Amelie Gallery

April.24th, 15:00pm
Tony Chang

Duan Zhengqu, Zhu Jin, Fan Bo, Wang Qing, Ma Ke and Liu Ruizhao

The "163 Years" denotes the total amount of years all of the artists have been engaged in painting.

After socialist realism and beginning with the 85 New Wave, contemporary figurative painting bore the weight of social critique and historical rethinking. Fang Lijun's shaved heads and Yue Minjun's smiling faces spoke of an uncooperative attitude towards mainstream ideology; while Zhang Xiaogang's old portrait photo-style figures looked back listlessly on history. While the individuals in those paintings were portrayed as symbolic masks of the group spirit of intellectuals in a certain time period, the artists in 163 Years of Obsession, Duan Zhengqu, Zhu Jin, Fan Bo, Wang Qing, Ma Ke, and Liu Ruizhao discarded with direct representations of the complex surfaces of social events, and turned their gazes upon themselves. Stretching from the 1950s to the 1980s, these artists, so passionately obsessed with painting, all separately traced out awareness of themselves in brushstrokes that are full of spiritual sensitivity, probing along the lonely path of human dignity.

China has a long tradition of figurative painting. The growth of the literary style brought about the maturation of classical culture, as revealed in the portraits of palace officials, maidens and actors by Gu Kaizhi, Yan Liben, Tang Yin, Qiu Ying and Ren Yi and manifested in the literati ideal self-imaginings of Liang Kai and Chen Laolian. The concept of "depicting the spirit through form", which first arose in the Wei and Jin dynasties and the Six Dynasties Period, gradually became the core of Chinese figurative painting, and it is now finding extension in the contemporary. The times are changing, and so are the "spirit" of the figure and the content of the literati style. As social people and intellectuals, varying social environments and education systems have left different marks on the life experiences and creative concepts of the artists in this exhibition. We can see that artists such as Duan Zhengqu, Zhu Jin and Fan Bo, who were born in the 1950s and 60s, seek out a system of reference within old folk traditions, ink painting or historical civilization; Ma Ke, Wang Qing and Liu Ruizhao, born in the 1970s and 80s, rely on their internal hidden intuition. The "gulfs" between their inner wellsprings and creative methods provide a thread for the continuation and transformation of the classical literati spirit in the contemporary.

Duan Zhengqu (b 1958) The people in Duan Zhengqu's paintings carry fat fish, fire pots or big chunks of pork as they run along the mountain paths¡­. The artist intentionally makes their movements solemn and ritualized, using primitive and naive folk culture to construct a fairytale world for himself, alluding to a religion of the spirit. For Duan Zhengqu, folksy Shaanxi painting transcends mere realist appropriation of folk traditions. Here, the mysterious, ancient folk figures come together with his own self-awareness, expressing the sharpness of the transition period from modernist realism to contemporary spiritual exploration.

Duan Zhengqu (born 1958, painting for 35 years)
The year I graduated from high school, 1975, happened to be the year of the "Learning from Dazhai" campaign. I was at Mt. Shouyang with my buddies blasting rocks and digging irrigation channels. When I wasn't working, I was taking art classes in the county seat. During the Cultural Revolution, everyone had a plaster bust of Mao in their homes. I found a heroic, standing Mao sculpture, which I planned to use for sketching. Plasters get dirty quite easily, but it would be bad if such a great man as Mao got dirty, so the villagers covered him in a layer of lacquer. I arranged the lights properly, and moved the plaster around looking for the best angle to convey the great leader's character. The chairman was just over a foot tall, and wearing a windbreaker. He had a smile on his face, and his gut stuck out just so. One hand was positioned solemnly behind his back. I was excited. I stripped down to the waist and concentrated all of my efforts on "observation" and depiction. I put everything into watching the countless points of dazzling light, and painted until I was soaked in sweat and my mouth was bone dry. After a few nights I finally completed the only "plaster sketch" I made before art school. One day my father came back and asked me, "That black guy you drew, is that Lincoln?"
Zhu Jin (b 1959) uses earth tones to unfold his imaginings about human nature on the canvas. His thick, warm materials incorporate the feel of ink painting, while the people have a seriocomic relaxed spirit and calm texture. His modeling "hints at the richness of human thought, and exaggeratedly expresses the existence of the self as some expansive dreamscape. The weak bodies symbolize helplessness. To return to the lonely world, one must have a cynical mindset." (Fan Di'an, Director or National Museum, China) Zhu Jin (born 1959, painting for 34 years)
When I was young I enjoyed painting on the walls. The walls were huge, and there was a lot of space for my imagination to unfold. Once, I painted a scene from the "Tunnel Wars", with members of the 8th Route Army peering out from a tunnel, and the Japanese invaders scurrying around outside. I worked really hard on the painting as my parents stood behind me and smiled.

When Chairman Mao died in 1976, our school set up a memorial altar. I watched vigil with a few of my classmates. It was late at night, and I couldn't sleep. I went looking for pen and paper, with which I diligently copied Mao's memorial photo. Chairman Mao is easy to draw. Start with a big round face, then add high, swept-back hair before placing a black mole below and to the right of his mouth. It was that night that I met my mentor, a teacher by the name of Zhao. Instructor Zhao told me that I drew quite well, but unprofessionally. That was the first time I heard the word 'sketching'¡­
Fan Bo (b 1966) depicts the intellectuals around him. His painting language emphasizes the disjunctive side of forms; the details are full of vitality and wit, and the people appear to have been crafted or molded. In the background, the elongated tree branches are painted in leisurely strokes, full of the verve of calligraphy, hints of desolation within vitality. His people are enduring and cautious, sometimes vexed by anxiety, but always self-consciously stubborn. In the artist's nostalgia for the washed-out classical culture, we can see his pity of modern life. Fan Bo (born 1966, painting for 29 years)
I have a powerful love for the pottery and sculpture of the Han and Tang dynasties. A friend gave me a large, painted Tang dynasty vase with four handles and a fat outline. Atop the black glaze there were stripes in moon white and sky blue, looking like a freestyle landscape painting. Another one, a drinking gourd vase with a flower-petal opening has a mouth like a garlic flower. The glaze, an elegant mix of blue and white, does not reach all the way to the bottom. On my desk I have a glazed plate with a very orderly shape and a glaze design that looks like a Pollock's abstract painting. Aside from taking in the nostalgia of these ancient objects, I revere the work of the great painting masters. In the works of Frank Auerbach and Balthus, I see an undying, radiant visual value, and gain a lasting sense of spiritual satisfaction, as if I've just discovered that a lost tradition silently lives on.
Wang Qing (b 1968), just like Duan Zhengqu, is from Henan Province. He spent his youth in small places like Shangqiu and Kaifeng. The first time he saw the Yellow River, it was like finding a clearing in the weeds; the dazzling reflection of the water scared him a bit (and he never again showed the lofty sentiments towards the river that we see in Duan Zhengqu's works). Wang Qing depicts unsettled people in the decaying landscapes of small cities, mixed with the fate of the self flowing through time and the listlessness of people amidst change. During the urbanization process of the past twenty to thirty years, small towns and villages have grown increasingly marginalized. Being discarded in this destitute region can explain a bit about Wang Qing's social background. The people in his paintings, as "regretful watchers", correspond to the desolation and nostalgia of China's traditional literati. Here, the battered landscape has been elevated to the level of a lasting image in an ancient painting collection. Wang Qing (born 1968, painting for 27 years)
In the barnyard there's a car that never starts.
A tall black dog wanders about in the bright noon sun over the empty ball court.
A thick stand of pine trees lines the edge of the pond.
Among the withered blades of grass there occasionally emerges a multi-colored wing, a grey snakeskin, a lost sandal...
Under the massive straw hat, a forestry worker spends the day squatting by a tree collecting sticky resin.
These random scenes seem like the aftermath of a disaster, and get me thinking about people I have lost, like the end of a thread, always pulling me into this.

Ma Ke(b 1970)'s early experience teaching at the art academy gave him a taste of spiritual inhibition. During his one year teaching in Africa, Ma Ke absorbed the vigor of primitive art, and witnessed war and poverty. These painful experiences ingrained free will and spiritual rebellion into his blood. The unsettled people in his obscure narratives are sometimes frantic, sometimes aloof, with unruly and provocative expressions. He is obsessed with subverting painting methodology, and repeatedly adjusts his paintings, opening himself towards the unknown realm of painting within mistakes and serendipity.
Ma Ke (born 1970, painting for 22 years)
I can't understand the zeal people had for politics during the Cultural Revolution. I vaguely remember the marchers in the streets with their red flags from my youth, with a terrifying atmosphere concealed beneath the cold. Looking now at issues of Fine Art magazine from the time, they seem to be nothing more than advertisement catalogues for political concepts. My motivation for painting comes from my doubts and estrangement from reality. The path back to my spiritual homeland meandered through the labyrinth of western painting; only the far journeys are homeward bound, through Repin, Van Gogh, Duchamp, Picasso, De Koenig, Pollock, Bacon, Baselitz, Kiefer, Clemente and Neo Rauch, then a yearning to return to the artistic stylings of the Tang and Song, as well as the Qin. Today we mostly observe society and nature through film. The staging of film is my concept for making an initial clearing up of painting. The rocks play mountains, bonsai trees play trees, a hanging painting is a stage, rather than a window. The act of appreciating a painting is like watching a drama of the landscape from indoors, a path that crosses through spontaneity. When it comes to drama, painting is a path, a manifestation of the highest path.

Liu Ruizhao (b 1983) is loyal and affable, but he is also, like the stallion who wanders from the herd, fond of solitude, spending a lot of time in the open land outside of the studio, gardening and fishing for fun. He is skilled at his craft, highly observant and multitalented. In his notes on fishing, we see documentation of the rich world of a growing, sensitive soul rendered in a rarely seen literary flow. He goes deep into the things that interest him, such as fishing and painting. He put on a strange robe and shot a pile of strangely lit photographs as creative references for his works. The youths in his paintings bathe in a playful energy, pure and dignified, with a bit of absurdity couched in solemnity. Liu Ruizhao is striving to create his own unique spiritual world. Liu Ruizhao (born 1983, painting for 16 years)
When I was in fourth grade I painted a bunch of flowers to take part in the local "little stars" art festival in town. Before the competition, a teacher looked at my other "creations": a pile of faces painted on pebbles, old people, children, workers, farmers, etc. The teacher told me to enter those into the competition. I didn't think about it, I just did it. In the end, I ended up under the spotlight. I looked around, and everyone else was holding normal paintings, a few of them actually pretty good. But I was standing in the middle; I had won the top prize! And I'd done it with a few rocks I'd painted on a whim. At the time, I'd just wanted to find a hole to crawl into. My head was throbbing - what a loss of face.

Now, the streets are brimming with bold and breathtaking "art", and every once in a while when I run into it, it's like running into those rocks I'd lost over a decade ago. It's enough to make me blush for a moment. Walking on the street, there are people pointing, saying "look, that's an artist". I turn my head and say "you're the artist!, I am a PAINTER!"

Perseverance in painting language is the underlying concept here. Through their strong individual styles, these artists are enriching the spiritual texture of figurative painting. Their depictions of figures transcend realism and are marked by subjective leanings. The surrounding landscapes are tightly polished and devoid of embellishment, as the artists intentionally cover up any marks of the times. What these artists share is a sense of history and literati sentiment: Duan Zhengqu is infatuated with the forceful naivety of the historical central plains; Fan Bo astutely studies the changes in Chinaware forms through history in pursuit of the Dao of creativity; Liu Ruizhao's fish provide nourishment to the lotus flowers, and he is infatuated with the structures and patterns of ancient wooden implements and buildings¡­. Their works are brimming with the internal melancholy dignity of the intellectual, bear the weight of the times and the individual spirit, and bring a new understanding of the lost literati spirit through a unique perspective.
The artists in "163 Years of Obsession" call to mind the work of Lucian Freud (b 1922). Around 1978, Freud was hit in the eye during an altercation with a taxi driver. Hurt and indignant, he returned to his studio and created Self Portrait with Black Eye, turning painting into a method for affirming the existence of the self. Like Lucian Freud, Duan Zhengqu, Zhu Jin, Fan Bo, Wang Qing, Ma Ke, and Liu Ruizhao stand alone, removed from the clamorous trends of the art world. They bury the illusions and pain of social change deep inside their artworks. Their hard work brings spiritual discipline, while individual character creates consideration for human nature. They are using the paintbrush as a weapon to fight off the falsehoods of reality, creating a spiritual portrait of our time.