Mai Cheng Zheng and the Master Narratives

Many of the works in contemporary art pull away from the master narratives and lead us off into the myriad subtleties that edge and permeate civilization. Often arcane, challenging and eclectic, these works go to the margins of culture and conceptualization. They frequently skirt myth, archetypes and emotional directness to explore the channels of the topical, pop, hi-tech world; or perhaps to advertising and the commercial aspects of material and social culture.

These at once distant and immediate parts have led us to the place where the Spencerian notion that all art is symbolic and discursive has collapsed under the dual weight of history and logic. Spencer's corollary, that art gives language to the emotions, remains valid. All too often, however, these parts lead us to dry places, and we are fading from the center.

In the art of Mai Cheng Zheng, we are returned from dry channels to the place of the master narrative, to the mythic and archetypal. Although primarily expressionist, her art demonstrates a formidable versatility in its range to the abstract and its simultaneous success in addressing primal emotions, and states of being and intellect.

In 1981 Cheng encountered an Edvard Munch exhibition at China's National Gallery. Three years later, she moved to Munch's native Norway to study and paint, and in 1992 saw 100 of her own works featured in a solo exhibition at the same National Gallery in Beijing.

Cheng has developed a unique visual vocabulary that incorporates bold strokes and elemental symbols from the beginning and depth of language. These elements appear in frequent combination with Chinese calligraphy that varies from the tightly formal to ephemeral and vaporous.

Her use of color is equally striking; it is often simultaneously subtle and dazzling. At other moments, one feels that the coolness of Norway has washed across her palette. Thus, as elements of line, language and color coalesce on canvas, our eye passes through the physical encounter, and the deeper image of the master narrative is imprinted on our consciousness.

"I want to capture the spirit of water in my paintings and designs. Water is life, history and culture," comments Mai Cheng Zheng and notes a line from Lao-tzu: "The supreme character of man is like water."

In Fire and Water and Water and Fire, the two paintings are at once complementary and oppositional. We find an immense liquid turbulence and a deeper setting; a discernible plane of horizon may appear, as do lightning, roots, infinity, and rhythm as expressed by waves or loose geometric lines.

In contrast, one can turn to L'eau a une Histoire and discover a peaceful balance. Here, the palette is cool, and a rhythmic grid stretches across an ancient wall. Order is present in the form of calligraphy and the wall; there is something to return to, and water is always near.

In some of Cheng's works, one finds an unusual translation of vertical space that is derived from traditional Chinese art. This treatment of space is heightened by the inclusion of a single vertical line of calligraphy.

A sexual dynamic can also be present; a primal black line may plunge through a blue field. Or, order is inverted on another canvas - rhythm continues in a different mode, and we are reminded that yin and yang are but two aspects of one nature.

Disturbing, elemental, eroding, forthcoming, reflective and unveiling - these are all aspects of water, and attributes that are also to be discovered in the visual master narratives of Mai Cheng Zheng.

Roy Williamson

This review was written by Roy Williamson during Mai Cheng Zheng's exhibition in the Espace Bateau Lavoir (Pablo Picasso's former studio) in Paris in September 1994.

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