Zhiming Zheng goes by Aming. A tranquil man in a frenzied and chaotic world, Aming tends to find solace away from the intense lifestyle of the City. Hidden in his studio, Aming has created a collection of artwork translated directly from his experiences. His work is honest, painful, and reminiscent of painters who have broken away from the shackles of the hegemonic current of ones peers. Full of conscious awareness for one’s own position and one who was an observer of life and one who has found agency, Aming’s work is weighty.
Aming has a developed style, guided by the emotions of an experienced hand. He comes from a tradition of portraiture in China, a discipline that has not changed quickly.
“For ten years I traveled to Tibet every year… When I lived in Tibet I never painted but my paintings reflected my time in Tibet.” After spending months living in Tibet, Aming would return to his family in Shanghai and paint impressions of his memories. The paintings are reflective. He shows us one painting of a young boy in an amusingly oversized jacket, which, he explains is normal for Tibetans, who wear oversize coats to protect themselves in the cold winter. The colors are vibrant, characteristic of watercolor, leaking and blurring into one another. The technique is masterful: Aming has a keen sense for detail, manipulating beads of colored water into highly realistic shades; the colors are vibrant and real and true to the bitter reality of Tibetan winters. Squinted eyes and fists raised to the breast are exact gestures true to life; an elder caught in momentary rumination as she walks to meet frolicking children.
After years of voyages to Tibet, he returned to Shanghai for the final time, and has not left since. An irresistible change within him inspired a new series of artwork, dramatically different from the highly realistic former series. The luster of the romantic wild was engulfed in a darkness, a reflection of something deeper within Aming’s own psyche.
“I was in pain. My subconscious knew it, I knew there was something wrong [but] I was speaking through my hands.” The new style emerged as an impression and abstraction of his body. The strong structural features of the Tibetan era disintegrated and the colors began to spill out of their natural borders. The fine features dissolved into earthen forms, eyes, nose, and mouth etched into thick clay. In one particular painting, Portrait 10, 2013, oil leaks from one nostril while a blue smoke rolls out the other. The colors of the eyes are mismatched, one in lively pain, the other tenebrous.
“I found out I had nasal cancer in 2015,” two years after Aming started this series, which seemingly anticipating the distortions and violations he would soon have to go through. While nasal cancer is one of the least dangerous cancers, it is one of the most painful to treat. Cancer is more than a malformation: anxiety and dread permeate life, seeping into thoughts at dinner, into dreams, jumping upon your mind when you wake.
“In 2016, I had chemotherapy. [The doctors] had to put a customized brace around my neck and head so I could not move. Physically it was painful. All I could do was chant Buddhist mantra… All that pain, whatever it was, I didn’t care. I just wanted to paint.”
In this period, Aming’s work is continuously dissolving borders and boundaries. Man so only exists as the outside and inside stay separated, and perhaps the distinction in Aming was fractured. As his wife would later note, he entered chemotherapy fresh and vivacious and exited like a Běijīng kǎoyā. Each day was a grueling roasting beneath hyper radiated waves, followed by sleep. What else does one do when attacked viciously, knowing that after a month the onslaught will end? Mostly, one sleeps.
“I just wanted to paint,” said Aming. “There are structures and rules I would have to follow. As a painter, I was able to paint whatever I wanted at that moment.” Sleep. Chemotherapy. Paint. “From that struggle from the pain, I started picking up the brush again. There was nothing but the pain. That’s why the features are nothing and everything is flying away. Whether there is light or whether it looks like something, it doesn’t even matter. There is no room for reflection.”
The cancer and radiation took away all of Aming’s senses. He was blinded, deafened, muted, had no taste for anything, as if he was torn from the world and thrown not into darkness but into nothingness. His reality was stripped bare and all that remained was his own being. Aming became his only source material for the canvas, an unfettered representation of the exact tortured moment he existed in, and in that moment, “I felt no pain, only joy. It was my most painful moment but also my most joyful one. A physical pain, a spiritual joy.”
Aming’s work in this period still has the mark of a master painter: the technique has been replaced by an honesty to oneself, not unlike a child’s honesty but one that had to be relearned. Those features that have flown away are suggestive shadows of a man blinded by his own body. The faces are as real as the Tibetan figures but now we are looking at artwork closer to someone’s heart. Too little do we think about the heart anymore. Our proximity to it is not a thought but a feeling, and here Aming’s heart is painted onto paper given to him as a gift, twenty years ago, by his wife who was still sitting next to him as I did this interview.
After chemotherapy, Aming began to regain some degree of sensation (well, that beyond the pain). Color began to return to his work but the clear-cut forms never did.
“I even tried to paint like I used to [in the Tibet series], but it was physically painful… I cannot go back.” For the most part, he is still blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, but now his work is not a relationship with the outside world, it is not a reflection of the experiences around him. Now, Aming’s work is a reaction to the internal wave of self-determination earned through survival.