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. Younger painters cannot help but reference their work in some way, as well as the various strands of modern painting in China, which include variations on traditional ink painting, Soviet Socialist Realism, and Cézanne-inspired Modernism. An exhibition at Beijing’s iconic Red Gate Gallery, in its unique location in the restored Ming Dynasty watchtower on what remains of the city wall, reveals the strength of this tradition.
Zhang Yajie featured in Red Gate’s very first exhibition, in 1991, a time when artists barely dared to think about the possibility of selling their work. A key member of the “New Generation” group, his candid, dynamic painterly technique represented scenes of daily life in Beijing at a moment of chaotic social change. Black-and-white portraits revealed the aspirations and desires of ordinary people in a transforming city. Recent paintings depict mundane objects and settings that evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia. Sinks, taps, barred windows, heating pipes, and austere doorways remind viewers of the simple Soviet-era apartments in which so many Beijingers grew up. Is there a veiled critique of the over-the-top consumerism of today’s China in these expressive and rich painterly surfaces? Corner of the Studio (2013) reveals his typically high viewpoint and broken brush marks. Rich juxtapositions of subtle grays, reds, and pinks create mottled, weathered surfaces, suggestive of times lost. Fish (2009) depicts a vividly colored dead fish lying in a metallic sink, its blood clogging the drain. This powerful image may be read in many ways. Traditionally in China, a fish symbolizes wealth, abundance, and good fortune. In this painting, at first sight a banal image, the sense of waste and pathos is overwhelming.
At Pékin Fine Arts, the first solo exhibition by Xie Qi introduces a painter with impressive technique and a visual vocabulary that makes a sardonic comment on contemporary China. Her primary subject of the Chinese Renminbi bank note, with its iconic image of Mao Zedong, might lead one to expect a Warholian, Pop-inspired hard-edge satire. On the contrary: Xie’s canvases are lushly layered with translucent veils of paint through which ghostly imagery appears and disappears. The image of Mao, or the architecture of the revolutionary past, emerges as if seen through thick fog. Mysterious, ethereal, the sheer physicality and seductive beauty of the works overwhelm the viewer. There is a sly wit at play here, though. Her painting of a Swiss franc reveals the almost hidden image of artist Giacometti. In So Green (Mao on 50 Yuan), the chairman is only partially visible behind transparent curtains of color, as if he is vanishing into an irrelevant past. There is an inherent sense of loss, and an acknowledgement of the layering of history; past and present coexist. Xie Qi told me that this underlying sadness was very much part of her intention.
At Chambers Fine Art, the exhibition Transformation: Recent Work by Wu Jian’an presents a body of work by an idiosyncratic artist best known for his innovative papercuts, often influenced by Chinese mythology and classical Buddhist art. For me, the most interesting element here was the 6000 Painted Faces and 1000 Fairies painted by Qingdao Art Students, a room entirely filled with concertina books of ink-drawn faces, some wonky and some accomplished but weirdly compelling, and a wall of tiny faces, each profoundly human in its individuality. Wu looks for hidden relationships between diverse forms, fascinated by what he describes as “old China”—not scholarly literati painting but shadow puppets, papercuts, folk art, and the fierce carvings and paintings of the Dunhuang caves. Transformation is inspired by the Chinese classic text “Journey to the West,” an allegorical pilgrimage tale combining comedy with spiritual enlightenment, in which a Buddhist monk travels to India in search of sacred texts. Overshadowing everything in this exhibition is Monkey Face Composed of 72 Tigers, a reference to the Monkey King’s ability to transform himself into seventy-two different life forms.
At Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, a major retrospective of Xu Zhen (now known by his invented corporate identity “MadeIn Company”) reveals the ambition of his practice: part Warhol-style factory and part purely Chinese industrial-scale art production. From an artist who defies categorization, or even interpretation, the show is visually stunning as sheer spectacle. From the ShanghArt Art Supermarket filled with commercial packaging from which all the contents have been emptied, complete with bored cashiers; to enormous versions of classical antiquity with heads replaced by upside-down Buddhist statuary; to versions of Gothic architecture made from black leather and bondage ropes, this is an artist unafraid to examine uncomfortable aspects of the contemporary world.
Also at UCCA is Ji Dachun: Without a Home. Ji is best known for Surrealist-influenced satirical critiques of contemporary China. and for paintings in which figuration alternates with abstraction, and western influences are underpinned by references to Chinese conventions of ink painting. The artist’s first institutional exhibition in Beijing is a comprehensive examination of his practice. Biological forms hint at nightmarish hybrid breeding programs or the mad frontiers of scientific experimentation and the cloning of scary new life forms. Ji’s paintings are both beautiful and alienating; seductive and disturbing, not unlike Beijing itself.