Art Frontier|Cai Zebin: Appropriating and Translating the Classics

Vivian Wang, Art Frontier, April 30, 2018

Cai Zebin’s solo exhibition The Defense presents the artist’s exploration and practice on the language of painting. The ways in which the artist deals with space, forms and brushworks are aimed at transforming the classic approach to painting, and integrating it into his own artistic language, for the image to engender fantastic scenarios isolated from reality.


Art Frontier: The exhibition’s title, “The Defense” is eponymous of the Russian writer Vladmir Nabokov’s novel, is there a relationship between the two?


Cai Zebin: The protagonist of “The Defense” is a chess prodigy, a sensitive and isolated introvert who’s devastated by the compelling chess moves in his mind that led him to take his own life by jumping off a window. This cautionary tale, like many of Nabokov’s novels, grips the reader with its deliberate narration. The dramatic writing and Luzhin’s perplexing psychological activities he upheld resonate with each other. Chess, an important element of the novel, plays an equally important role in my works. The construct of the chess piece is quite classical, its poignant structure allows me to address issues of composition, while this series of works chronicle my understanding on the history of painting over the last two years. In contrast to the novel’s destructive resolution to avoid passion, I’ve adopted a different approach, the defense.


Art Frontier: Invitation to a Beheading is the largest tableau in this exhibition, and its forms and figurations sum up the entirety of this series. Can you elaborate on the impetus and overall ideas behind this exhibition in relation to this work?


Cai Zebin: Invitation to a Beheading is indeed the largest painting of this exhibition. It was one of the first to start, and the last to complete. This work draws inspiration from Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, and restores this classic scene of tragedy. As one of the most important works of the 19th Century, the process of rendering this oeuvre offered me a number of inspirations. In the course of making this work, Gericault collected numerous materials, he interviewed two survivors of this incident, visited patients in the hospital and observed the skin colors of the deceased in the morgue, as well as watching the prosecution of the felon, he painted the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and a number of related sceneries, in addition to restoring the form of the original raft… during this process he made numerous drawings, studies, and created various virtual scenarios… all of which provided me different angles to conceive the formation of a painting.


Invitation to a Beheading depicts a rather tragic imagery, in which its grim and solemn mood is conveyed in a subtle manner. I’ve appropriated Gericault’s process in terms of studying and dialoguing on the important components of this work, I “interviewed” the shape of various chess pieces, in particular of the pieces’ beheading on guillotine (represented as Swiss Army Knife in the painting), the various angles from which the pieces are chopped, and the reenactment of the scene … Black Crash, Harvest, The Third Countenance, The Pray Without Hooliganism, Hibernation, Leaning and Approaching, Glowing Confusion, Vision are works rendered in the process of this “interview” and observation, gearing towards the making of Invitation to a Beheading, so the elements that emerge in the painting can be addressed. The various geometric components in these works also borrow from a number of works of the Cubist era.


Art Frontier: Other than Gericault’s artistic approach, one also gets the sense that you have appropriated other artistic styles drawn throughout the history of art, in terms of composition, coloration etc., which have been integrated into your own language of painting.


Cai Zebin: What I have appropriated are the classics that appealed to me. For example, the ways in which lighting and mood are executed in a work, or the content and composition etc. The curtains in Fruits for instance, appropriates Wyeth’s Window, the hanging chess pieces are appropriations of Chardin’s The Ray. Wyeth painted the curtain as flimsy as a cicada’s wings, whereas Chardin treats still life in a full-bodied yet mellow fashion. Fruits is my attempt to combine two contrasting responses to works in one picture.


Art Frontier: Many artists’ practices try to break free from art historical influences, while your interest reveals a contrasting approach, can you explain your thoughts?


Cai Zebin: I am not familiar with other people’s ways of thinking, for me, at least in the present, I am interested in learning about the history of art, and thinking about my own works in relation to it.


Art Frontier: Although you have taken the realistic approach of figuration, while the scenarios in your paintings do not necessarily overlap with reality, by which you seem to create an alternative scenario from reality?


Cai Zebin: My works are not depictions of reality, but rather incline towards being “sensible but illogical” or visceral fantasies that restore the subject of painting, as conveyed in Nabokov’s writing. It involves a psychological response, which can be the beginning of a work, but certainly not its end, most of all, they deal with the issues of painting.


Art Frontier: The juxtaposition of these seemingly irrelevant subjects or icons seems to intensify this kind of outlandish atmosphere. What is the thinking behind the connection between objects and forms?


Cai Zebin: What my eyes perceive are often quite fragmented, which encompass the history of painting, literature, things in life and everything that comes into my vision. Moreover, there is also the spiritual eye, or what one feels. The cross-over of these aspects engenders different kinds of imaginations, as a projection of the scope of my understanding over a given period of time, but most of all, what I reflect on the most are issues pertain to the act of painting.


Art Frontier: Unlike those who aim to generate textures on the painting, your works seem to present a final outcome, which probably explains why you have left the surface relatively flat and clean - an effect that contrasts with the violence and eroticism embedded in your paintings.


Cai Zebin: I am not interested in showing texture on the paintings. Just as I mentioned in the work Invitation to a Beheading, the final outcome is perhaps distinct, but it needs a process. I haven’t thought too much about the relationship between violence and eroticism in relation to the texture of the painting.


Art Frontier: It’s quite apparent to grasp the inter-connections between the works of art within the exhibition space. Would you elaborate on the way in which the exhibition is presented?


Cai Zebin: Capsule Shanghai is rather an interesting space, I had many discussions with curator Yang Zi in the planning of the exhibition, which expands on a few notions among these works, so the way in which the show is set up meant to allow the works to resonate with each other among the spaces. Through ways of displaying the works, we hope to provide viewers with new experiences.


Notably, the three The Third Countenance transgress through different spaces, looking at any one of them, one’s peripheral vision would allow one to see the other two. The perception of them is quite similar. The Third Countenance at the entrance is the largest, a chess piece that looks like a smile imprints the first impression to the viewers, and the other works, although smaller in dimension, and The Pray without Hooliganism where the same iconography becomes a component of the painting, nevertheless offer an uncanny impression.


The middle space evolves around Invitation to a Beheading and a few smaller size works, where one grasps the intimacy between them. In addition, the sculpture in the courtyard has the same composition, which resonates with each other. The space in the back shows works that are related to the body and flowers, where Fulcrum is placed in the dressing room, a narrow space with an added small window, of the same size of those works in the front, creating an illusion, or even a voyeuristic perspective when looked at up-close.