We are surrounded by print. Labels and captions tell us what things are, advertisements tell us what to want, signs tell us how to get to our destinations, newspapers locate our everyday reality in a larger and largely imagined world. Words and images are usually treated as a means, not an end. They are the signposts, the bridges, the media, through which we negotiate a world made up of objects which are mute -- and meanings which are immaterial. Between the muteness of objects and the ideality of meanings lies the dimension of print: a repetitive, conventional, and imperfect surface teeming with letters, numbers, characters, pictures, diagrams, maps, and symbols.
It is this surface to which Zheng Xuewus printed and painted works draw our attention. He insists that we appreciate the special materiality of print. Rather than following signposts to some future destination, rather than seeking the depths to which symbols seem to lead us, we find ourselves dwelling on the texts and images themselves, responding not to what they mean but enjoying how they look, on the paper, charged with ink, intensified with color. This is a tool made into art, a distraction made into something beautiful.
Zheng Xuewus images, words, and numbers always repeat in rows, in flows. His compositions are assembled from elements that have been used over and over again as representations, each time in a different context, each time functioning a little differently. No one element in these compositions is able to claim uniqueness, no one element is beautiful in itself. In fact some of the print elements he uses laugh at the idea of beauty. The large picture blocks of Chinese landscapes and elegant ladies might have once been art, but now they are convention, everywhere repeated as icons of Chinese tradition. What are they doing here in a work of art? This can only be a joke, yet it is a complicated joke. Within the new context of the artwork, and colored from a subtly differentiated palette, they are beautiful. In one sense, subjected to Zheng Xuewus painterly coloration, they are print become art for the first time. In another sense, these ladies and landscapes become a touching trace of their own intricate history of representing culture, of being art.
The history of print in China is never far from Zheng Xuewus aesthetic. His tools are often found objects, cast off type from print shops, orphaned woodblocks, old seals whose owners no longer use them. The propaganda poster and the new year poster are also rescued from a forgetful and careless present. The least valorized objects, the most transitory, find their way into Zheng Xuewus work, and take on new life there. Everything that is sacrificed to some human process using print as a medium is recast in this project as art, valuable in itself. The group portrait of Red Army veterans, gathering dust on a domestic shelf; the god of wealth pasted to a door post, becoming discolored and tattered as the year advances; opera masks, dragons heads, city walls, and words, words, words: all are brought back to life as parts of these painstakingly assembled new pictures.
The sense of intimacy and affection for the concrete that is achieved by Zheng Xuewus work is not its only dimension. These compositions can be interpreted as a unity, each with its theme and purpose. Perhaps Zheng Xuewu has a favorite interpretation for each picture; so do I. So, I am sure, does every viewer who pauses before one of his pictures, first arrested by the color and the large shapes, then becoming fascinated by the tiny elements from which the picture is made. But to interpret these works as messages, with meanings and structures, is once again to abandon print, that in-between world of signifying, repeating, combining, and re-combining that Zheng Xuewus work reveals as so rich, so diverse, and so very lively. It is here that the greatest pleasure of this work, and of the lives full of print that we all lead, can be found.
Professor, Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago , U.S.A.