Over the last several years, Chinese contemporary art has achieved international status and acclaim; individual artists are consistently heralded for their breakthrough visions and unique expressions, but it is rare to find a collection that offers a near holistic view of the major currents under-pinning new Chinese art, the collectors seeming to intuit these new directions almost as the artists are discovering them themselves. The collection of Kathy and Lawrence Schiller from Southern California is one such collection. Mr. Schiller is an award-winning photojournalist, Emmy-winning motion picture producer and director, and best-selling author, and Mrs. Schiller has been a Hollywood studio photographer for over 30 years. Their relationship with China spans nearly four decades, beginning with Mr. Schiller's work as a photojournalist in the 1960s and over the years he has produced historic images of the likes of Richard Nixon, Robert Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, O.J. Simpson, Lee Harvey Oswald and Dr. Henry Lee. Mr Schiller's films of Dr. Lee were selected for special broadcast by the China Central Television Bureau, and Mr. & Mrs. Schiller first traveled with Dr. Lee and later lectured at universities throughout China in support of the arts. As a result, the Schillers came in closer contact with the Chinese art world more than ever before. During this time, they became close friends with many artists, discussing in intimate detail their personal lives and experiences to better understand how it informed their art. Soon they began to build a collection scaled to suit their home in Southern California, preferring to collect through galleries, dealers and other channels, rather than imposing on these new friendships, and focusing on what they perceived as the major cross-currents underpinning the nascent movement, wanting a collection they could live with and one that reflected their own years of experience in China.
The sophistication of China's long aesthetic traditions is indisputable, but for artists born after the founding of the People's Republic, their exposure to art and art education was all but limited to the officially ordained Socialist Realism adapted from the Soviet model. With Mao's death, the re-opening of Chinese academies and universities after the Cultural Revolution, and the liberalization policies under Deng Xiaoping, Chinese artists made the radical leap into contemporary art. From Zeng Fanzhi and Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi and Li Shan, Xu Bing and Gu Wenda, and numerous others, the artworks in the Schiller Collection display Chinese artists' relentless pursuit of new techniques and vocabularies to critically re-define the representation of their own existence: the re-evaluation of the notion of the self through portrait painting and performance art; the ironic appropriation of communist imagery; the re-invention of calligraphy and self-styled literati artists into new media forms; the re-evaluation of historical and collective memory, and more.
Chinese artists training in and exposure to the power of mass-produced imagery ingrained in them a uniquely conceptual view art-making and of identity in particular. While Zeng Fanzhi famously focused on the psychological crisis of his generation, in particular as it struggled to adjust to a more superficial social environment, Zhang Xiaogang took as his focus the collective character of the nation, and in particular on the trauma of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Inspired by family photographs from the era, Zhang painted conceptual portraits of young comrades in deliberately standardized poses. In a unique series produced for the historic 8 + 8 - 1 exhibition, Zhang painting sixty-four of these individual portraits. They are best understood then not so much as portraits of individuals exactly, but of a generation. The two featured here were in fact painted on the same day, reunited by chance in the Schillers' collection (Lot 1588). The figures are imbued with a feeling for tragedy and nostalgia, suggestive of the unspoken fates of these figures whose lives are yet to unfold. Zhang adds the eponymous "bloodlines" to each figure, tenuous threads that link them to others not featured, implying their fragile and often conflicted relationship to their community, particularly at a time when embodying the politically correct ideal could mean betraying one's own family obligations.
This question of negotiating personal memories against the collective urge to erase past traumas can be found throughout the works of artist's of Zhang's generation. Throughout Hai Bo's self-reflective photography, Hai appropriates personal photographs and re-stages them in the present, as in Bridge (Lot 1610) where the loss of past relationships and the innocence of youth reverberates between the two images: one showing the artist as an adolescent, flirting and relaxing with his friends, compared with the lonesome figure of the artist in the present, leaning out across the bridge in search of a scene long gone. Similarly, his Dusk No. 1-3 (Lot 1609) repeats three related images in three rows: one of the artist, one of a lonesome horizon, and one of a family member on what appears to be her deathbed. The haunting images suggest the cruelty of the landscape and of time itself, a far cry from the heroic idealism that had depicted the common lives of Chinese people in the past.
Not only metaphorical portraits but conceptual self-portraits become another liberating direction. Contra a regime of idealized, Socialist Realist history painting, focusing on one's humble self was already at its core a radical gesture, and one that allowed artists to comment freely on larger social realities. This was especially the case for Beijing's Cynical Realist painters but was pervasive in performance and conceptual photography as well. Fang Lijun's self-portrait as a nihilistic, shaved-headed hooligan became the dominant motif of his work in all media; as with his innovative woodblock prints (Lot 1604) or his lugubrious gold-headed sculptures (Lot 1601), the image came to represent a kind of "every man", their distorted features in states of ecstasy or terror, symbolic of the ennui and existential drift that beset Fang and his generation following the Tian'anmen Square Incident. Similarly, Yang Shaobin's expressionistic visions of pure violence conveyed the artists's view of human nature and social life, displaying a kind of violence that convulses through the body of his figures, consuming them from within. It is clear from this rare self-portrait featured here (Lot 1593) that even the artist himself is not exempt for this worldview.
Implementing the self as a symbol rather than a conventional portrait pervaded all media and genre. Throughout his career, performance artist Cang Xin has used his body as the medium through which he tries to challenge boundaries of culture and knowledge (Lot 1596), suggesting that even the most intimate and literal forms of contact do not necessarily transmit knowledge. Yin Xiuzhen uses her own biography to address the mutability of identity and its relationship to the material environment. In her series of photos, Shoes (Lot 1611), she uses common household slippers and inserts tinted photos from different periods of her life to suggest an alternate theory of "portraiture", not one that is expressive of some interior state, but the evolution of the self through the archive of material objects one accumulates over time. This interrogation into the nature and definition of individual identity can also be found in Wang Jinsong's Qi & Blood photograph (Lot 1612). In this work, Wang alternates standard head and shoulder shots of individual men, backlit that so that their features become unrecognizable, the work's title implying traditional Chinese notions of identity and kinship that escape conventional visual description.
Another dominant trend throughout the 1990s was in explicitly re-evaluating the visual culture associated with the high communist period. Sometimes referred to as "Political Pop", these artists recognized the ways in which the standardization of China's propaganda machine contributed to a distorted view of history, but also ironically paved the way for the Westernized consumer culture that was to come. This was especially the case in the works of Wang Guangyi, Li Shan, and the Luo Brothers. Li Shan was among the first artists to appropriate Mao's own image for the purposes of a distinctly Chinese Pop Art. In his Rouge Series (Lot 1586) painting from 1994, Li appropriates a canonical image of Mao as a young and dashing radical. The title suggests the red of the revolution as well as the sensuality inherent to the image, indexing of the levels of desire and projection that underpin a cult of personality. Li's portrait though is not pure iconoclasm, as the slightly feminized features and stylized lotus flower are equally reminiscent of Buddhist imagery, further suggesting that Li's work is a clever and coy reflection on the cultural circumstances of Mao's iconicity and power.
Wang Guangyi's Great Criticism series have become iconic of this radical ideological shift from communism to capitalism, and his paintings, such as Great Criticism: Myspace.com featured here (Lot 1587) highlight both his personal cynicism over this turn of events, while also celebrating the enormous political and economic power China now yields. The chiseled, graphic features of his soldier and laborer surge heroically forward, sharing not a weapon but an ink pen, symbolic of the power of the artist as a cultural producer and the new power China itself holds. Other artists working in this mode took icons of traditional Chinese culture and Chinese communist culture - from Wang Jin's imperial robe rendered in transparent polyvinyl (Lot 1597), Sui Jianguo's soft rubber headless Mao jacket (Lot 1589), and even Xue Song's shadowy and illegible The Newest Directive (Lot 1590) - artists revealed the ways in which the powerful aura of these icons had quickly been evacuated of their original meaning and rendered kitsch.
The works of Ye Yongqing perfectly embody his generation's spectrum of experimentation and re-invention. On a small, rare mixed media work on silk (Lot 1599), Ye uses sketchy washes of ink and colour to produce seemingly disparate images, including cages and cells, pierced hearts, portraits with missing features, leafless trees, birds and fish. The graffiti-like, seemingly "automatic" drawing was apparently created an ode to Keith Haring, signaling Ye's self-conscious engagement with the Western art world, while the collage of images suggests Ye's relaxed reflection on contemporary China as well as traditional Chinese imagery and calligraphy. Indeed, contemporary artists' re-engagement with traditional art-making theories, techniques, and imagery, has been an important trend among the Chinese avant-garde, offering an avenue through which to subvert recent political history and assert core Chinese aesthetic traditions. Ye's later Crane painting (Lot 1603) at first appears to be a simple sketch of a bird on canvas, but close inspection reveals that the bird's form is composed of tiny cross-hatching calligraphic strokes rendered in acrylic, resembling the abstracted qualities of traditional bamboo ink painting, while the negative space of the canvas is carefully balanced against the calligraphic strokes to delineate not absence but form.
The conceptual re-evaluation of calligraphy and the reinvention of the scholar painter tradition is exemplified in the work of which Xu Bing and Gu Wenda. In his ground-breaking Book From the Sky series (Lot 1598), Xu meticulously de-constructed the component parts of the Chinese language, inventing a script that resembled Chinese but that was completely unintelligible. With these new "characters", Xu created hanging scrolls, bound sutras, and exegetical texts in the traditional manner, producing an overwhelming a sea of meaningless and maddening discourse. The bound set of four texts featured here (Lot 1616) deftly highlights the viewer's taken-for-granted assumptions about knowledge, meaning, and communication, while indirectly reminding us of the level of suspicion that had developed around the written word in the communist era. Similarly, Gu Wenda's experimental calligraphy emerged from his study of classical and archaic scripts, which the artist would then alter and re-invent in large scale scrolls. His The Mythos of Lost Dynasties Series (Lot 1606) were reminiscent of the Big Character posters from the Cultural Revolution period, but also suggested the ways in which China's traditional culture had become unrecognizable and foreign even to the Chinese themselves. This interest in history, communication and language in Gu's work evolved to include such works as Meta-Morphosis No. B-1 (Lot 1617), wherein the artist renders his archaic calligraphic forms entirely in human hair collected from around the world, suggesting forms of knowledge and communication that transcend the limits of history and culture.
It is testimony to the richness and depth of new Chinese art that it cannot be neatly divided into discreet movements and trends. Artists working in wildly different styles can be seen to nonetheless be operating from similar positions of self-reflexive and conceptual rigor. On the one hand, their works represent a wholesale re-evaluation of a vast cultural and aesthetic history, while on the other hand finding new and unexplored terrain through appropriating and re-working both Eastern and Western art practice and theory, and it is a rare and extraordinary opportunity to be able to witness these currents and cross-currents moving through a collection like that of Mr & Mrs. Schiller's.