The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Monday, February 20, 2012

Sugar and Spice Sichuan Style: 'China's Decade' at Ray Hughes Gallery

Wan Yang, Game No 2: Fortuitous Encounters in the Forest, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 150 cm, image reproduced with the permission of Ray Hughes Gallery

Ray Hughes, that somewhat Rabelaisian, larger than life fixture of the Sydney artworld, first travelled to China in 1998. Since then he has been a regular visitor to the studios and galleries of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and, most recently, Chongqing, that vast city of 38 million people on the Yangtze River in Sichuan Province. It is now well known that it was at an exhibition at Ray Hughes Gallery that Judith Nielson, the founder with her husband Kerr of the White Rabbit Gallery and its significant collection, first encountered contemporary Chinese art. While she has since developed her own networks of artists and advisors, it is due to her chance encounter with artist Wang Zhiyuan and the energy and excitement of Chinese art at Hughes’ Surry Hills Gallery that a new and vital force was unleashed onto the Sydney cultural scene.

Something of a maverick, Hughes’ determination to run his own race in the sometimes pretentiously self-conscious Sydney artworld is what makes him such an interesting character.  He is interested in “the next generation, the next ‘new thing’ “, he tells me when I visit the gallery to see the group show ‘China’s Decade’ together with a show of new work by the painter Li Jun. A curious title for the show, given that many works date from the late 90s, but there is no denying the accuracy of the statement in today’s global context. Hughes was expansive and animated, describing his visits to Sichuan (and the hot pots eaten in the mountains with the artists, teachers and art students, of course!) and the way that the artists he admires there are focused on moving art beyond the limited scope of the ‘Political Pop’ movement of the late ‘90s, re-examining their own pre-revolutionary Chinese history. They are developing a new visual syntax which incorporates Western influences with a confidently global, international outlook.  Their references to Chinese art and craft traditions are sometimes subtle and veiled, sometimes overt.
Luo Brothers, 'Welcome Welcome!', fibreglass and paint.
Image reproduced courtesy of Ray Hughes Gallery
This is not to say, however, that the brash wit of Political Pop is altogether absent. The work of the Luo Brothers, who have been shown in Sydney by Ray Hughes since his first forays into Chinese art, is typical of the style. As well as the highly recognisable icons of consumer desire – such as the gaudy fat ‘good fortune’ fibreglass babies reclining smugly on cans of Pepsi that we see in this show – there is also a series of pencil and charcoal drawings. The three works in ‘The 100 Family Names Primer’ series represent a baby, a young female in Red Army uniform, and an old worker, all with their jackets covered in Mao buttons and backed by revolutionary flags. The title is presumably a reference to the ‘Old Hundred Names’, the ordinary working people of China who propped up the revolution and are now propping up the country’s growing wealth and industrial might in the factories of the Pearl River Delta. Other works by Feng Zheng-jie and Qi Zhilong which date from the late 90s and early 2000s work the familiar seam of Red Army ballet dancers and Maoist imagery with engaging verve and confidence. There are those in China, such as the Canadian Martin Kemble of the respected Shanghai ‘Art Labor’ Gallery who see the continuing popularity of this style in the west as a kind of ‘Chinoiserie’ or orientalism, which Chinese artists are pragmatic enough to happily profit from. There is no doubt some truth in this. However, despite the fact that younger artists (and many of the older generation as well) have moved away from this somewhat obsessive gnawing at the bone of the Cultural Revolution, these works still exert a fascination in their relentless exposure of the contradictions of this ‘new’ China as it moves towards global dominance.

Hang Bo’s series of photographs, ‘No. 6 They’, ‘Middle School’ and ‘No.  5 They’ exemplify a very different approach to the business of ‘being Chinese’ and making sense of history. His method is to take ‘found’ images, poignant group photos of young Pioneers, soldiers or work unit comrades from the time of the Cultural Revolution, and then re-photograph the same (living) subjects in the same arrangements. Quietly arresting and very moving, ‘No. 5 They’ contains a number of empty chairs, and one inevitably begins to speculate as to the reasons for the absences.

Of most interest to me were other more idiosyncratic works such as Wang Yuping’s oddly tentative ‘Untitled’, a mixed media work on paper.  A faceless figure, sketchily and loosely rendered, tenderly holds a small black bird on its hand. Reminiscent of ink drawings by Joy Hester such as ‘Girl with Hen’ or the ‘Lovers’ series, in which faces are partially or totally obliterated, the work can be read on many levels and suggests the vulnerability of both the natural world and of human connections. Ji Dachun’s large canvases, in which mundane objects such as electric light bulbs and shoes appear to float against a light coloured ground, are also strangely compelling, making subtle references to Western modernist conventions of abstraction, colour field painting and expressionism. There is a Zen sensibility though, of weightlessness and quiet meditation, which makes these works repay a second look, and then a third.
Wang Yuping, Untitled, 1998, mixed media on paper, 102 x 69 cm,
 image reproduced with the permission of Ray Hughes Gallery

The highly respected senior painter Liu Xiaodong, who will be remembered by Sydney audiences for his monumental  paintings of migrant workers building the Three Gorges Dam shown at a Sydney Biennale some years ago, is represented here with a work from 2002, ‘Unknown Pleasures’. A solitary figure, seen from the rear, smokes a cigarette, quietly observing a street scene. Large, ornate, brightly coloured floral wreaths are arranged along a bicycle lane in front of the kind of new commercial buildings which look ramshackle and decrepit in China before construction has even finished. There is a melancholy air about this figure observing the ‘new’ China.  Liu was apparently inspired to develop his particular expressive style after he was given a postcard of a work by Lucien Freud. When you look at the way he paints flesh, especially in those earlier paintings of migrant workers at the dam site eating lunch in their underpants, or young girls lying on seedy bare mattresses, this makes perfect sense. There is a sense of melancholy and a hint of menace lurking behind the seductive and luscious painterly surface.

I was intrigued by Zhou Siwei’s mixture of ‘spice and sugar’ in works such as ‘Infection Bambi ‘ paintings, part of a larger series of ‘cartoon nostalgia’ which includes ‘Infection Mickey’ and ‘Infection Astro Boy’. Drops and splatters of paint create stylised images which are intended, the artist says, to return viewers to the state of their wide-eyed and optimistic youthful selves. Rather unnervingly though, Bambi appears to be decomposing, so the work rather suggests the impossibility of returning to that charmed childhood state, and instead suggests that popular culture is toxic to those who consume it. The artist has said that his work is there to be ‘infected’ with all the various interpretations and ideas that the viewer may bring to contemplating it. Zhou studied at the influential Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing. This city is, Hughes believes, at the centre of innovative art in China. Zhou represents a generation who have little interest in, or direct experience of, the Cultural Revolution that provided so much of the imagery employed by the first wave of contemporary Chinese artists and avidly ‘consumed’ by Western audiences. In this he reminds me of Lu Yang, a young artist I met in Shanghai last year, who told me she has no interest whatsoever in being identified or defined as a Chinese artist. The limitations of national identity become  meaningless in the age of social media. These young artists are forging a new path, challenging the orthodoxies that have grown up in the last 20 years about what Chinese art ‘should’ look like. Sometimes they may seem to an (older) outside observer to be in denial, however there is no doubting their sincerity, or their determination.

As I chatted with Hughes in the gallery, though, my eye was continually drawn away from him (despite his characteristically brightly coloured shirt and tie) to the works by Chang Xugong hanging above him. Dating from the Late 90s, they represent the ‘Gaudy Art’ movement. Born in 1957 in Hebei Province, Chang uses the tradition of silk embroidery to make comment on the nouveau riche in China and their relentless acquisition of consumer goods and branded products. Like the dramatic imagery of heroic workers from Cultural Revolution Propaganda posters, these new aspirational heroes of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ appear happy to the point of lunacy, which allows just a little doubt to creep into the mind of the viewer. They  are charming rather than malicious, however -  there is affection in the mockery, rather as one might tiredly acknowledge the foibles of a relative one is really quite fond of. Many of his toothy grinning characters carry the latest accessory of urban China – a fluffy white Maltese terrier or Paris Hilton style pooch. Cars, mobile phones and television sets swirl around like the haloes surrounding Renaissance depictions of saints. These saints, though, are more likely to be performing Karaoke than miracles.
Chang Xugong, Untitled, 2000, machine embroidered satin, 100 x 80cm,
image reproduced with the permission of Ray Hughes Gallery
The delicate and beautiful works of Li Jin  an artist from Tianjing, are reminiscent of nothing so much as the drawings of George Grosz or Max Beckmann, albeit with a lighter and more humorous touch. Loose, lyrical ink on paper works depicting rather unprepossessing looking men in front of messy  tables scattered with bottles of baijiu and cut sausage, or engaged in strangely unerotic encounters with plump naked girls, they celebrate the everyday lives of ordinary and unbeautiful people – that is, most of us. Affectionate and gentle, his works present a slightly flabby and imperfect cast of characters, drawn lovingly without attempts to idealise, to beautify, or to apply Vaseline to the lens recording daily existence. In a time when the only images of ordinary flawed human beings we see are the grotesque photographs of ‘Celebs without Make-up’, or the sad and desperate on ‘The Biggest Loser’, this is very refreshing.
The exhibition celebrates Chinese art in all its rich diversity. Yes, there is Mao imagery, and the memory of the Cultural Revolution lives on in the work of many artists – how could it not? Yet there are also artists working in new techniques and with imagery that represents the bizarre and the humdrum, the beautiful and the disturbing, the humorous and also the magical aspects of life in China (and everywhere) today.

Li Jin, Accompanying Object, 2007, ink on paper, 46 x 70 cm, 
image reproduced with the permission of Ray Hughes Gallery

Chang Xugong, Untitled, 2000, machine embroidered satin, 100 x 80cm,
image reproduced with the permission of Ray Hughes Gallery