Think of contemporary Chinese artists, and you’ll likely think of Ai Weiwei. His outsize personality and politics–not to mention his sometime-rock musicianship, poetry, and artistry–have successfully breached some unspoken cultural/hemispheric divide and seem to occupy a liminal space between Western and Eastern artistic traditions.
But Ai doesn’t speak for the totality of Chinese artists, nor should he. Until March 6th, Stanford Art Gallery’s “Fragmentary Narratives” exhibit will be showcasing the artwork of four (non-Ai) contemporary Chinese artists: Fang Lijun, Xie Xiaoze, Yang Jiechang, and Yang Shaobin.
True to name, the paintings of “Fragmentary Narratives” feel like excerpts from a larger epic. While China, as a cultural idea, predates the Roman Empire, the People’s Republic of China is less than a century old–and the reconciliation of a long cultural heritage with more recent political upheaval appears to be foremost in the minds of the four artists.
A cutting reference to the Rembrandt painting of the same name, Xie Xiaoze’s “Night Watch” is a black-and-white depiction of soldiers in full tactical gear. Xie’s choice of ink for “Night Watch” reduces human figures to two-dimensional blotches of grays and whites against a backdrop of pure black. There’s a flatness here, a starkness of color to contrast with the realistic light and dark of Rembrandt’s original. This is what the Night Watch has become, Xie seems to say: the graveyard shift in a military state. There’s also a disjuncture, here, between content and medium—ink, the traditional medium of choice for calligraphers and classical Chinese painting, with all its scenes of tranquil nature, feels ill-suited for the harsh, faceless combatants in Xie’s “Night Watch.”
The image is pulled from a New York Times article and is consistent with Xie’s fascination with news media. Xie’s paintings are, it seems, the fragments of found narratives.
Similar in his unification of traditional practice with contemporary content, Fang Lijun explores the disillusionment of a generation that grew up during the Tiananmen Square protests. “Spring 2008” is a woodblock print–of what, it’s hard to say: the canvas, floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall, holds a suggestion of Picasso’s Guernica. There’s a similar range of characters and emotions, and the eye is drawn to scenes within scenes–a row of bodies in coffins, a woman’s face, thrown back in apparent pain, more bodies, laid in rows.
Fang’s biography names him as a student of the Cynic Realism school of the 1990s, and his work in “Fragmentary Narratives” is evidence of the shattered idealism of Chinese Communism.
Quietly, through news clippings and found stories, through prints and ink-on-paper, Chinese contemporary artists are turning a critical eye on their young-old country, seeking any semblance of an arc in a colorful, troubled narrative.