Beyond Political Pop

For genuinely talented and ambitious artists in mainland China,
it’s been a long road from the days when ‘modern’ Chinese art was
synonymous with images of beaming, red-cheeked peasant heroes and
adoring portraits of Mao Zedong. Beginning in the 1970s, as critic
Li Xianting explains in the comprehensive book, China’s New
Art, Post-1989
, painters began using the meticulous
realist technique they learned in China’s art academies to portray
the harsh realities of Chinese peasant life instead of the pieties
of Maoism. The Stars group of 1979-80 tried to break the stylistic
bonds of realism by championing Picasso and the German
Expressionist printmaker Kathe Kollwitz. By the mid-Eighties
neo-Dada, performance art, and an ironic post-Pop sensibility paved
the way for the epoch-making China/Avant Garde exhibition in
Beijing in 1989, a showcase of anti-authoritarian art that was
briefly closed down by the police when one artist shot a pistol in
the gallery.

With the Tiananmen demonstrations of the same year and the
massacres that followed, a chill was thrown on the
anti-establishment side of Chinese art — but painters continue to
be ironic, inventive, and socially and politically astute. Some
have become famous and well-off by purveying ‘political pop,’
Warholesque satires of the Mao images that once filled China. Yu
Youhan portrays the Chairman against perky floral patterns that
look like bad wallpaper; Wang Guangyi’s Socialist Realist icons —
brave soldiers and burly peasants — share bright decorative space
with the logos of Japanese camera companies and other symbols of
China’s new prosperity and worldliness.

While political pop has found a ready market in Hong Kong and
overseas, David M. Raddock notes in New Art
that many contemporary artists are now striving
for a ‘Chinese uniqueness’ that depends neither on reproducing
international icons like Mao nor on seeming ‘caught up’ with hip
Westerners. The splendid printmaker Su Xinping is creating what he
calls ‘socialist surrealism’ — meticulously rendered pictures of
tumbling bodies against the background of obscurely menacing
streets. Zhang Yajie’s colorful street scenes are menacing too —
the faces of some of the passersby are scary beast-masks in primary
colors. And Wang Lifeng creates moody images of China’s past —
cloth and paper swaths covered with Chinese characters that seem to
have undergone the ravages of time. These and other contemporary
artists have in a sense retreated to an inner world, or at least a
personal one. But they are also registering in their own souls the
pressures and pains of living in a nation morally adrift, haunted
by history, and tense with unresolved resentment.

For More Information

David M. Raddock, ‘Beyond Mao and Tiananmen: China’s Emerging
Avant-Garde,’ NEW ART EXAMINER (March 1995). Subscriptions: $35/yr.
(12 issues) available from 314 West Institute Place, Chicago, IL

CHINA’S NEW ART, POST-1989, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong, 1993

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