The Defense: on Cai Zebin’s Paintings

Yang Zi

The enormous and awe-inspiring By Pretending Violent Inclinations I Gain A Safety Zone was the last painting Cai Zebin completed for his previous and incidentally first solo exhibition, “The Olive”. Against the backdrop of an orange horizon, fiercely battling chess pieces stumble and fall. A half moon of a cabbage split open down the middle postures — an overbearing peacock of a general, urging his soldiers onward. When the artist set about painting for his current exhibition, “The Defense,” he started with Invitation to a Beheading, sustaining the intensity of Pretending. Both allegorically relate the struggle of painting itself, its kinship to acts of war and destruction, with explosive forces ready to keep each other in check. The two paintings compel the viewer to hold his breath. Even darker and heavier than pieces shown in “The Olive,” Invitation to a Beheading exposes the bottom of the chess pieces, here, cut into black ovals. The weapons of perpetration stand upright or lay across, suggesting a loose rectangle. At the center of the picture, a column-like statue bows his perfectly round head as if deeply musing, reminding one of the peacock on the frontline in Cai’s previous work.


Cai’s successive canvases have not attempted such grand scale or stormy boldness, but the chess pieces have remained as forms evoked in each. Previously depicted with hard and clear-cut contours that contrasted the assembly of other items in fantastical scenes, now they appear isolated, cold, and sterile, shrouded in loneliness. At times, Cai places softer objects next to the chess pieces for contrast or balance. While not altering the basic forms of these seemingly real objects, his paintings no less depart from our daily experiences of them. This duplicitousness is tactile rather than visual. For instance, a bishop and a queen emerge from deep between the delicate petals of Nameless Flowers, forming stamen and pistil, their stigma firm and solid. In Caress, a bishop is enlarged to the scale of trophies, clasped by hands reaching out from left and right. Nails, hardly visible, merge seamlessly into the white and slender fingers. Just like the trophy they grasp, these hands appear to be carved from a pristine crystal material — ivory or some futuristic material used for 3D printing that carries no resemblance to wrinkled flesh. Using carefully crafted contrasts of light and dark, Fetish transforms the string of black malas wrapped around the queen into a fur coat, no longer hard and cold, but soft and fluffy.


The chess pieces at this stage of Cai’s practice strike one as reminiscent to Classical painting. With stocky structure, defined shading, and plain color, the figures display the opposite of the primitive and violent temperament of those in Invitation to a Beheading, which to further illustrate the point might be labeled Romantic. Being a contemporary painter, Cai’s resourcefulness with the genres of art history goes far beyond this rough categorization. One observes subtle brushstrokes of gray-green on the giant petal on the left of Nameless Flowers, obstructing its parallel movement. This method is derived from the golden age of Dutch painting, and the same could be said for his conspicuous shading. Consciously or unconsciously, Cai has placed himself between moments in the vast history of art. He combines elements of American Regionalist realism with Gothic art, or aspects of the early Renaissance masters with those of the Impressionists, mixing them for his own creative parlance. Art history has become a convenient hidden barrier that filters illusion-generating contexts and negates direct viewing. Since the task of faithfully representing objects through painting has already been deemed passé, both “The Olive” and “The Defense” draw a line between the objects depicted and their existence in reality. Yet “The Olive” has created “reality” with an approach to color favoring Fauvism, while “The Defense” employs trompe l’oeil to restore the gist of objects depicted (akin to still life and photography). Only hardly discernable details, hints of arrangements different to real life and the aforementioned restrained references to art history, are left to remind viewers that they are facing a heterogeneous surface. Cai now paints in brown and gray hues, a more discreet approach. With intricate musings afloat in his work, it’s as if the artist covets an imperceptible target in the distant woods. Repeatedly, he moves from one position to another, readjusting, aiming and then shooting, hoping to hit the bull’s-eye.


Now let’s explore the artist’s obsession for the game of chess which provides an opening to understand his creative work. Viewers can’t help but ask if the chess pieces serve as allegorical imagery. This question can be deconstructed into two more precise lines of questioning. Firstly, does the imagery function symbolically, pointing to power structures within society? Is it alluding to some tense and chaotic geopolitical situation? If so, what is that situation exactly? Secondly, contoured like Classical European statues, do the chess pieces inflect the ethical ideals born of Greek culture or the Enlightenment simply through their “noble simplicity and calm grandeur” as in the words of Winckelmann?


Cai has read The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov. Luzhin, the hero of the novel, is a chess prodigy. A sensitive and isolated introvert, he is so devastated by the soul-stirring chess moves in his head that he ends his life by jumping out a window. This admonitory story, like many others by the author, grips its readers most through its deliberate narration. Resonating with the ups and downs of Luzhin’s inner world, the dramatic style of Nabokov enraptured Cai. Like a game of chess, it has fixed rules. Somewhat conservative and restrained at first glance, this game is anything but relaxing once its players delve into it. It becomes solemn and fatal, filled with unimaginable variations that demand constant attention. Yet in the face of fervor, Cai hasn’t chosen self-destruction but adopted an entirely different strategy of defense. In other words, he has truly listened to the admonition of the novel.


Seen from the perspective of a bystander, the struggle between painter and painting is triggered by the former. Like playing ducks and drakes, the painter skillfully initiates a picture and maneuvers the painting forward in a planned direction, triggering ripples on a lake. Artistic practice, however, works in opposition to this.  To Cai, the history of art has long since detailed all possibilities for painting, and it would seem the painter is swamped by water even before he can cast a stone. In “The Olive” and Invitation to a Beheading, Cai wanted to overcome these barriers with fighting spirit and sheer force. Since in his eyes, painting can never provide as much sensual stimulation as advertisement, 3D films, or other visual forms driven by the demands of capital and desire, he now works in a more subdued way, greatly reducing his efforts in expression while devoting himself to less conspicuous and “impactful” aspects of the struggle with painting. Both being relatively still, the artist and the painting lightly probe or tease each other while staying in the safety zone. Such an approach is grounded upon the assumption that as a form of art, painting is confined in its course — a position which should be held in awe. Painting, as such, should not strive to overcome itself.


Encumbered as painting is at present, one cannot scold an artist for venturing into other territories in search of nutrients beyond painting itself or for experimenting with his findings. However, it is difficult to conduct a discourse on Cai’s paintings within any extended field, be it of ideology, value judgment, sociality or ethics. The Third Countenance, the first piece in “The Defense,” is a bishop seen from above — this silly laughing face also appears in the other two smaller paintings of the same name as well as in The Prayer without Hooliganism. Even though the form and the taste of the chess pieces have no other recourse but to return to sober classicism — “classic” in the sense of Greek and Roman art as well as the revived Neo-Classical art — Cai hasn’t forgot to laugh at himself.