Zheng Yuande

'Private rites' oil on canvas, 1994, 92 x 92 cm

‘Private rites’
oil on canvas, 1994, 92 x 92 cm

Painter Zheng Yuande was the first Malaysian artist of the year-long Malaysia-Australia Visual Arts Residency at Rimbun Dahan, in 1994.


yuandeYuande is a distinguished artist who has had a notable career since the 1980s. He is perhaps most known to collectors for his Chinese Opera series of paintings from the 1980s and 1990s. In the years since then, Yuande has ventured to concentrate more on 3D molded metal art works, which are unique in their focus on the fluidity and movement of the human body, rather than concentrating on static beauty and aesthetics.

Exhibition Catalogue Essay

by Chu Li

The Echo of Light and Shadow

The echo between light and shadow is not an unfamiliar language in art.  Through the years, Zheng Yuande has developed this language in his paintings and sculpture by manipulating inter-personal space, feeling, mood and the body language of his subjects.  His topic remains the same: the backstage drama of the Chinese opera, the rarely seen moments of tension and release of the actors and actresses backstage, though Yuande is no longer interested in capturing the ‘real face’ of the Chinese opera.

More than ten years ago, he was painting the shifting faces of this unique art form.  His passion for the opera has taken him through three artistic phases.  He started by capturing the sound , the colours of the stage and the story line, the stylized masks and make-up, the symbolic gestures.  This phase did not last long, and he moved o to paint the hidden colours in the life of the performers backstage.  The third stage is a deeper study of is subject matter in attempting to express on canvas the silent thought so the actors just before or after a performance.  ‘He Who Was the Hero Just Now!’ won for the artist the National Art Gallery’s Young Contemporary award in 1985.

In 1994, Yuande was awarded a Petronas Art Salon Young Contemporaries Prize for his painting, but Yuande knows that an artist does not paint merely for awards as the involvement in his art is total.  In the early days, he was more concerned with the psychology behind the movement of every character by understanding subtle hints of colour and plays of light and he has now moved onto more subtle challenges in his art evolution.

The language of Silence is the language of Light and Shadow.  Every artist knows that Light, the giver of presence, casts a shadow belonging to Light, and in between this Light and Shadow is the realm of Silence: in the heart of Silence is the Echo.  This is the art of Yuande in his current Chines opera series.  One cannot help feeling that the young artist is using the opera more and more as a metaphor, for he is no longer interested in painting the real facial expressions, emotions or psychology of movement; these languages have given way to the language of Echoes between Light and Shadow.

Echoes mirror their resonates loudly in Silence.  Yuande’s is a spatial language of inter-relationships between forms. and he uses it to convey his feelings, building up dark sombre tones of shade, concealing markings between layers of shade and maneuvering light within the space of shadows.

His opera figures have taken on a universal quality of old world romanticism, its mystique rested in a more mature and challenging manner.  The mastery of his medium, oil on canvas, is more complete and he cites as inspiration Rembrandt and Turner with Pre-Raphaelite colours, but he has also returned to draw upon the dynamics and ideas of Chinese calligraphy to build his paintings.

In sculpture as in painting, Yuande’s approach is minimalist in essence and calligraphic in style.  His challenge in this current series of works is to express in minimal strokes the vastness and fullness of space, rich layers of feeling and the intense resonance of echoes between Light and Shadow, paring back unnecessary strokes and colous by going back to the basics of solid and void instead of colour and tone.

His intention is to wield understatement and restraint, drawing the viewer closer to his works, so that they may discover themselves within them.  He is more aware now of forging a closer bond with his audience by withdrawing his dominance as artist, and allowing his work to declare its own presence.

Powerful silence, whose echoes speak of tone, colour, nuance and innuendo, is sure to score an impact in art as it does in life.  For the artist, this language is a challenging search for basic breathing and release, and to hold the mirror of art to the echo of Light and Shadow.  Zhang Yuande’s journal of Chinese opera is this Echo.


Chu Li is a Malaysian writer and photographer.