There was a tendency in the 1990s for young artists who had been trained in oil painting to abandon it as soon as they graduated. There were, of course, notable exceptions, among them Xiaoze Xie and Shi Jing, born respectively in 1966 and 1971, who did not feel this need and continue working in the traditional medium of oil on canvas until the present day. The urgency to rebel against established rules that was such a force for change in the tumultuous decade of the 1990s has subsided to a considerable extent and younger artists such as Zhang Dun (b. 1979) and Guo Hongwei (b. 1982) tirelessly explore the expressive potential of the sharpened pencil on sheets of paper and the paint-loaded brush on canvas. This exhibition brings together the work of two mature artists and two younger artists at the beginning of their careers who find inspiration in the time-honored practice of conveying their observations of the world around them onto two-dimensional surfaces.
Xiaoze Xie was born in Guangdong in 1966. He graduated from Tsinghua University and the Central Academy of Arts and Design, Beijing before moving to the United States and settling in Texas where he continued his studies in a very different environment. As a realist painter by vocation, early on in his career Xie found a way to combine his passionate interest in aspects of Chinese history and current world events with more formal concerns by focusing on the materials stored in archives and library stacks as the subject matter of his paintings. Admitted to areas normally out of bounds to the general public, Xie found a rich source of material in library stacks ranging from the monochromatic bindings and pages characteristic of traditional Chinese books to the exaggerated colors of the photographs found in most contemporary newspapers and magazines.
The decaying volumes and manuscripts in the Chinese Library series which began in 1995 refer in general terms to China’s complicated history, to traditions that are on the point of disappearing before the onslaught of modernity that is characteristic of China today. In contrast, the newspaper paintings are multi-colored and specific in their references to current events, offering an unofficial history of the last decade.
Shi Jing was born in Dehongzhou, Yunnan Province in 1971 and currently divides his time between Beijing and Yunnan in the southwest of China. His work has been widely exhibited in China, including a solo show at the Today Art Museum, Beijing (2009) and the Nanjing and Guizhou Triennials in 2008. His work is entirely different in character from that of Xiaoze Xie, rejecting the specifics of appearance in favor of a philosophical investigation of the realities behind it. In the two works in the current exhibition, female figures emerge from what at first glance appear to be blank monochrome canvases. He achieves this effect by painting from the side, stippling the surface of the paint so that the image appears only when light passes across it from specific directions. If Xiaoze overwhelms the spectator with specifics, Shi does the opposite, draining the subjects he represents of all attributes, volume, weight and color. Of primary importance to him is the moment when the image suddenly appears, an apparition that is always on the verge of disappearing.
Zhang Dun was born in 1979 in Shenyang, Liaoning Province in Northeast China, a major industrial city, and has watched as once powerful industries have gone into decline, a process evident in the gradual physical deterioration of the physical structures that housed them. After graduating from the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in 2003, she moved to Beijing and saw the entire process accelerated in the Dashanzi Art District (798) as it evolved from atmospheric decay to tawdry, shopping-mall chic in less than five years. Using photographs as aides-memoires and restricting the medium she uses to pencil on paper, she eliminates all signs of life, people as well as vehicles, any sense of movement or specific historical period in order to create these drawings in which time seems to have stopped still. Precise and airless and marked by abrupt transitions in perspective, her drawings are poetic distillations rather than precise recordings of things she has seen.
Guo Hongwei was born in Chongqing in 1982 and graduated from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 2005. Once he graduated, he rapidly abandoned the approach that characterized the teaching at the Academy, favoring subject matter drawn from his childhood and often working from photographs in his family photo-album. In his oil paintings, seeking to disturb the slick surface of the oil paint, he diluted it with turpentine or splashed it with water in order to create unanticipated effects. Initially, his focus was on inconsequential objects that he found lying around in his studio, objects such as tooth-brushes, paper cups or the cardboard box in the present exhibition but as he gained in confidence the range of subject-matter expanded to include material such as the framed Impressionist paintings in the wittily titled Masterpiece. Floating in space, the gilt-framed paintings by Monet, Pissarro etc. that are the subject of the diptych become a series of masterful displays of painterly virtuosity, rivaling the masters at their own game!