This painting is from Zhang Hongtu’s 2008 series “Shan Shui” (Foreign Policy). Its form and content interact to impart Zhang’s more politically-minded goals in art making. The work is divided in half horizontally, making it well balanced. This creates a sense of aesthetically pleasing stability to the viewer, as well as sets up the rest of the work to be set into two parts. The top half is a muted grey that features no movement, however there is texture. The texture of the top allows the bottom half more movement without generating a stark contrast. The bottom half is a bright green. This green is beautiful, yet there is a quality to it that is unsettling-perhaps its unnatural hue. The oil paint was applied so that the bottom half has great movement to the point that it appears to be coming out at the viewer. Finally, there are lines that appear in disharmony with the rest of the painting. What are these lines and why are they placed over the green fluid waters of the bottom half? Zhang’s intent for these waves is intention- this work is not solely his own, but rather an appropriated image.
This piece is adapted from a work of art by Ma Yuan, a traditional artist well known to the Chinese (Foreign Policy). His work often featured classic Chinese landscapes (3 dots water). Zhang noticed the environmental decay that was occurring in China at a rapid rate, and sought to call attention to it. As he states in an interview, “I wanted to keep some of original line work, but show the change… the pollution of water, and the shortage of water” (Foreign Policy). This work captures the viewer’s attention through the contrast of color and line, but more importantly, enlists and modifies the formal qualities of traditional Chinese art to critique China today.