The first of my articles based on my most recent trip to China has been published today on Daily Serving. I found, amidst some awful and pedestrian shows in the 798 art district -which is really suffering from a push to make the entire space over to the sale of products and "design" (mostly tacky in the extreme) - some wonderful exhibitions. Indeed on my first visit an exhibition by an artist I have met several times, Ma Yanling, was an unexpected delight. Later, Xu Zhen at Ullens and Xiao Yu at Pace were thrilling in the way that one always hopes for, but is so rare an experience. At Redgate and at several of the Caochangdi galleries, interesting shows abounded. Here are some of my impressions:
Beijing is exhausting, exhilarating, infuriating, appalling, and wonderful, all at the same time. The energy of the city, undefeated by its weight of imperial and revolutionary history, or by the dead hand of contemporary politics and power struggles, is encapsulated in the lively diversity of its art scene. In the late 1990s and the early years of this century, Chinese artists were rock stars, earning big money fast. Chinese and international galleries opened large and palatial premises. Every property developer wanted a museum, and artists posed for fashion shoots in Chinese Vogue. Today things are not quite so upbeat, but there is still a palpable sense of optimism about China itself, and about the role of art and artists in this fast-mutating society.
Recent exhibitions in Beijing reveal how Chinese contemporary art combines a mastery of technique (learned in the rigid academic tradition of the powerhouse art academies such as the Central Academy of Fine Arts) with a willingness to innovate. Artists who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s discovered western Modernism and post-Modernism all at once, resulting in an art devoid of the overwhelming layer of theory that infects much contemporary art in the West.
Li Shurui at White Space Beijing continues to paint in her characteristically psychedelic manner, using an airbrush to create monumental three-dimensional canvases. The blurred, softened edges of her forms make us question our perception of reality. Li was startled when someone told her she was making “Optical” art like Bridget Riley, as she had never heard of this style. Her training at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts provided her with almost no awareness of Modernist or contemporary art, which paradoxically allowed her the freedom to invent a visual language entirely her own. She is interested in the color spectrum and in creating paintings that provide an experience so physically immersive that it becomes emotive as well as perceptual. The shimmering uncertainties of her large paintings pierce the illusion that we inhabit a rational world. The sculptural pieces in this show blur the boundaries between painting and sculpture. They lie on the ground like shards broken from an extraterrestrial machine, their matte-gray knife-blade surfaces punctuated by sky-blue edges.
Painting continues to be a vital force in Chinese contemporary art. It was the Political Pop and Cynical Realist painters, after all, who burst onto the international art scene like flamethrowers in the mid-1990s and continue to be influential today.
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