Chinese artists trace social legacies across eras

“From the beginning, I have been trying to show how to modernize the past,” says artist Zhu Wei the description of his work on the museum wall. Contemporary Chinese art is ineluctably rooted in political and ideological considerations – national identity and the Chinese state are inherently intertwined. In such a closely scrutinized Chinese society, then, what cultural role can the artist play? In Tradition and Transition: Recent Chinese Art from the Collection, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) showcases recently donated work of 11 contemporary Chinese artists who have creatively re-imagined their country’s artistic canon. The artists represented here consider how traditional Chinese art can remain relevant in a rapidly changing culture, while also acknowledging many of its limitations.

Tradition and Transition is organized without a specific timeline or narrative; there is no overarching theme that these artists are meant to exemplify. Organized by Elizabeth Gallerani, coordinator of Mellon Academic Programs, along with Rong Zhao and Patrick Rhine, art history graduate students at the College, this exhibition astutely shies away from imposing a comprehensive vision of contemporary Chinese art or its style. The 11 artists represent a vast range of ages and birthplaces. The oldest was born in 1902; the youngest in 1977. These artists come from urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai as well as small towns like Maopo village in the Guangdong province. With this exhibit, the curators demonstrate how a geographically and generationally varied group of artists can grapple with the same political and social issues and artistic legacy.

The notion of history is very prescient in Tradition and Transition. The curators begin with a basic historical context, but in other respects, allow the work and the individuality of each artist’s experience to speak for themselves. In one way or another, all the artists here have drawn influence from the Cultural Revolution, begun in 1966 by Chairman Mao Zedong, which forced millions to move from urban to rural areas for “re-education.” The Revolution condemned traditional art as feudal and foreign art as bourgeois, and the state replaced them with Soviet-inspired social realism. In 1976, the death of Mao brought the rise of Deng Xiaoping, who radically changed China’s economic policies and allowed a freer, hybrid style of art that combined Western and traditional Chinese influences.

Zhu Wei’s “China Diary, No. 52” (2001), is based on a famous Chinese animal painting from the Tang dynasty, Han Huang’s “Five Oxen.” Wei uses xuan paper (a soft-textured paper often used for calligraphy) and fine brush technique from traditional ink painting, a choice he explains on a plaque appearing next to his work: “I have always tried to use traditional Chinese elements because we have thousands of years of history.” “China Diary” preserves the expressive, almost human eyes of the original oxen, but has recreated it on a much vaster scale. It is almost as if Wei is asking us to take a closer, magnified look at Chinese history. Wei’s painting preserves and echoes many elements of the original. Two oxen are painted on top of an abstracted background, indicating no specific time or place. The brushstrokes are linear rather than painterly, and the color palette of warm yellows, browns and reds are reminiscent of the original. However, the reimagining of this painting has taken on a new significance in the 21st century – how are we supposed to define contemporary Chinese culture in a time of such change? In a country where the largest cultural forces are the state and businesses, how is a contemporary Chinese artist meant to fit into a conception of Chinese society? With “China Diary,” Wei asserts that the artist is a cultural historian of sorts. Art can truly “re-educate” by bringing history into a modern world.

Qui Deshu’s “Fissuring-Genesis” series from 1996 similarly plays with traditional formats and mediums. In the exhibit’s description of his work, Deshu describes how he uses innovative techniques together with the traditional medium of xuan paper. In 1982, he noticed a cracked slab of stone while walking, finding it “crudely charming and natural, and quite calm.” He began to notice similar cracks, from the smallest cells to the composition of the earth. Carrying this idea into his artistic practice, Deshu began “fissuring,” which consists of applying paint to xuan paper and then tearing it to expose the canvas underneath. Fissuring allows Deshu to explore traditional ink painting by completely transforming compositional elements. The passive medium of the paper becomes an expressive tool.

In Deshu’s “Fissuring-Genesis-Landscape, No. 5,” the ripped paper shows a blue-painted canvas underneath. The rectangular, vertical format and abstracted marble-like forms are reminiscent of traditional landscape scrolls, with looming mountains in the background and a miniscule lone human in the foreground. Here however, there is no human presence. The canvas and paper – the medium itself – are the visual elements. In addition to fissuring, Deshu has played with the texture of the paper, rubbing it away in some parts to create a mottled, half-destroyed effect, as if he is erasing the very medium that his art is dependent on. Deshu demonstrates how physically vulnerable this traditional medium can be, but the piece as a whole does not appear vulnerable at all. Rather, the canvas is suggestive of a raw force streaking across its face – it is not the destruction of tradition, but rather the birth of a new artistic force. It is only by deconstructing this traditional medium that he has been able to create something stronger and more resilient.

Throughout the exhibition, there remains a sense of tension between the inescapable influence of Chinese history and a striving for artistic independence. If anything, it shows the incredible scrutiny that these artists worked under – it is impossible to be a Chinese artist in a social and political vacuum. The wall labels give miniature biographies of each artist, emphasizing the individual’s experience and career while also illuminating unintended overlaps between their experiences: controversies with the artistic community, innovation versus tradition and Western versus Eastern influences. All are works of incredible technical proficiency, resonant in cultural and political meaning.