"Nine Chinese Artists" 



China Highlights

Feature Article
  
by Leng Lin

As we look back over the last hundred years as China has moved into the modern era, it is clear the 1990's marks a period of particularly momentous change. This change can be seen in two respects. 

Firstly, whereas modern art in China over the last fifty years has struggled to "catch up" with Western modern art, reflecting a certain time dimension in its thinking about that relationship, recent art seeks to establish a dialogue with, if not a co-existence with, Western modern art, reflecting more of a spatial dimension with regard to this relationship. 

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    Art in China in the 1990's is in fact an art created jointly by China and the West. It emphasizes common issues facing both, while taking an almost anti modern stance with regard to China's drive to economic modernization.
     

Within this spatial dimension, Chinese Modern Art stepped out from its self debasing position of "catching up with the West" into a spatial dimension that resulted in a self that was fundamentally altered. From this self differentiated position, Chinese Modern Art began to conscientiously undergo a period of introspection (self reflection or self identification) on a large scale.

This kind of introspection was not simply, as in the past, a re-presentation of its history, rather, IT IS based on the needs of an increasingly global existence, an identification and differentiation of "the self" and "the other" in its increasingly intertwined relationship with the West. 

Secondly, Chinese modern art's search for a contemporary Chinese art in the West has led to a re-evaluation of its own views of history and those of the West. This new view attempts to integrate history and the West into a socialist economic framework based on new market theories and principles in what is essentially an "inner search for a contemporary Chinese art."

Art in China in the 1990's is in fact an art created jointly by China and the West. It emphasizes common issues facing both, while taking an almost anti modern stance with regard to China's drive to economic modernization.

It is full of angst and has lost any clearly defined goal. Yet, contains a complex, sensitive, if not a somewhat neurotic, enthusiastic response to the interaction of inseparable societies caught up in the process of globalization. We can see these responses clearly in the works of Wang Guangyi, Yu Youhan, Li Shan, Yue Minjun, Yang Shaobin, Liu Wei, Qi Zhilong, Zeng Fanzhi, Guo Jin, amongst others.  

In Wang Guangyi's paintings we see the utopian images of the proletariat commonly seen in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's and 1970's mixed with the enormous influence of Western culture so ubiquitous today. The object of criticism in the past has, today, become an essential component of the contemporary social scene, a seemingly unstoppable force.

Wang Guangyi attempts a kind of cultural criticism employing images of mass/popular culture from both China and the West. Without providing us with any knowledge of who or what is being criticized (the Western name brand or the proletarian images), his deconstructive compositions are critical in as much as they present us with the mere possibility that Chinese and Western cultures may in the end only cannibalize each other.

By comparison, Yu Youhan focuses his energy on interpreting the enormously symbolic image of Mao (Zedong) in a modern and sometimes misguided nationalistic context. He takes images of Mao popular from the propaganda art of the 60's and 70's (especially those meant to symbolize China's reaching out to the world's people or leading the world's people) and combines them with floral motifs from Chinese folk dress.

From the standpoint of today's pluralism, he re-evaluates the relationship between such a totalitarian authority, which was at the same time nationalist and globalist, and the society that creates and sustained such an authority. In these works, Yu Youhan has been said to be taking a deconstructivist stance whereas in fact, it would be more accurate to describe him as seeking to reinforce certain pluralistic values.

If Wang Guangyi and Yu Youhan are artists who look at changing realities in China from a larger cultural perspective, then Li Shan is an artist who looks at modern China's development from the standpoint of his own personal spiritual experience.

In Li Shan's works, Mao is often depicted with a lotus flower in his mouth. This sexual depiction of Mao deconstructs the public persona of the outside world, the Mao icon, transforming it instead into an everyday image of Mao dwelling in his own private world of feelings and emotions. Such re-reading and deconstruction of the mythical construction of Mao was particularly common in China of the 90's. 

In addition, Li Shan also painted a large number of animals and political icons. These images, often deliberately misogynist or misplaced politically, symbolize a kind of spiritual confusion in China 

Yue Minjun, Yang Shaobin and Liu Wei works express the individual. This emphasis is not only aimed at China's history of collectivism, but also at re-affirming personal values, even if extreme, in a somewhat exaggerated sense of individualism. Yue Minjun repeatedly uses himself as the subject of his paintings. He employs a variety of techniques, which are self-effacing, yet still somehow narcissistic, to express the optimistic outlook of China's young and upwardly mobile generation.

On his canvases, "the foolish smile" already assumes the deconstructing function of post-modernism. On the one hand, it dispels the notion of subjectivity while at the same time it deals with the simplification (flattening) of objective history. Contemporary life re-establishes itself based on the principle of necessity. In this sense, Yue Minjun's paintings clearly reflect the individual, as well as the practicality of China's new generation of artists. 

Yang Shaobin has gone even further down the road of individualism. He employs a kind of self-destructive technique to express his individuality. In Yang Shaobin's works, self portrait busts combine with expressive brushwork. This combination takes the desire for self salvation and almost resignedly places it in a precarious position in which the image of the self constantly seems on the verge of collapsing or going to pieces. Searching for balance in the chaos, searching for peace in the violence, it is this search that connects Yang Shaobin's art to the angst ridden outer world of everyday contemporary life.

Liu Wei, by comparison seems more intent on focusing on the non rational animal inside man. He uses short, palsied, strokes along with vivid colors in imaginary settings. In this respect, Liu Wei is a prototypical realist painter. It's just that his reality is always mixed with a relaxed joke of sorts. This is perhaps how many Chinese approach reality. He deals with difficulties and danger in a contrary manner almost randomly changing it into something it's not. Liu Wei likes to employ nudity and sex as well as nauseating or revolting images, basically anything scatological that can have a powerful psychological effect.

Even so, his paintings are executed in such a way that the overall look can be strikingly vivid, colorful, bright, even engagingly beautiful. In his works, he employs a highly individualized technique in an effort to deal with, in his own uniquely Chinese manner, many of the new challenges born out of the complexity of contemporary Chinese culture. 

Artists often avoid the challenges that arise out of the complexity of contemporary life. Qi Zhilong employs popular colors and images of today's China to avoid the shady side of this period. In his works, a kind of consumerism quietly transforms history into an antique curio meant for our viewing pleasure. Pretty and beautiful, is what Qi Zhilong is striving for in his paintings. To some degree, his works might even be said to be modern versions of a Chinese classical aesthetic. 

In many ways, Zeng Fanzhi is the opposite of Qi Zhilong, he avoids the dismal side of history, by very publicly masks himself. He uses masks to express a kind of ambiguous feeling that comes from being self-confident and yet somehow unsure of oneself. His paintings are not only metaphors for the self, but might be taken to be symbolic of modern Chinese culture as a whole. Zeng Fanzhi employs a contradictory psychology to achieve an identity in which he is both different from others yet at the same time the same as everyone else. His work expresses the unique political nature of China in the 1990's. 

Guo Jin's painting are filled with personal historical recollections and childhood memories which are meshed together in his paintings in a complex way. Children are painted as if encased in heavy neolithic bronze emanating light, almost floating postures as they display various gestures. The stark contrast hints strongly at the heavy burden of history shouldered by China's new generation. His paintings appear a kind of omen for China's newly developing culture.

The nine painters discussed above have each, in their own unique way, reflected the many changes China is undergoing as it becomes increasingly global. The complex relationship between the individual and culture revealed in their paintings have found a place irreversibly on the world map.

Even if Chinese art in the 1990's remains highly political and often nothing more than self portraiture, still these political statements and self portraits are not simply limited to the domestic situation or the self in a vacuum. They occupy a much larger space in Chinese culture, and are oriented to both the world and their nation.

The 1990's is a period of momentous change in China. China's art, as we have seen, in many subtle ways, reflects these rapid changes. 

"Nine Chinese Artists" 
b
y Leng Lin





Wang Guangyi
"Coca Cola"
1990-1994
200x200cm
Oil on Canvas



Wang Guangyi
"Virus Carrier"
1997
120x150cm
Oil on Canvas



Wang Guangyi
"Audi"
1997
200x200cm
Oil on Canvas



    Wang Guangyi
    "Nike"
    1993
    150x120cm
    Oil on Canvas


    The object of criticism in the past (Western culture) has, today, become an essential component of the contemporary social scene, a seemingly unstoppable force.



    Yu Youhan
    "Life of Mao"
    1990
    96x215cm
    Oil on Canvas



Yu Youhan
"Double Mao: Cultural Revolution" 1994
118x166cm
Acrylic on Canvas



Li Shan
"Rouge No. 1"
1991
Oil on Canvas



Li Shan
"Rouge No. 1"
1996
Oil on Canvas



Li Shan
"Rouge No. 57: Young Mao"
1994
115x200cm
Oil on Canvas



Li Shan
"Mao and the Artist No 2"
(Rouge No 69)
1994
150x180cm
Oil on Canvas



Li Shan
"Rouge Series: Goose"
(Seven Days of the Week)
1994
150x180cm
Oil on Canvas



Yue Minjun
Untitled
1997
40x50cm
Oil on Canvas


Yue Minjun
Untitled
1997
120x100cm
Oil on Canvas


Yue Minjun
Untitled
1997
120x100cm
Oil on Canvas


Yue Minjun
Untitled
1997
200x280cm
Oil on Canvas


Yang Xiaobin
Untitled
1997-1998
260x360cm
Oil on Canvas


Yang Xiaobin
Untitled
1997
230x180cm
Oil on Canvas


Yang Xiaobin
Untitled
1997-1998
360x260cm
Oil on Canvas


Liu Wei
"You Like Me No 3"
1997
50x100cm
Oil on Canvas


Liu Wei
"Swimmers"
1994
150x200cm
Oil on Canvas


Qi Zhilong
1998
200x180cm
Oil on Canvas


Qi Zhilong
1998
200x180cm
Oil on Canvas


Qi Zhilong
1998
65x44cm
Oil on Canvas


Zeng Fanzhi
"Self Portrait"
1996
180x200cm
Oil on Canvas


Zeng Fanzhi
"Masks, No 8"
1996
170x140cm
Oil on Canvas


Guo Jin
"Fantastic Wooden Horse"
1994
145x114cm
(Triptych 1 of 3)
Oil on Canvas


Guo Jin
"Fantastic Wooden Horse"
1994
145x114cm
(Triptych 3 of 3)
Oil on Canvas


Guo Jin
"Merry Children No 2"
1996
184x145cm
Oil on Canvas



Chinese Type Contemporary Art
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