While prescient curators and gallerists, like Li Xianting, Gao Minglu, and Johnson Chang, were early champions of Chinese avant-garde art, this extraordinary movement was not always immediately appreciated or understood within China. Instead, foreign diplomats, journalists and intrepid collectors were often among the first to intuit that something much larger was at stake, that these unusual, experimental works represented not only a complete re-definition of Chinese contemporary culture, but new terrain in contemporary art itself, suggesting alternative approaches to representation, subjectivity, and contemporary aesthetics.
The four lots being offered on behalf of a Private European Collection of Chinese Contemporary Art, including the Zeng Fanzhi Mask (Lot 1025) in the Evening sale, two Fang Lijun canvases and one Yin Jun in the Day sale, come from just such a collection. The owner first encountered Chinese art - and Fang Lijun in particular - as it circulated sporadically through European galleries and museums in the early 1990s. The owner was struck by the singular vision of these works - their bold and unusual compositions, oblique humor, and elusive private symbols. Inspired by these discoveries, the owner soon became a loyal supporter of Beijing's artists, developing a passion for Chinese art and, after three decades of collecting, a collection marked by its almost intuitive appreciation for the inventiveness and eccentricities that would be cornerstones and turning points in the Chinese avant-garde world.
The two paintings by Fang Lijun embody the iconoclastic style of the times and the impulses that would transform Chinese contemporary art. Fang's works were among the first to circulate outside of China and garner interest for the country's developing artistic underground. His paintings of bald-headed men perfectly captured the nihilism felt by his generation, in particular after the Tiananmen Square Tragedy in June of 1989 and in the context of a rapidly expanding consumerist society. Fang deliberately played with ambiguity and the multilayered associations of the shaved head, which in China could equally reference monks, prisoners, or the military, all social settings where individual identity is necessarily suppressed, for the sake of spiritual liberation or to better serve the larger institution. Fang's willful adoption of the bald head therefore marked his figures as hooligans, social outcasts whose blase expressions often cannot be differentiated from laughter, yawns, and screams.
As the series progressed, Fang displayed a growing interest in utopian imagery. In 2004.1.8 (Lot 1221), Fang offers the disorienting image of a figure tumbling through space, surrounded by a garland of brightly colored flowers, against a background of distant, frosted mountain peaks. The typical features of the figure are obscured by the flowers, and yet the image is unmistakably Fang's; the associations of the bald head have now been sublimated by the form of the striped pajamas - reminiscent at once of leisure and relaxation, of hospital patients, and of prisoners. Despite the content, the effect is surprisingly serene. The pose of the figure suggests a joyful somersault, the bright colors harmonize with the flesh of the figure and the stripes of his clothes. Fang's rogue humor and rebellious nature remains apparent in the ambiguity of the scene: The sense of escape embodied by the flowers and figure are at odds with the harsh and forbidding horizon. If an image of reality, the viewer is all too aware that it's an impossible reality, and whatever pleasure the figure may enjoy, his fate is nonetheless sealed. If a vision instead of some utopian fantasy, Fang seems to suggest that even the idealism and hope inherent to such dreamscapes are false and doomed with inevitable pitfalls.
These contrary impulses - the urge for escape combined with a fatalistic foreboding - can be found throughout Fang's best work. In 2002.2.15 (Lot 1222), Fang offers a panoramic view of his luscious flowers set against the deep, cool blues of the skyline. Soft, luxurious clouds recede into infinity, while the foreground of the canvas is thick with blooming chrysanthemums in every color. Fang offers an impossible vantage point, cinematic in scale and beauty but utterly improbable, suggesting that this is one of Fang's least mediated visions of his utopic netherworld. Whereas in the past Fang painted figures whose emotional disposition was one of alienation, desiring both escape and annihilation, here finally is a material vision of that emotional urge. The contrasting colors of the flowers create a mesmerizing visual pattern across the composition. Scattered throughout are orange buds - the same tone Fang uses in his figures' flesh - which further compels the viewers' eyes to dart amongst the bouquet, in search of an absent figure. It is precisely this mix of conflicting imagery, technique and emotions - the seduction of the sublime, the appealing angst of the outsider/rebel, combined with an inexorable sense of loss - that quickly brought Fang to international attention and made him one of the great painters of experience of his generation.
This sensitivity to China's shifting zeitgeist is apparent in the younger painters present in the collection as well. Kitsch, irony and bold pop colors have become mainstays of Chinese contemporary painting, in particular as a strategy to highlight the artist's feeling of emotional dissonance with his or her environment. This has perhaps especially been the case as the country has moved increasingly towards a fully consumerist culture. Artists like Yin Jun, born in 1974, did not necessarily experience the Cultural Revolution first-hand, but nonetheless grew up where the myths, history, and imagery of that period were being recycled through a newly media-saturated world. It is hard to know then to whom his "crying babies" are referring. Often dressed in communist revolutionary regalia, or otherwise featuring, as with this lot, the comic image of an intensely proximate crying child, they could equally represent Yin's treatment of the "baby boomer" generation which preceded him, who through the Scar Art literature and painting movements have fully aired and exhausted the traumas of the Cultural Revolution, or, alternately, his own generation, the first "only child" generation, whose personal and historic challenges are so much less heroic than that of their parents. Here we can see how the "first generation" of Chinese avant-garde painters established strategies, tropes and themes that would redefine the face of Chinese culture, and which would be taken up by younger artists and advanced to ever new conceptual and aesthetic terrain.