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					CHINA CONTEMPORARY PAINTING New perspectives in the contemporary chinese painting Text by Eleonora Battiston
This book, presenting a selection of works by twenty or so of the most outstanding contemporary Chinese painters, arises from the combination of two different perspectives. The first – encompassing a broad and more international context – strives to provide a Chinese answer to what has become a global trend in recent years: the painting 'revival', the rebirth of the most classic art form that had been deserted for some time in favour of a more conceptual, technological and avant-garde genre. The second instead takes a more intrinsically Chinese standpoint and involves assessment of even broader fields and issues, setting off from the premise that painting in China was, right since its ancient origins, watercolours and inks on supports such as silk or rice paper – by contrast to the Western oils and canvas, which are now explored through the experimentation of these skilled Chinese artists. The painters presented here do not share a precise common denominator. In fact it is interesting to observe how each uses and interprets this genre in a most different way, thus making it very topical and loaded with countless possibilities. They are the creators of works offering us a cross-section of and insight into contemporary Chinese art through manifold perspectives on this new painting genre from afar. The beginnings: the first steps towards Realism Experimental Chinese painting was, in the 1990s, already influence by two important factors: the significant social, political and economic changes of the period, and the Avant-garde artistic movement that had emerged the previous decade. In the 1980s, experimental painting was dominated by Formalism and by processes attempting to avoid academicism in order to go beyond the Realist approach seen in China in the mid ’50s. This was imitation of Soviet Social Realism and subject to the Chinese political climate of the time – the same Realism that reached its peak in the 1960s. In fact, during the period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1979) with its open-door policy, the reason for and role of art both became political instruments, so much so that art totally surrendered to political dictates. The outcome was a pseudo-realist style that, conserving the essence of academic Realism, ended up restricting artist creativity. The principles established during the Cultural Revolution continued to be an unquestionable doctrine for art schools through to the end of this period in history. The Avant-garde advances The Avant-garde movement first appeared in the mid 1980s and began its approach to experimentation by drawing on the above academic criteria. With the first steps towards reform and an opening up to the outside world, the impact with modern Western art first began to be felt, resulting in the Chinese art schools becoming avantgarde centres. The various forms of modern Western art constituted the main sources for a nonacademic approach, but in truth these first examples of 'experimentation' with modern art were closer to 'imitation'. Nevertheless, the essence of this superficial imitation resided in the desire to rebel against the strict academic tradition for reasons of personal emancipation and artistic freedom. Thus the Avant-garde movement first came into being in China as reproduction and later as raillery of Western modern art.
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It was only towards the end of the 1980s that modern artistic styles with their own Chinese identity began to appear. These styles stressed ancient elements, forms and themes, combining foreign Modernism with native traditions. The development of art took root, as always, within the welldefined context of historical circumstances. Modernisation became increasingly synonymous with Westernisation and hence the artist’s activity was conditioned by two principle factors: - a society where practically the only master was the State, resulting in the subsequent lack of innovative or alternative creative support; - the ideological and philosophical confusion caused by the arrival of the West, with its different values, experiences, history... Increasing individualism The New Generation artists had not been receiving specific training in academic Realism since the late ’80s, but they were nevertheless influenced by the Realist art of the immediately preceding generation. Their preoccupation derived from and focused on personal experience, and the Realist painting approach gave them the means to express themselves in the most individual of manners. The New Generation artists once again turned their eyes to real life, this time however focusing specifically on urban life. They observed and recorded this reality first-hand rather than describing the idea. Nonetheless, theirs was not simply a return to Realism. Whilst in the 1980s an attempt was made to enhance the worth of personal creativity through criticism of the previously imposed forms and styles, the early ’90s saw artists striving to demonstrate the importance of their own messages through individual artistic stances. Many of these artists made their debut at the beginning of the 1990s, parallel to the switchover to a market economy. The desire was that to express their individual efforts and to demonstrate both a clear social conscience and sound moral judgement. The avant-garde nature of this new generation lay in each artist’s reaction to the changing social situation. Modern society began to emerge and the urban aspect – focused on by the New Generation artists – gradually became the underlying theme in modern Chinese art. The artists began to depend less and less on established Western models and instead to channel their attention to personal and real experience. The dominion and force of the Pop movement The idealistic vein and dynamic socio-political challenge both grew in strength in this period, and the leading artistic expression of this spirit became what is known as POLITICAL POP. This genre made its first appearance in the 1990s and became a widespread and important phenomenon, particularly in Hubei province. This approach sprang from appropriation of Western Pop Art concepts. However, the icons of American culture were replaced with elements from the propaganda posters extensively seen during the Chinese Cultural Revolution – thus suggesting a time-space shift concerning prominent visual themes. Hence the blending of Pop Art and Chinese iconography was achieved. Differently from the ’80s Pop painting style, the symbols that artists began to use in the 1990s were not simple propaganda illustrations but rather excerpts from daily life and history, aiming to narrate and to describe. The works by these artists began to be seen on the international art market. They enjoyed significant success abroad, yet this meant that Political Pop was the sole representative of the Chinese Avant-garde in the West, embodying the typical post-colonial Chinese culture. Whilst Political Pop was gaining importance abroad through increasing attention from critics and more numerous exhibition spaces, it was practically unknown at home and its influence very limited. Stylistic pluralism As far as other styles are concerned, marked socio-political criticism continued to be found in artworks whilst at the same time depictions remained anchored in the academic style or in Western Modernism forms. Artwork contents were therefore difficult for foreign critics to comprehend.
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From a certain standpoint, the nature of Political Pop demonstrated how Chinese social change affected and influenced the artistic Avant-garde. It of course changed the direction of experimental art, bringing both the academic tradition and imitations of the West to a close. The REALISM of the New Generation artists – with its characteristic direct use of images and old photographs acting as witnesses to the past, and its nostalgic air – was entirely different to the orthodox approach of art schools. EXPRESSIONISM, which emerged in China in the mid ’80s, gradually distanced itself from selfexpression and Formalism leanings and began to focus on real experience, including daily life and visual observation. Instead ABSTRACT PAINTING, given that it was the main form of modern Western art, never played a prominent role in the Chinese Avant-garde in as much as it lacked not only a suitable historical context but also a commonly shared sensitivity. Its only application was for the purposes of stirring a reaction from the public. Although ’90s experimental art kept its sights on representation, Abstract Painting brought some changes and was in any case influenced by a new burst of energy. This form of painting remained primarily governed by a mixture of personal language and contemporary visual experience. Its Modernist approach was then gradually replaced with casual brushstrokes overlapping jarring colours and graphic marks giving canvases with a grotesque air. Western Modernism and Chinese Academicism Whether considering Expressionism or the Abstract, the source of contemporary Chinese artistic language resides in both modern Western art forms and the Chinese academic painting tradition. The great intellectual, philosophical and creative upheaval of the last twenty years has arisen and expanded from the 'dilemma' between Chinese painting heritage and awareness of a new contemporariness. Political Pop, during a subsequent phase and guided by a climate of confusion and an air of depression, took on increasingly defined overtones, laying the foundations to the dawn of GAUDY ART. The difference between Political Pop and Gaudy Art resided, in terms of form, in the fact that the first used painting techniques taken from the Pop style, whilst the latter drew on non-painting graphic forms heralding the start of the post-painting era. Gaudy Art has often been accused of being second-rate and unrefined, with its works marked by garish colours, simple images and structures contrasting with the painting conventions and themes taken from daily life. This genre failed to produce well-known artists or works also due to the fact that repulsion for art forms bringing success was one of its principles. It was soon contaminated by other forms, such as photography, video and installations. Experimental painting developed along two different paths from the mid 1990s: one in the direction of Post-Modernism, and the other towards conceptual painting. Culture, politics and society became, with time, of greater interest to artists, resulting in NEOREALIST or NEO-FIGURATIVE painting. The personal experience and daily life that had stimulated the artists of the previous decade gradually returned to see them offering a decidedly political slant. Neo-Realist painting endeavoured to desert Avant-garde and self-expression forms in favour of explicit social awareness. Artists began to underline the difference between the group experience and personal memory, showing human change in the direction of a noticeable loss of spirituality. In any case, the political detachment typical to the Maoist propaganda period no longer transpired, and awareness of being single and individual persons encompassed in a group reality – and more precisely an 'urban' one – soon emerged. Photographic painting and recent perspectives in Chinese painting The 1990s was a decade of profound change for China. This nation seems to have gone through the switchover from the pre-modern to the post-modern in merely ten years. In these circumstances, and as a consequence of artists’ compulsion and aim to comprehend and to respond to such enormous changes, painting emerged as a spiritual reflection of the contemporary Chinese reality. Artists did not attempt to make ethical judgements and instead often speculated on history and reality; Neo-Realism, with its narrative potential, showed distinct advantages in this context.
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The most recent and currently in vogue trend is undoubtedly still the Realist one, which has been identified and named PHOTOGRAPHIC PAINTING due to its direct link with photography. On these tracks, MA LIUMING shows her own self-portrait overlapping the bodies of newborns on what are often monochrome canvases lacking in additional background elements, drawing attention to the absence of a precise spatial location. Each work is different to the next although the subject remains the same. These depictions of herself conceptually indicate the artist’s potential alter egos, clones or a sort of self-proliferation. HE SEN’s works spring from the camera capturing an instant of raw reality, a spontaneous action, a flash of private everyday life. His desire to recreate a scene, record it and keep it forever is so effective that it almost arouses embarrassment. The figures are disarmingly beautiful, yet this apparent perfection conceals lurking fear, insecurities and inner emptiness. They are stereotypes lacking soul and numbed by reality – just as he sees today’s younger generation. The two main features marking the pieces by FENG ZHENGJIE are the subjects – mainly beautiful women – and the shocking colours. The chromatic choice originates directly from Gaudy Art, which accentuates the bright tones of Western-derived Pop Art. Instead, the female faces play on the contrast between cold dehumanisation and disturbing sensuality. The former is created by an empty unreal gaze and the latter by the softness and roundness of lines that – highly unlikely in nature – give a convincing example of aesthetic perfection that is however only possible through pictorial creation. ZHANG XIAOGANG’s works are undoubtedly those loaded with the most historical meaning. Belonging to the generation preceding that of the other artists and in many cases their painting tutor, Xiaogang was a child during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the campaign of reeducating the rural population. His are often reinterpretations of photographs from the period, using a surrealist key: the similarity and flatness of the clone-like faces seem to denounce the mass ideology imposed by the communist regime to the detriment of individualism; the grey tones allude to an atmosphere of oblivion to the past by a society so prompt to bring in swift change; and the marks on the faces hint at blood ties uniting and conforming the Chinese people. WANG XINGWEI’s peculiarity lies in the fact that he is never similar to himself. Each piece is a work in its own right, a separate world rich in an array of allusions and references not only to Chinese iconography but even more so to the art and contemporary culture of the rest of the world – and especially that of the West and its modernisation. Their basis is not founded on a single joint logic or a common viewpoint but rather different lines of interpretation. As he himself states, neither does his work aim to be “the expression of ideas”, since he says he does not have specific ideas that he explicitly wants to express. When seen together, his works are all individually incredible and yet so unlike the next that the viewer is inclined to think of crazed delirium, or the instinctive ability of a genius who manages to yield an impressive effect with whichever piece he decides to turn his hand to. Sensational is the adjective best describing the large canvases by LI DAFANG, where he often portrays himself, and in such an unusual style that it is immediately recognisable. His scenes capture fleeting moments of passing life. The inserted graphics – at times written in English and others in Chinese characters – bring to mind on the one hand the traditional mingling of ink-based painting and calligraphy so typical to past Chinese art and, on the other, comic strips. The artist strives to go beyond the simple portrayal and representation of the real, by bringing additional messages and semantic references. This is not only to encourage the onlooker to reflect but also each time to question his being. SHI XINNING ironically merges images taken from newspapers with the omnipresent icon of Mao. The glazed and pandered air is that taken from the mass media populated by stunning women and powerful men who, with their great popularity and ability to stir dreams, are superimposed on the persuasive force of the old Mao propaganda posters. The paintings – often in black and white – are reminiscent of newspaper pages, with space/time lags and the perception of a need striving to go beyond appearance in order to unveil the contents that still rouse each individual’s emotions.
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The paintings by FU HONG are momentary flashes of outdoor settings – parks, streets and building walls – yielding blurred images engulfed in fog or taken by moving video cameras. The perspective is often close up, whilst inanimate details gather all the vibrations of the surrounding context. The artist uses a direct painting technique that initially appears uncouth but that is instead thick and three-dimensional, by contrast to the flat photographic images. The most real and photograph-like canvases are unquestionably those by YANG QIAN and they in fact belong to a body of work that is both pictorial and photographic, with shots immortalising the same subjects. The images often depict women captured during private moments (generally in hotel bathrooms or bars) and whose bodies are reflected in mirrors – prominent items in the construction of identity whilst also instruments of filtered projection bordering between illusion and reality. And these steamed-up mirrors often offer a mobile phone number – that individual password and ID element belonging to an anonymous but specific personality in the present era. XIE NANXING’s canvases convey a sense of mystery and fear, as if something were about to happen, as if a precise moment were to be immortalised through photo-realism that however leads to a semi-dreamlike dimension. In-depth psychological analysis performed by the artist on his own daily life emerges from behind these bright sharp canvases. A fundamental presence in the works by ZHANG XIAOTAO is the allusion to sex and sexuality through subjects such as mating frogs, fish and other animals swimming among floating condoms suspended in a sort of placenta or seminal fluid. For compositional technique, he turns to blurred tones and mottled surfaces, with background repetition of tiny images such as men and women in Kamasutra positions acting as decorative motifs. Colours are vivid and the spirit ironic yet controversial. ZHOU TIEHAI’s pieces are extremely different, both in terms of technique and the subjects in his Placebo series. The technique is airbrushing using acrylic colours reminiscent of graffiti and 'bad painting' but with the sophistication of technical precision and careful attention to colour. The Placebo series offers reproductions of well-known Renaissance and Victorian masterpieces with camel heads replacing faces: Joe Camel – his hallmark icon – brings to mind a well-known brand of cigarettes and is loaded with symbolic meaning. In his Movie Stars series the artist also mimics the importance of advertising, this time imitating ’80s posters with their typical Chinese beauties. Two-dimensionality is a prominent feature in the paintings by ZENG HAO where tiny people, items of furniture and objects are scattered – without following any apparently logical order – on monochrome canvases reminiscent of children’s drawings. The essential concept of his work lies in a vision of reality where Man does not dominate everything else – as instead our culture leads us to believe – but is an element on equal footing with all the other objects present in everyday life. The genre closest to the work of WEI GUANGQING is Pop Art, and particularly that branch known as Cultural Pop. All his works in fact have their roots in Chinese culture with constant metaphors and tales taken from ancient poems and literary classics. However, these references are offered in extreme terms in relation to contemporariness – which in turn is distant on time and concept levels, yet mysteriously attracted to history. The relationship with the past is also to be found in WU YIMING’s figures: past characters such as princesses, soldiers and generals emerge from a distant, almost mythical and now faded dimension. The artist has erased their faces, leaving them an aura of glory whilst throwing them into oblivion as if suspended in a dreamlike dimension. They are now ghosts influencing the present and leaving the artist – the messenger of his times – with a great sense of pride but not a full understanding of the great past of his own country. ZENG FANZHI is more ironic yet also more controversial. He is a “mask artist” as he chooses to define himself: the characters in his early works stand out for their distorted colours, deformed eyes and caricature-like features, as if wearing masks instead of faces. More recently however, his artistic quest has moved increasingly closer to the abstract and the negation of form. In asserting his own stylistic freedom, he in fact paints faces using messy and circular marks tracing constant spirals. This destructuring is so pronounced and rhythmic as to powerfully move the onlooker.
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Last but certainly not least, we find LI SONGSONG, whose often black-and-white canvases with a noticeably matter-like aspect are for the most part taken from photographic images. The source image is broken up with a grid and reproduced in enlargements using chequering that fails to reveal object outlines to the viewer on initial impact, allowing them to be discovered if observed from a distance. This process detaches us from reality, but in terms of expression the disappearing and reappearing stimulates our memory – that intangible dimension that the photographic medium attempts to freeze and immortalise. Freedom, the ability to interpret a style and the will to express one’s own personality are therefore the premises for this investigative and analytical assessment aiming to draw attention to new and different perspectives – perspectives that, in the context of contemporary Chinese painting, in turn reflect the personal qualities and leanings of these single human beings and individual artists.

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