This September, Christie’s Shanghai autumn auctions will present a series of works by some of the most sought-after contemporary Chinese artists. Featuring works ranging from abstract painting to photography and sculpture, the sales showcase the exceptional talents and diversity of China’s artistic avant-garde.
In an increasingly interconnected world, Chinese artists have developed a wide array of techniques that draw upon a multitude of sources. While some look to the past for inspiration, others prefer visual styles that seem divorced from any one cultural context. Yet whether or not Chinese artists opt to engage directly with issues of cultural identity, those who were born and continue to live on the mainland share a common heritage that influences their practice.
Shanghai native Ding Yi assembles his visual code of ‘+’ and ‘x’ symbols into complex matrices of colour and pattern. Ding has cited the chaos of the modern metropolis as an inspiration for his work; his paintings’ geometric compositions evoke the binary codes and randomized patterns underpinning much of modern technology. In reducing the painted field to simple patterns, Ding strives to attain a pure visual experience, pushing the boundaries of abstraction.
Su Xiaobai’s sculptural paintings are deceptively simple, at first sight resembling slabs of time-worn wood. But the illusion of age is in fact the result of a complex series of steps: the artist applies numerous layers of traditional Chinese lacquer over a shaped wooden base, treating the surface multiple times in order to produce the rich textures of the final product. A single colour thus becomes increasingly rich and mellow, while lacquer’s natural thickness means that even as Su produces avant-garde works they still possess a rich sense of history.
Like Su Xiaobai’s paintings, Wang Guangle’s pieces are the end product of painstaking, labour-intensive processes. Whether painting thousands of tiny terrazzo tiles, or layering canvases with numerous coats of acrylic, Wang’s work explores our experience of time. His works are at once self-contained visual experiences and a documentation of the time and energy invested in their creation.
The work of Beijing-based artist Huang Yuxing frequently features rivers and bubbles executed in translucent layers of neon paint. The two motifs represent different conceptions of time: the flowing and the instantaneous. In a visit to the artist’s studio, Huang explained his attraction to fluorescent colour, which, he argues, is ‘the colour of our generation’.
You Jin’s paintings seem to explode in a frenzy of colour, lines and space. Multiple perspectives coexist simultaneously, creating the sensation of gazing in many directions at once. You paints each of his works by hand, without digital aid, layering streaks of vivid orange next to electric blue. His psychedelic works vividly express the artist’s fascination with chaos, noise, and the complexity of modern society.
Xu Lei’s dream-like compositions, executed in ink on silk, pay tribute to the gongbi (fine line) style of classical Chinese painting. In his imagined worlds, submerged scholar’s rocks and floating mountains are rendered in soft shades of azure blue — a colour favoured by the artist. Xu’s works are magically surreal, combining the methods and visual elements of classical painting with a distinctly contemporary aesthetic and humour.
Zhan Wang’s stainless-steel sculptures are modelled directly upon classical scholar’s rocks — stones shaped naturally by wind and water, and revered by generations of Chinese literati as expressions of nature’s beauty. Recreating these organic sculptures in shiny metal, Zhan Wang forges a link between Chinese tradition and modern industry.
Deriving inspiration from classical Buddhist and Taoist art, Li Chen’s plump, smiling manikins drift on clouds, clutching wisps of flame. These playful yet powerful sculptures borrow directly from classical depictions of the Buddha to evoke feelings of peace and spiritual wellbeing. The curved forms and polished, black surfaces of his figures also recall the aesthetic of modernist sculpture.
Trained from an early age to paint in a Soviet Realist style, Wang Yin subverts realism’s norms and standards to give his work an element of the theatrical. In his paintings, settings and figures drawn directly from daily life in China are rendered unfamiliar and foreign. Stripping away all unnecessary flourishes, Wang seeks a visual experience in which the focus lies not on decorative detail, but on the essential interaction between the viewer and the work.
Primarily employing film and video, Yang Fudong’s work pays tribute to the golden age of Chinese cinema, evoking nostalgia for the past while commenting on the prevalence of artifice in modern media. Romantic in their own right, while hinting at larger narratives, Yang’s photographs resemble film stills or photoshoot outtakes, beautiful in their imperfection and sense of spontaneity, and offering a glimpse into the artist’s vision of past, present and future.