Arts, lived on the island. Many other artists of the area have also lived in the villages of Jiangxinzhou in search of tranquility. In addition, house rents are cheap and the public transport to Nanjing city is convenient.
Zhang, who lived there for a few years, is among the last artists to have moved out of the island because old buildings are being dismantled to convert Jiangxinzhou into an upscale destination.
Zhang has found a new studio in downtown Nanjing, but says he doesn’t regret departing Jiangxinzhou.
“There are always things in life that one cannot go against. One needs to accept them and move forward,” he says.
But he has encapsulated his experiences on the island in many paintings. And dozens of them are now on show at a solo exhibition at the Gome Art Foundation’s gallery in Beijing.
The exhibition, Passing by Jiang Xin Zhou, shows how the island’s simple life used to comfort a young student away from his home in northern China — Zhang is originally from Tangshan in Hebei province — and how it kept inspiring him and allowed him to focus.
Zhang has many black-andwhite paintings in his “simple and straightforward” way, and they reveal his easy attitude toward life and the larger natural environment.
His subjects include villagers, dense woods, abandoned cottages and vineyards on Jiangxinzhou that formed the basis of his daily life there. In his works, he rearranges them to create dreamy scenes in surrealistic style.
For example, he enlarges the eyes of people or depicts a bird that is disproportionally larger than the mountains where it lives.
Some other works portray a dark field under a few stars or a beam of light projected by a coming bicycle, revealing a feeling of both refreshment and loneliness.
Many of his paintings are inspired by scenes that he saw daily in Jiangxinzhou while still in college: He had to wake up early to take boat rides to Nanjing, stayed at school until late and went back home through the empty fields of Jiangxinzhou.
Zhang says although the island’s landscape was his motivation to create the different pieces, he didn’t paint If you go
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“poetic narratives”, rather, he sought to communicate the inner peace of the island, a luxury that is difficult to find elsewhere and provided him the courage to cope with his transition to big-city life.
“I’ve learned to turn myself into a ‘thermometer’ of life,” he says.
The artists’ community in Jiangxinzhou and the island’s natural scenery have attracted the attention of outsiders including Yin Er, a Shanghaibased designer and filmmaker.
He made a film on life on the island and cast Zhang in a lead role — a painter and a house agent (in spare time) who meditates between villagers and migrants in Jiangxinzhou.
“Zhang’s work boasts graceful smoothness in texture, a feature that is easy to describe but difficult of find,” Yin says, comparing the art to jade.
Zhang’s paintings the Yangtze River.
Zhang Lei, a Nanjing-based artist.