Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Shanghai AvantGarde- Sun Liang and Gao Jin

While the Cultural Revolution in China brought a standstill to creative artistic expression, Deng Xiaoping’s call for “opening up” profoundly influenced a young generation of burgeoning artists.  Artists quickly rejected the constraining teachings of the traditional art academy, which had promoted socialist realism in both content and style, and looked towards the west for inspiration while exploring the freedom of individual expression. Sun Liang is considered to be one of the most important participants of the “85 New Wave”, a group of artists that have been accredited with the birth of contemporary Chinese art. Born in 1957 in Hangzhou, he graduated from the Shanghai Light Industry College in 1982 and has lived in Shanghai ever since. His work focuses on Chinese history and experience through a combination of eastern and western mythological imagery. His choice of subject matter is generally dark and painted in a crude manner, provoking comparison to the work of Jean-Michelle Basquiat. In Icarus and the Nine Suns (1989), Sun Liang depicts the Greek mythological tale of Icarus, who was given wings to fly out of imprisonment in Crete, only to have his wings melted by the sun and subsequently drowned in the sea. The message is particular pertinent to the artistic climate of the 1980’s, where artists were given a period of free reign to develop a distinct avant-garde, only to have this freedom significantly curtailed with the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989. In Icarus and the Nine Suns, a skeleton figures falls downward, surrounded by seven looming skulls with fierce facial expressions.  It is an image of the artist in such a turbulent cultural environment, as well as an image of the individual in China during an uncertain era.

            While Sun Liang focuses on the primacy of Chinese experience, it is significant to note that his allusions come from a wide variety of Western sources. Ophelia  (1998) depicts Hamlet’s famous femme fatale in a strikingly similar composition as his 1989 Icarus and the Nine Suns. By adapting Western themes to address issues of Chinese identity, his work attests to the universality of experience. While Icarus and the Nine Suns can be seen as addressing the particular political climate in 1989, Ophelia can be seen as addressing these same issues nine years later--- illustrating society’s current delusional state, stuck in a situation between modernization and government control. 

            Sun Liang has cemented himself as a pioneer of contemporary Chinese art. He was featured prominently in the China/Avant Garde Exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Beijing in 1989, which proved to be a seminal exhibition in defining contemporary Chinese art. He also represented China at the 1993 Venice Biennial. In the early 1990’s, Sun Liang moved his studio into an old house beside People’s Square. He began to collect images of works by local artist and has set up small-scale archives. He currently teaches at the Shanghai University of Science and Technology, and continues to paint. His more recent works looks toward Chinese techniques and imagery, and use calligraphy, scroll painting, and brush and ink painting as stylistic influences.


The period between the Cultural Revolution and the "85 New Wave" was an uncertain time for artistic activity, yet there was still a small group of artists who pioneered new forms of expression in retaliation against the prevalent social realist dogma. Gao Jin is considered to be at the forefront of this particular era, helping to open up the arts to new and diverse influences. Gao Jin was born in 1933 in Beijing, and studied at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1950's. She subsequently moved to Mongolia and lived there for the next thirty years. As a member of an ethnic minority herself, Gao Jin took on minorities as her subject matter, even though there was official pressure not to do so at the time. In form, her work has evolved stylistically. While her earlier work mirrors the Soviet influence that was embedded in the propaganda poster program, her later work shows significantly Western influences. Gao Jin is the art editor of Inner Mongolia Art Magazine, and has since moved to the United States.


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