Feeling, thinking, pondering, creating. Sleeping, getting up, having breakfast, going to the studio. Doing, doing more, changing, reflecting. Starting again.
L21 Gallery opens the first solo exhibition in Spain by Cai Zebin (China, 1988), who presents a series of canvases with a strong autobiographical component. Through fiction, Zebin fabricates images in which the real, with its daily hustle and bustle, is held in abeyance. In his enigmatic paintings, we perceive an introspection that traps us, inviting the viewer to move towards details arranged on a meticulously crafted pictorial surface.
Turning back. Accepting the confusion that surrounds us and in which we participate. Looking, observing, recognizing, organizing. Starting, arranging some elements on the canvas, waiting, thinking.
The autobiographical element is revealed in the numerous self-portraits included in this show, and which give the exhibition its title. One of them, Self-portrait in thoughts, depicts a pensive figure in a melancholic attitude, his right hand holding his face tilted to the left. The face has become a painter’s palette, the torso a box. The elbow rests on the table, where we see pencils and a sheet of paper on which we read the word CHIMERA. A term used in mythology to indicate a being with fantastic powers, a hybrid of various animals. An appropriate symbol for this exhibition where painting is conceived as a construction of images, where furniture and bodies are assembled, and almost everything refers to the semantic field of painting: brushes, pots, candles, palettes, pencils, papers, canvases, brushes, briefcases, pins, mirrors, landscapes, self-portraits…
Painting, painting, painting. Realizing that ‘the definitive image’ is never achieved; behind every attempt, there is another one waiting. Art is a problem, always. The closer we get, the more distance we still must traverse. And so on, in a continuous displacement.
In what unexpected and unpredictable ways do emotions, thoughts and experiences converge in these canvases? While in Cai Zebin’s exhibition a reflection on the painter’s craft emerges, I think about Fellini’s film “8 1⁄2″ and Truffaut’s “La nuit américaine”. In both, their authors describe the need and passion for fiction, while showing by blending reality and imagination, how a film is made, with its portion of chaos, the multitude of people involved, and the innumerable possibilities of a story to become.
And returning to his self-portrait: the table, the head, a plant in the background and the crepuscular light that enters from a glance… all these details place us in an atmosphere dominated by melancholy, whose object, as Giorgio Agamben recalls in “Stanzas”, is “at the same time real and unreal, incorporated and lost, affirmed and denied”. In this emotional terrain, characteristic of creation, our painter gives himself up to his craft. The chimera, like painting itself, is as fantastic as it is complex and difficult to achieve.
Continuing, despite everything, freely. Enjoying the efforts, with passion. Failing again, failing better. Re-doing, re-presenting, proposing variations. Imagining. Mastering the old masters. Incorporating and letting go, at the same time.
Painting for Cai Zebin is a slow process. Although there is an important chance component, – the lightning flash of intuition -, constructing images involves conceiving a situation, bringing together apparently distant details in a process which, in the case of this artist, is never direct, linear, automatic. On the contrary, his execution is cautious, accompanied by deep meditation and each detail harbors a meaning. His painting is demanding. He arranges his elements as in a story with its protagonists, landscapes, and situations.
In another self-portrait, the painter’s box, open and turned into a torso, shows on one side, on the back of a canvas, a phrase learned from his teacher at the faculty, and on the other, on a sheet of paper, a phrase that appeared by chance on the same day he received the news of his mentor’s death. Both sentences are charged with emotions and important lessons. The main figure, in a relaxed pose with his back to an urban landscape, is surrounded by the tools of his work: a leaf, a canvas, brushes, paint, and a sketchbook and notes. On the flap there is a white and green medal, very similar to the pin that appears again and again in the self-portraits in this exhibition. It probably refers to “les palmes académiques”, the decoration awarded at the time to the Customs Officer Rousseau and with which the French painter depicts himself in his celebrated self-portrait-landscape “Moi-même. Portrait-Paysage” (1890); a genre that Rousseau himself initiated and to which Cai Zebin’s work makes explicit but not direct reference. The French artist was proudly shown with his palette (on which the names of his two wives, Clémence and Joséphine, can be read), wearing a Rembrandt- style cap and brandishing a paintbrush in his right hand. Cai Zebin is now depicted with a palette for a head and a painter’s box for a bust. Paris has been transformed into Guangzhou and the hot air balloon into a drone.
Regarding Henri Rousseau, Guillaume Apollinaire, creator of myths rather than rigorous biographies, wrote that his attachment to realism was so great that when he painted a work of fantasy, Rousseau would open the window of his studio, leaving, just in case, a way out for the wild beasts he depicted in his paintings. Cai Zebin devises strategies to get rid of realism and give himself up to fiction freely, constructing images that do not require an existing model; in a collage of elements, he composes a scene between the real and the unreal, the asserted and the denied, the animate and the inanimate, and in which the furniture can live, and the humans remain still as objects. Fiction is a mystery to be organised, to live in its details. And Cai Zebin’s paintings show us a possible way.
Remaining humble in front of the painting. Speaking of what is known. Advancing fictions in order to move away from the mute forms of reality. Emotions and feelings. Painting freely, enjoying painting. Making and thinking.
Fabricating images, detail by detail, step by step, towards a chimera.