Zhao Yiqian: Returning to Modernism to Seek the Potential of Painting in the Era of AI

TEXT:by Mengxi, edited (EN) by Sue    DATE: 2024.4.30

From April 12 through to May 31, 2024, artist Zhao Yiqian’s latest solo exhibition “The Garden of Eden” is held at Shixiang Space in Beijing. With Xu Ziyi as the curator, this exhibition focuses on the latest exploration of Zhao since 2023, including the two series “ADAM” and “EVE”. As shown in the Chinese title of this exhibition, “CHOSEN ONE ELECTRO- META-” and its Chinese homophony of “Garden of Eden”, indicates the artist’s thinking on the ontology of painting. These reflections, on the one hand, come from his practical experience at the technical, formal and thematic levels for many years; on the other hand, they are also based on his observations from a broader historical and technical dimension—especially the digital image generation that relies on the ever-changing digital technology, which has inspired Zhao Yiqian to think about technology, image production, the “chirality” and materiality of painting and further to rethink the essence of painting.

01 Exhibition View of THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo.jpg

02 Exhibition View of THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo.jpgExhibition View of “THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo”

According to curator Xu Ziyi, the title is not only an interesting homophony game of words, but it also contains a more extended interpretation: “chosen ONE” corresponding to Neo, the “savior” chosen in the movie The Matrix (1999), “he” in the Matrix, “is the remainder in iterative operations and a collection of bugs generated by system calculations. Each version of Neo seems to be awakened or dissociated from the rule of Matrix, but it is actually a part of the calculation. Neo is both a collection of bugs and the Matrix’s collection of calculation errors.”1

“One” is a “Neo”-style existence, which means a “bug” that exerts a unique effect on the system like a “catfish.” It acts swiftly and wittingly among human instructions, technical logic deduction, and even the final process of generating images, that is, the entire production process of new image “text—large model—generation of image—painting” summarized by Xu Ziyi. Specifically, in the “ADAM” series, the combination of pictures that makes people feel strange, novel and contradictory like a “bug”, has attracted Zhao Yiqian to conduct experiments and discussions in his paintings. However, in these depictions of “ADAM” that appear to have a classical temperament at first glance, Zhao still insists on involving the inherent materiality of oil painting on canvas, such as brushstrokes and textures,which becomes indispensable in depicting the birth of a new “ADAM”. It thus provides Zhao’s answers to some key questions, such as, in the face of new methods of image generation, what else can a painter do? What is the irreplaceable nature of painting?

03 The Opening Ceremony of THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo.jpg

04 The Opening Ceremony of THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo.jpgThe Opening Ceremony of “THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo”

“Electro-” and “Meta-” with original and initial meaning in the title, are intended to remind the audience that the exhibition contains two worlds: the “electronic world” that is rapidly iterating, and the material world represented by easel paintings. The artist has tried to explore some “meta” attributes that still exist in plastic arts, especially graphic paintings between the two worlds mentioned above. Its existence or not is just like the story of human history and the future derived from biblical stories, “Garden of Eden”, where infinite possibilities surge.

Zhao Yiqian tends to combine his love for classical art, personal memories and daily experiences with his reflections on the current world in his previous paintings, while integrating them into his own artistic expression. Fragments picked up from old photos, classic art, and pop art combined with the visual memory of Chinese cities in the 1980s and 1990s were reconstructed and organized into paintings by Zhao Yiqian to explore the relationship between images in different historical spaces. Meanwhile, new surreal, humorous and dramatic images that are unique to Zhao Yiqian are constructed in these conflicts.

Regarding the new series of work, Zhao attempts to further break through his known experience and begins to transform from figuration to abstraction. This natural transformation process is partly motivated by his desire to escape from the historical timeline as well as his past creative habits. For him, his previous works, “whether they were derived from art history or historical images, are still relatively familiar visual experiences to people. But in my new series, I have almost completely broken this old relationship.” "Even though the patterns in the “ADAM” and “EVE” series seem to be familiar, it is difficult for them to obtain the accurate source from art history or historical origin with quasi-classical compositions and models.

05 ADAM-01-blue-03, Oil on canvas, 150×150cm, 2023.jpgADAM-01-blue-03, Oil on canvas, 150×150cm, 202306 ADAM-01-blue-01, Oil on canvas, 40×30cm, 2023.jpgADAM-01-blue-01, Oil on canvas, 40×30cm, 202307 Exhibition View of THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo.jpgExhibition View of “THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo”08 Exhibition View of THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo.jpgExhibition View of “THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo”

While deepening his thinking about painting and technology, Zhao Yiqian has gradually realized that at least before modernist painting, almost all the iterations of images are based on the progressive logic of known experience. Similar experiences include the training of academic skills that he has received from the the Department of Mural Painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Whether observing catalogues, copying from masters, or sketching in real life, all of novice painters accumulate new image experience from previous visual examples as they always stand on the shoulders of art masters, learning, imitating, and accumulating experience, through which they may find their own creative paths through persistent exploration.

The generation of new images also experiences an approximate and repeated iterative process in the art history. Artists realize that we are currently confronted with a world where AI (artificial intelligence) generates images, and everyone is adapting invisibly to this new image world. The iteration of new images is characterized by that its path to innovation always seems to be accompanied by many “bugs”. “I think when there are bugs, it is actually because it wants to learn from past experience, but it cannot really learn enough to perform well. These errors generated in the process are actually like some turning point in human learning experience.” This slightly “dislocated” way of combining images has inspired Zhao Yiqian’s interest, and he tried to amplify this state and trigger a discussion in his new painting series. For example, in the “ADAM” series, there is a rather mixed structure from the chin to the neck of a certain figure, and there is a sudden “break” in the connection at the boundary of the painting.

09 ADAM-01-colour a-02,Oil on canvas,100×80cm,2024.jpgADAM-01-colour a-02, Oil on canvas, 100×80cm, 2024

10 Exhibition View of THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo.jpgExhibition View of “THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo”

The emergence of these bizarre combinations may be caused by the way that artificial intelligence  learn to paint and create images are completely different from those that human beings are cultivated. It is “familiar but not similar” to existing images in the art history. It is not restricted by art history and historical facts but it is constantly creating images that do not fully meet the expectations of Zhao Yiqian. New elements always appear in unexpected combinations, bringing about strangeness and novelty. But on the other hand, it makes him feel more hopeful that in his new work, he wants to emphasize the historical attributes that cannot be ignored in AI image generation. “A similar process also occurs in cycles on the historical timeline, just like images of classical paintings are learned from the art history, and after the invention of photography, painting experience can be gained from historical images.” Zhao hopes to propose an interrogation of the nature of painting for new modes of image iteration with traditional painting experience as his medium.

Maybe at this moment when AI technology continues to evolve and the future trend of image production is not yet clear enough, it is the most interesting occasion for discussions. Some of Zhao’s new works attempt to discuss image generation, “But painting is still painting, and what I paint is still a painting of a ‘human being’. I try to solve some problem in paintings through colors, shapes and brushstrokes. I believe that a painting created by a person can be effective in any era.”

After Zhao Yiqian graduated from the Department of Mural Painting at CAFA in 2006, he had a profound comprehension of the many creative possibilities supported by technology. However, his worries about the relationship between painting and technology became increasingly intense, which ultimately led him to choose the opposite of “new” methods—he has chosen the materiality and sensitive nature of painting, and returned to the classical, humanistic, and historical path in his creation.

11 EVE-01-pink-03, Oil on canvas, 150×150cm, 2023.jpgEVE-01-pink-03, Oil on canvas, 150×150cm, 202312 Exhibition View of THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo.jpgExhibition View of “THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo”

11 EVE-01-pink-03, Oil on canvas, 150×150cm, 2023.jpgEVE-X02-pink-01, Oil on canvas, 50×40cm, 202313 Exhibition View of THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo.jpgExhibition View of “THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo”

This choice can be detected in “EVE” as he attempts to continue the production logic of traditional images in his painting. His inspiration comes from classical art to modernism, especially the artistic creation by Picasso. Over the years, Zhao Yiqian has traveled extensively to art galleries and museums around the world, and has viewed almost every masterpiece personally. At the beginning of 2024, when Zhao Yiqian visited “Picasso in Fontainebleau” at MoMA in New York, he saw Picasso’s transition from the classical period to Cubism. The clues of the classical and Cubism coexist in his paintings, and they intertwined and collided. Picasso’s image creation, which does not rely on any image reference, sounds even more difficult and great. It impressed Zhao Yiqian, who is also in the stage of artistic transformation. Even though the highlights of modern art took place over a hundred years ago, but their strong artistic power still retains in modern art, making contemporary artists deeply aware of their own insignificance.

14 EVE-pink-01, Oil on canvas, 50×40cm, 2024.jpg

15 EVE-pink-01, Oil on canvas, 50×40cm, 2024.jpg

EVE-pink-01, Oil on canvas, 50×40cm, 2024

16 EVE-pink-04, Oil on canvas, 180×150cm, 2024.jpgEVE-pink-04, Oil on canvas, 180×150cm, 2024

17 Exhibition View of THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo.jpgExhibition View of “THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo”

How to make paintings return to their state at the beginning of the 20th century, and even return to the most touching parts then? This has become the current direction of Zhao Yiqian’s work. When he tries to clarify the essence of painting and return to painting itself, he finds that painting is actually pure. “It is just a material relationship created by one person with his own hands. It does not contain a lot of mysterious thinking, but the simpler, the better.”

Different from the technical dimension of “ADAM”, the “EVE” series embodies the image generation process from the art history. Zhao Yiqian found that he began to require himself to peel off excessive concepts, overloaded thoughts in paintings, and even give up the pursuit of “modeling”, since this requirement always contains more that do not originally belong to the essence of painting.

18 Zhao Yiqian and Exhibition View of THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo.jpgZhao Yiqian at the Exhibition View of THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo”

In the opinion of Zhao, the relationship between painting and people itself also means the relationship between people and things, that is, the relationship between people and nature. “Therefore, I believe that even if the era of AI comes, things created by human hands will still be the warmest. Paintings as objects, require the human body to participate in the experience.” Like the experience that painting has been impacted by photography, paintings seem to be making great strides in the process of being involved into the trend of new technologies. But Zhao Yiqian feels that the most valuable thing in the future will not be stored in mobile phones, it is something that people can touch deeply, as long as painting is still about the relationship between people and objects, rather than the relationship between people and the screen. “What’s more, even if the development of new technology is inevitable and it indicates the direction of historical progress, but what kind of ‘progress’ do people need? In the post-industrial era, are human beings really on the road to achieving happiness? Not to mention that the concept of progress itself deserves more discussion.”

From a historical perspective, the direction in which painting is progressing has become the key issue discussed in this exhibition. As shown in the preface of the exhibition, “If the creative context that revealed due to the ‘bugs’ appeared in the feedback loop of technology is an escaping line from cybernetics, then the distinct Picasso-style shown in the ‘EVE’ series is a regression line pointing to a certain moment in art history. Among the many reflections on the process of modernity and centrism, there seem to be two paths: one is to explore the non-centered experience, which may have become exhausted in the art world; the other is to look back on its origins and find some way to restart the discussion. While ‘EVE’ series brings out this regression line that may be based on the latter.” Just like the metaphorical inheritance relationship between the names of the “ADAM” and “EVE” series, if Eve originates from one of Adam’s ribs, does this also mean that Eve is the real feature of Adam?

Text (CN) by Mengxi, edited (EN) by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

Image Courtesy of Shixiang Space


1 Preface to “THE GARDEN OF EDEN—Zhao Yiqian Solo”

About the Exhibition

19 Poster.jpg


Dates: April 12–May 31, 2024

Venue: Shixiang Space

Address: E2/E3, Jili Art Zone, Gaobeidian, Chaoyang District, Beijing