"The richness of Cong’s work rests on his many paintings in which literature, history and nature travel together.
His own strong and rich line and landscape push even further than his master into a fusion of the East and West, with the added zest he brings to the arts of lithography, etching, and silk-screen, arts of reproduction in which he inserts still the aura of the sure hand."
"In his best works, he accepts and celebrates American culture as part of Nature itself.He is a painter of modern life who has not forgotten the Tao."
- David Shapiro, Art Critic
I have witnessed the intense calligraphy of Mr. Zhiyuan Cong both as an event and a structure: the choreography of painterly writing. One discovers in him and all his work that secret of strong “dancing,” which he learned carefully from masters such as Liu Haisu. His most usual line has the strength and tensile grace of the taut dancer. What is striking in his work is his constant effort to synthesize a tradition he knows subtly and to learn - as Liu Haisu did from Derain -- a variety of new languages that gives his work the layered sense of a triple pun. His work in its vivid opacities resists the carelessness of so much American popular culture, and yet he has been able to make a vibrant iconology of our public sports and circus-like athletics.
In Cong’s work, the learned style never detracts from the wit of a simplifying wisdom that permits him to digest the American adventure. Like his tense and profound performance in front of a community of stunned and silent students, his work juggles the most comical new symbolism with the highest standards of precision and composition. Like the Russian novelist Nabokov, who learned how to translate himself into an English without squeamishness, Cong has translated his paintings into a shockingly fresh vernacular that is still replete with ancient values. It is amusing to think of Cong’s performance as similar to the famous films of Pollok dancing a line. Cong had indeed remarked that de Kooning’s works inspires him and that in Pollok he is reminded of the active tradition in Chinese art. But he has also suggested that he is interested in the maximalism of Chinese art in which color, space, and line are never divided from “subject and feeling together”. His sympathies for Clifford Still and his staccato luminosities remind us of how much in Cong’s work is a play of the contradictions of color and speeds, but his insistence on symbol, emotion, and “aboutness” keeps him from ever becoming a reduced formalist.
His painting is never moralistic, but it is part of its charm that it emerges from such a positive and courageous pedagogue. He speaks of his own teacher Liu Haisu and the bravery of his assimilation of the nude model and fauve landscape. He has in his basketball compositions the strong courage of his syncretistic master. His admiration for Liu Haisu, however, extends to the admonition against slavishness and mere tracing. He remembers the teacher’s dictum: “Study with me --you live. Copy me-- and you will die.” His own strong and rich line and landscape push even further than his master into a fusion of the East and West, with the added zest he brings to the arts of lithography, etching, and silk-screen, arts of reproduction in which he inserts still the aura of the sure hand.
For all of his subtle traditionalism, he has permitted himself to illuminate America’s sense of violent speed and joy in the movement of powerful bodies. What is most significant is not the psychological face but the animations of the baroque bodies in display. In these works, a kind of Pop Art communality reigns. And he enjoys the possibility that some of his paintings depend upon an increased sensitivity to Chinese symbolism but elsewhere less dependence on cultural iconography reigns. But the richness of Cong’s work rests on his many paintings in which literature, history and nature travel together. He was commented on the relative weakness of some purism in our culture in which there is a Greenbergain specialization or “deep research” into singular problems of color and abstraction. In his work, I find the great pleasure often tabooed in America of illustration, illumination, and the wide vision that includes the social. After all, we recall Meyer Schapiro’s love in the 1920s for a revolutionary Mexican muralism and his appeal for a people’s art as simple as the cartoon of Daumier. Cong’s strong paintings of sports and an uncanny landscape often have the severity of a Daumier cartoon.
Like Jasper Johns tracing a Cézanne, he has the scholar’s craftsmanship to copy the master, but always to create, like Johns, a retrospective transformation. He has compared this copying, just as Van Gogh does in his letters about Millet, to the playing of the piano and the interpretation of notations. In his amazing sensitivity to rice paper and to the varieties of sizing, in his intricate attention to texture of Chinese inks and color, in his traditional knowledge gleaned from the copying of masters of innovation and mirror paintings, in his scrutiny of the arts of reproduction, he has developed, beyond any mere facility, into a modernism that is really a vision of the strongest clarity. In his best works, he accepts and celebrates American culture as part of Nature itself. These are not exactly religious paintings but they seize what he as understood joyfully as one part of urban sociology. Howard Fast once joked to a friend that it was big mistake ever to attack American baseball. Cong celebrates the rise of public man in a Taoist mood that accepts the dance of sports as one more flickering part of the eternal. He can paint with equal serenity a Tang dynasty poet and a hoop in Indiana. He is a painter of modern life who has not forgotten the Tao.