Chinese Lessons


“Landscape,” c. 1949-1957 (late Period), Qi Baishi, Watercolor on paper Photo: courtesy Hunan Provincial Museum and Bowers Museum

“I always say that people in Paris in the 1950s must have looked up one day and said, ‘Jackson who?’” curator Barbara Pollack says. “And that’s the way I feel many Americans are about the Chinese artists and the Chinese names. They’re like, ‘Who’s that?,’ when many of these artists are now having major international careers and should be better known.” For those of us here in Southern California, 2015 presented an opportunity to learn some of these names through a series of thematically related, but independent, exhibitions. Taken altogether, on a circuitous route from Santa Ana down to San Diego, up the coast to LA, then back to the OC, these exhibitions could well have served as an introductory course to China’s accelerated foray into the contemporary art world.

The lesson began with icon Qi Baishi (1864-1957), whose works were recently on view at the Bowers Museum. The retrospective exhibition titled “China’s Modern Master,” which closed in mid-July, traced the unusual legacy of the artist whom many consider the last of the great traditionalist painters. Born to a poor family in Xiangtan, Hunan province (best known as the hometown of Chairman Mao Zedong), Qi first trained as a carpenter and only began painting at the age of 27. Qi traveled to Shanghai before settling in Beijing in 1917, one year before the first official institute of art education, the National Beijing Art College, was founded. The establishment of the college marked the beginning of a trend that would arguably be as influential as any foreign artistic style to the development of Chinese art in the 20th century: the replacement of the traditional student-master relationship with the official art academy.

Pan Gongkai in his studio with “Noble Virtues,” 2015
Photo: courtesy San Diego Museum of Art

The Bowers’ exhibition allowed viewers to compare Qi Baishi’s monochromatic early style, largely influenced by Qing Dynasty eccentric artists such as Bada Shanren (aka Zhu Da) to his late works, which revived traditional painting by incorporating bright colors and folk-style aesthetics. This phase of his career occurred just as official tastes began to emphasize Western-style realism over guohua, or native painting. However, due to his popularity, Qi was able to largely transcend the political pressures many others faced. In the words of the late art historian James Cahill: “as an old and revered master … [Qi Baishi] was permitted to continue working with only minimal accommodation to the new requirements; often it was simply a matter of adding an inscription with a patriotic or political message to a painting not essentially different from what he had done before.”

Not many artists from this period received such artistic liberty; notable among those who ran into conflict was Pan Tianshou, who believed that Western painting should remain separate from traditional Chinese painting. He paid the price for his convictions during the Cultural Revolution: the artist and former teacher at Hangzhou Academy, was sent to the countryside in 1966 to perform manual labor where, even then, he continued to create ink paintings; he died in 1971.

“Silkworm Book: Yan Zhengqing,” 1998, Xu Bing, Book encased in silkworm cocoon threads, 24″ x 24″
Photo: © 2015 Museum Associates/LACMA

The deeply held beliefs of Pan Tianshou were influential to his son, Pan Gongkai, who is known throughout China and abroad for his theoretical, as well as artistic, contributions to contemporary art. Pan’s resume is impressive: since 2001 he has served as president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, following his tenure as president of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, and has an active speaking schedule that often takes him abroad. His artistic achievements aren’t half-bad either: he is the sole contemporary artist featured in “Learn from Masters,” an official collateral exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale, which features his work alongside five renowned historic figures (including aforementioned Bada Shanren), and he was one of five artists with a solo installation in China’s official pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale; in 2013 he was the subject of a 20-year retrospective exhibition at Today Art Museum in Beijing. Recently, he has had a series of site-specific installations at museums across the US, including the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, the University of Michigan, and earlier this year at the San Diego Museum of Art.

“Salon de Beauté,” 1985, Gang Jianyi, Oil on canvas, 80″ x 72″
Photo: courtesy USC Pacific Asia Museum

In his not-quite-traditional style of ink painting, Pan Gongkai investigates the relationship between Chinese and Western art forms on a grand scale. “To have real cultural exchange is very difficult,” he explained through a translator, after overseeing the installation of his work at SDMA, “to talk superficially is easy, but the exchange of culture in depth, to understand and comprehend completely different cultural systems takes a long time. It takes patience.” Like his father, Pan Gongkai has also stressed the importance of maintaining a distinction between artistic traditions, so that these two cultural systems “do not melt into one another.” This is not to say that he is bound to the past or an isolationist, rather, his work is very much a balance between these forces. The choice of subject for his installation at SDMA, Noble Virtues, “the four noblemen,” has a long history in Chinese art, dating back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The plum blossom, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum have been used by artists as symbols of virtue and the four seasons for over a thousand years. Pan Gongkai stresses, “creative and new was never a standard of judgment” in China’s past, but he also explained how the stability of subject and media allows for an emphasis on the developments and innovations of brushwork.

The grade scale of the 45-foot-long “hand scroll,” Noble Virtues, is breathtaking. The brushwork is spontaneous and expressive; he achieves myriad tonalities in grayscale, and through this he is able to capture the vitality of the natural world. The soft-spoken artist points out that because it is so large, Noble Virtues retains a shared characteristics with its more traditional source: it is only possible to see the painting, in detail, one section at a time. Walking by the painting becomes analogous to unrolling the handscroll, allowing the viewer to focus on individual moments within the dramatic landscape.

“Colored Vases,” 2011, Ai Weiwei, Neolithic pottery (5000 – 3500 BCE) with industrial house paint
Photo: courtesy the artist, Chambers Fine Art and USC Pacific Asia Museum

The analogy of a “lesson” seems most fitting when considering “The Language of Xu Bing,” which recently concluded its seven-month run at LACMA in late July. Complementing the works on view was an interactive “classroom” in the adjacent children’s gallery complete with tracing books featuring Xu Bing’s invented calligraphy, in which the artist transformed Roman letters into a Chinese “Square-Word” style of calligraphy. The overall theme of the recent exhibition, organized by former curator of Chinese and Korean Art, Christina Yu Yu (now director of the USC Pacific Asia Museum), continues Xu’s ongoing exploration of language. This theme was first seen in early works such as Book from the Sky (first seen in China in 1988)-an installation consisting of hand scrolls unfurled across the floor and hanging scrolls (suspended from the walls and ceiling) covered with roughly 1,200 fictional Chinese-style characters, each hand-carved and printed by the artist. “This show focuses on the nature of writing,” notes Stephen Little, the current curator of the department, “and by doing things like inventing a new form of writing, he makes people think about how arbitrary writing is, and how it changes, and how writing is a mirror of the patterns of how we think.” Xu Bing achieves this by manipulating the written word in Square Word Calligraphy, challenging notions of originality by replacing calligraphy and ink painting with wood block printing in The Language of Xu Bing, and looking at the evolutions of Chinese characters in the large-scale video installation, The Character of Characters.

Both Pan Gongkai and Xu Bing lived in China during the 10-year period of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Following the end of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death in 1976 and the initiation of Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door Policy of 1978, the accelerated modernization of China was matched by a proliferation of artistic activity. This, in turn, led to a pluralistic flowering of Western-influenced avant-garde movements during the 1980s-including the 85 New Wave Movement-in place of the dominant Socialist Realism of the previous decades. Among the groundbreaking exhibitions were a pair of shows put on by the experimental artist collective known as “Stars” (1979/1980) and “China/Avant Garde” (1989; featuring Xu Bing among numerous others), held at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. The landmark 1989 exhibition was noteworthy as the first officially sanctioned exhibition of “unofficial” art and widely considered a turning point for contemporary artists. Sadly, the victory was short-lived. Months later, the Tiananmen Square “Incident” brought forth a renewed suppression of unsanctioned art.

Among the first exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art seen in the West in the late 1980s was “Beyond the Open Door: Contemporary Paintings from the People’s Republic of China” (1987), which was held at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. Following “Open Door,” the now rebranded USC Pacific Asia Museum staged the iconic “I Don’t Want to Play Cards with Cézanne and Other Works” in 1991. Both exhibitions revealed the vigorous absorption and reimagining of early modernist styles-Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and Pop with trace effects of Socialist Realism still lingering on-by Chinese artists. A haunting work from “Open Door” is Huang Fabang’s Portrait of Pan Tianshou (1985). Then adjunct curator of Chinese art, Richard Strassberg wrote in the exhibition catalogue: “the austere, yet optimistic figure looks out to assert, above all, the endurance of art beyond the shifting winds of politics and of the artist, not merely as ‘servant of the people’ but as an emblem of struggle and suffering.”

“Keywords – Development: Shanghai Buoying Road,” 19 September 2004, Ni Weihua, Photo: courtesy of the artist

“The First Wave: Modern and Contemporary Chinese Paintings in the USC Pacific Asia Museum Collection,” which ran through February, culled works from both of these early exhibitions. “The museum had a really forward-looking vision,” explains museum director Christina Yu Yu, “and was able to acquire some paintings from both exhibitions that subsequently entered our permanent collection. At that time, so few people knew there was even an art scene in China, and no one could project which direction China would g

Continuing their emphasis on contemporary art, “Reshaping Tradition: Contemporary Ceramics from East Asia,” opens at USC Pacific Art Museum this September. Among the artists on view are contemporary sculptor Ah Xian and icon Ai Weiwei. Ah Xian has lived in Australia since receiving political asylum in 1989, following Tiananmen Square. The show includes a series of life-size ceramic busts upon which he layers different glazes, which refer directly to specific kilns in China, and a variety of traditional motifs through which he critiques notions of individualism. Ai Weiwei, whose two-toned ceramic vases appear disarmingly simplistic, directly engages notions of history through the use of ancient vessels. “For Ai Weiwei, we are going to show the Neolithic jars that he has dipped into industrial paint.” Yu Yu says. “While this directly refers to Chinese tradition, it is also his way of challenging ‘What is authority?’ and ‘What is tradition?’”

Ai Weiwei is among the best-known contemporary artists working today, perhaps equally recognized for his dissident actions and political persecution as for his art. Over the past few years a pair of exhibitions, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Bronze and Gold, have traveled internationally, including stays at MCASD, LACMA and at the Palm Springs Museum of Art (2014/15). In July, he had his passport returned to him by Chinese authorities, ending a four-year travel ban, although as yet his work is still more widely seen abroad than he is.

Art historian Barbara Pollack has been traveling to China with a focus on contemporary art for over two decades, and recently curated the traveling exhibition “My Generation: Young Chinese Artists,” which runs through October 11 at the Orange County Museum of Art. The sizeable group show includes nearly 50 artists (some participating in collectives), all born after 1976, the Post-Mao generation, a group the curator terms “YCAs,” whose work traverses a dizzying range of global styles. Pollack recalls how after publishing a book in 2010 about the likes of Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing and Cai Guo-Qiang, she became interested in “what the future would look like. The older artists all had lived through the Cultural Revolution and were very influenced by the Mao regime. I wanted to see what would come out of artists where that was not part of their lives at all.”

“About Family,” 2011, Irrelevant Commission Mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Molly Enholm

Following this inspiration, Pollack spent the better part of three years traveling to China visiting art schools, exhibitions and interviewing about 100 artists in their studios. During this time, a chance meeting with then-executive director of the Tampa Museum of Art Todd DeShields Smith led to the development of the ambitious group show. A striking aspect of the show is the drastic change in the aesthetics and mediums used by the younger generation. “They no longer necessarily feel that they have to make work that identifies them as ‘Chinese’ or reflects something about China,” she explains. “And so, in a way, it has liberated them to be a lot more experimental about what they are making art about and the materials that they are using.”

Walking through the various artistic strategies employed by the artists of “My Generation,” that sense of experimentation is tangible. Liu Di’s manipulated photographs depict oversized animals, confined into dilapidated urban s
tructures, commenting upon unrelenting urban sprawl; the 11-member collective Irrelevant Commission’s multimedia installation integrates precious family heirlooms with cheap mass-produced goods; Hu Xiaoyuan meticulously wraps wooden planks in silk, upon which she traces the patterns of the wood grain with the patience of Agnes Martin, transcribing the natural beauty hidden beneath. Multi-media and video installations are prominent in My Generation, including Yan Xing, who explores notions of sexuality through recasting Edward Hopper’s melancholic theater scenes with an all-male cast; and Ma Qiusha who haltingly narrates her biography to the viewer with a concealed razor blade balanced on her tongue. Another promising trend, approximately one-third of the individual artists curated in “My Generation” were female, contrasting the exclusivity of the previous generation.

“Portrait of Pan Tianshou,” 1985, Huang Fabang, Oil and paper on wood, 76″ x 80″ Photo: ©Huang Fabang Courtesy: USC Pacific Asia Museum

While most of the artists featured in this article are directly associated with an art academy, that is not necessarily a prerequisite for all Chinese artists today. Opening in November, “Shadow of a Spectacle: Ni Weihua” at the California State University Northridge Art Galleries, features conceptual photography of urban China by the artist, who studied as an engineer at the Shanghai Institute of Technology. In a 2014 interview with the show’s curator, CSUN professor Meiqin Wang (full disclosure: my colleague at the university), Ni explained that he has purposely chosen to create art in his spare time, rather than his sole occupation, giving him the freedom from demands of the art market and active engagement with social issues. His choice of photography as a medium was also driven by his desire to communicate to the larger public. The main subject of his work over the past decade has been photographing the “real world” against officially sponsored public billboards, which propagate messages of prosperity through urban development, with messages like “Build a Harmonious Society,” written over hyper-positive imagery reminiscent of Socialist Realism. Notes Wang, “What he is doing is simultaneously documenting and deconstructing the billboards that become part of the urban landscape which we ignore.”

And these shows offer only a sliver of the artistic production now occurring in China. The reasons for the explosive growth are tenfold. International interest, first peaked following China’s inaugural participation in the 1993 Venice Biennale, supported the contemporary scene from abroad for about 15 years, until the global financial crisis of 2008. After the foreign collectors dropped out, Pollack explains, “Chinese people saw the opportunity and got into the market.” The government was not far behind, promising in 2005 to build 1,000 new museums within a decade, then far exceeding that goal. Today, Shanghai alone boasts eight contemporary art museums. For nearly three decades contemporary Chinese art has continued to develop in an increasingly globalized market, both with and without official support, working within and outside of expectations and tradition. “These are artists that grew up with globalization,” Pollack states. “The work really reflects something about the state of the world today.” It’s time we learned some of these names.


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