The trees are painted in carbon black ink, the colour of charred wood. A chromatic tonality that could have been achieved by gradually adding water to the ink is absent. There are no washy passages that slide from black into grey—or, to put it differently, that slide from form into non-form, like the pines transfigured into mist that we see in so many ink paintings. Instead, the black ink takes solid geometric shape.
The paper painting surface itself is parched. It is so water-repellant that it seems almost as if it is repelling the forms on it, as if the trees on it were not painted but cut from child’s construction paper and pasted on by the artist, materializing his own vision of a Matisse garden. They aren’t, though. Still, there are slices and gaps in the pictorial surface that make the analogy to Matisse’s paper cut-outs stick; pieces of paper are mounted together. The effect is dark: the painting surface looks like shards of a broken window. Sharp edges and corners overlap and amplify the stiff shapes of the triangular trees painted onto them. If this is a garden, something catastrophic has happened to it.
Zheng painted the picture in reverse, like a printmaker. He first created the black forms on the floor of his studio, then pressed the paper onto them, and then worked the back of the paper with white acrylic and water to give limited horizontal movement to the trees. Strong lines criss-cross the composition where he pushed a stiff brush into the back of the paper. Debris from the floor clings to the painting surface.
Which is to say, the lines and forms are cast into the paper. This is a radical departure from long-lived ink painting practices. However, it still abides by the notion that the thing pictured cannot be separated from the agency of the medium used to picture it. Ink brushstrokes in imperial-era Chinese thinking, as the philosopher François Jullien has shown us, embody the lines of the cosmos. Here the geometric forms so deeply imprinted into the paper do the same kind of work.
Why represent—though maybe a better word here would be constitute—a forest where the trees are scorched, bare branches are flecked with debris, and the grove is connected by gaps between the cut pieces of paper? Zheng explains that he painted Forests after the wildfires swept through the area around his home in San Rafael: “The California fire season psychologically takes its toll on everyone’s mind and you can’t get away from it—you feel it in every part of your body. I painted this after visiting a basin in the redwood forest by Santa Cruz. The trees were gone. It was apocalyptic.”