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2014.04.04 Fri, by Translated by: Daniel Szehin Ho
Painting Does Not Need to be Defended

“About Painting”: group exhibition with Duan Jianyu, Jia Aili, Li Shurui, Qiu Ruixiang, Wang Yin, and Zhao Gang.

OCAT Xi’an (Chitou Yi Lu South, Yanta District, Xi’an),  March 22–July 21, 2014

After taking on the subject of calligraphy for the opening exhibition last year, Karen Smith, the managing director of OCAT Xi’an, has this time shifted the kunsthalle’s focus onto painting.

“Is painting an outmoded medium?” the catalogue asks. Such a supposition seems to have guided the exhibition framework as the point of departure. It easily recalls the “crisis in painting” in the face of minimalism and conceptual art in 1960s and 70s European and American contemporary art, along with the “return of painting” that came with the 80s Neo-Expressionism. Yet as far as those of us in Beijing are concerned—where “art” and “painting” have for a long time been practically equivalent—this “crisis” is not truly a question that deserves much thought. And certainly not for Xi’an, a city where traditional culture still predominates and where the issue of the primacy of painting has little relation to the cultural issues of the region. A more fundamental question is that any “decline” of painting in China is any more than a moment’s fancy, when in actual fact, painting is actually gaining strength and flourishing in the market. Moreover, in contrast with other mediums of art, art in a frame is still the format which most easily resonates with the wider public audience for art in China.

The crisis faced by painting has in fact already ebbed—whether as a side-effect of the popularization of photography and the rise of Impressionism in the nineteenth century, or as a result of the struggle between painting and philosophy in conceptual art. This, however, is not the problem of painting in China, since painting still has at least two traditions to rely upon: the first being the results of the accretion, spread and transmission of the Socialist Realist mode of art education which persists today; the second being “tradition.” For instance, in this exhibition, Wang Yin did not—and did not attempt to—cast off the scars left on him by Soviet-style Realism and academic training. His works retain the inarticulate quality found in Balthus’ figures, but without the latter’s sexual energy; rather, in the scenes and story depicted, we see only in a “metaphorical sense” from outside the works. For instance, in “Untitled (From Life)” (2013) the artist painting from life in film studio-style scenes is separated by two trees from girls far off, clad in kimono; this is a compositional technique but also a voyeuristic hint. In contrast with Wang Yin’s constancy is the new work “Plum, Orchid, Bamboo, Chrysanthemum” (2014) by a relatively younger artist, Duan Jianyu. A few Taihu rocks with orchids on top are depicted side by side; though not in the traditional literati layout, a dalliance between a desire for a relationship with “tradition” and her own inherent language of painting is obvious—whereas the sense of the absurd in “Song of Love” (2014) and “Poetry” (2014), created in the same year, account for elements that are more properly the artist’s own in this group of works.

Wang Yin, “Untitled (From Life)”,oil on canvas, 150 x 240 cm, 2013
王音,《未命名(写生)》,布面油画,150 x 240 cm,2013

Duan Jianyu, “Plum, Orchid, Bamboo, Chrysanthamum 2″, oil on canvas, 180 x 250 cm, 2014.
段建宇,《梅兰竹菊 No.2》, 布面油画,180 x 250 cm,2014

The second floor of OCAT Xi’an is taken over by a piece from Li Shurui—colored paintings on three walls of the space. She calls this work a “renovation” project in order to make the labor expended in its creation apparent. But, as she reveals, the original title of the work was “Painting on the Spot” rather than the current “An Invited View.” In actual fact, rather than saying this work is “about painting,” it is more apt to call this a classic site-specific work. As the sunlight filters through the glass, painted over in greenish gray on the west side of the museum, it modulates the two extreme ends of the tonal spectrum at the top and bottom halves of the door. This also constitutes the origin of Li’s work—and so she expanded it from one corner. Though in terms of ideas, this technique is akin to Gordon Matta-Clark’s use of daylight in “Day’s End” (1975), here, Li Shurui utterly lacks the latter’s violence and subversion. Her work clearly employs a gentler and more expressive technique of “borrowing the background scenery” (jiejing), while the shimmering contrast of the cool and warm tones reminds one of poetic laments about the fleeting beauty of the setting sun.

The ground floor of OCAT seems at first glance like a retrospective of Jia Aili’s paintings. Included are some drafts and documents related to his works in recent years, encased in glass vitrines, along with some sketches hung on the walls. For instance, the grey brush tones in “Untitled” (2007) blurrily portray a certain place he has been to in his life. Yet Jia Aili’s work has a greater absorptive power: in the large piece “Untitled” (2012), we see a disintegrating private space; old-style furniture like cabinets and beds signify the bygone days of peace and quiet, but then suddenly this is laid bare in an environment full of symbolism and terrifying electric sparks in a nuclear facility. The desolation in the foreground and the nuclear launch site in the background horrifyingly “press” against this private space. Similarly, “A Pure and Silent Friend” (2012), we see a boy with a red neckerchief standing above what looks like a reflection; the stark luminous expressive effect brought about by the artist’s academic training is set next to this unnatural space. Even if the somber colors to the right of the boy’s head are not in the same dimension in terms of the spatial significance of the painting surface, this creates subtle hints of a certain tension. Such details are perhaps products of the artist’s imagination (one thinks of the movie Avatar), but also harbor a sense of the surreal urban desolation found in Neo Rausch—but like that correspondingly blurry brushwork, hovering between clarity and vagueness, what we see in the eerily stark contrasts of light is a mental state of bewilderment and a subconscious psychological crisis. The large piece “Untitled” (2014) created this year by the artist even more clearly systematizes this sense of fracture and crisis; though in terms of its more discerning color composition and pictorial form, it has not let go of the “academic” cicatrices branded upon this generation of artists.

For all sorts of reasons related to history and the mode of education, for many Chinese artists, painting is the “base camp” at the start of their artistic journey, providing practically everything they need: a mature set of technical and practical models, a group of popular exemplars (Cézanne, Freud, Morandi, and so on), and even a set of quantifiable critical criteria (in the form of several decades of the art gaokao system—entrance examinations to art schools). Not only that, but there is also a fairly widespread base of public approval. Practically all well-known installation, video and performance artists—Zhao Bandi, Huang Yong Ping, Zhang Peili, Ma Liuming, Qiu Zhijie, Sun Yuan & Peng Yu and so forth—have come from this camp; at the same time, after the decade-long rough-and-tumble of their experiments in performance, installation and video, with the overwhelming presence of local capital within art dealings across the board, painting can naturally become a much-cherished bedrock to which they can look back and return. In honest truth, the question of painting is not as simple as being “outmoded” or “finished”; at least in China, painting is not a field that needs to be defended, quite unlike, say, folk paper-cuts, Hakka tulou [circular clan buildings], Mongolian throat singing and other such heritage arts. Painting’s distinctive path and destiny in contemporary China indicates that a thoroughgoing reflection on the effectiveness, crisis and significance of painting would perhaps be more apt in the future.

Li Shurui, “An Inviated View”, mural painting, household paint, site-specific work, 2014.

Jia Aili, “Untitled”, oil on canvas, 170 x 207 cm, 2012
贾蔼力,《未命名》,布面油画,170 x 207 cm,2012