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In the last two decades, a remarkably diverse and vibrant art scene has taken root across mainland China. Throughout the 1980s - and even today - artists continued to be trained in the highly rigorous Soviet-derived 'Socialist Realist' styles. At the same time, political and cultural reforms opened China's floodgates to the global economy and Western pop culture. Artists were suddenly free to experiment more technically and thematically, and, confronted with a rapidly changing society, almost immediately began to produce an utterly new kind of Chinese art.
Many artists began to find their voice in the 1990s with works that feature oblique social critiques and more personal forms of symbolism. Some, like Zhang Xiaogang, began to directly address the societal damage caused as a result of the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976). Zhang, for example, began his 'Bloodline: The Big Family' series in 1993, inspired by family photographs from that era. In later works, Zhang becomes more interested in individual subjectivities as they evolve over the life course, while in earlier works he focused largely on the feelings of obligation and expectation found in traditional Chinese families.
Borrowing from compositions of popular, black and white studio portraiture, Zhang renders his subjects' already conventionalised poses all the more rigid and devoid of expression, using the family unit as a site through which to explore issues of Chinese collectivism, history and memory. Over these solemn-hued portraits, Zhang paints 'bloodlines' linking family members, often with the youngest in a bold monochromatic colour. Straining to disappear under a collective ideal of a distinctly traumatic period, Zhang's families seem to tremble with the uncertainty of the future and lives yet to unfold.
Wang Guangyi began his 'Great Criticism' paintings in the early 1990s and they have rapidly become among the most striking works of Chinese contemporary art. Often referred to as a 'political pop' painter, Wang draws from the heroic and idealised propaganda images of the Cultural Revolution and combines them with the logos of well-known consumer products. By juxtaposing these seemingly ideologically oppositional aesthetics - not just in painting but in a variety of other media as well - Wang effectively dismisses both, satirizing the rapid social changes that have swept China in the last few decades.
Fang Lijun is known as one of the main representatives of the Cynical Realists. This group of artists was born in the 1960s and rejected the idealism of their parents. Instead, they focused on the reality surrounding them and expressions of anxiety serve as comic relief. Untitled is a signature example of Fang's paintings. The figure's bald head and the retracted torso stands for the annihilation of individuality, similar to the shaved heads of soldiers and prisoners. The deep background threatens to overwhelm the figure, expressing the smallness of man under nature's embrace. The vastness encourages us to continue seeking what is not found.
Yan Peiming moved to France to study at the Dijon Art Academy when he was only 20 years old. His career began with depicting the figure of Mao Zedong, though his approach differs from those of the Political Pop Artists in mainland China. As the artists states: "In the begining my aim was not to paint Mao's portrait. I want to represent Mao as a universal being." Mao, 1999, is characterized by its directness and simplicity. Executed in black and white with bold and broad brushstrokes, his facial expression, as opposed to the homogeneous background, commands our attention and invites us to communicate with him. From 1995 onwards, Yan created series of landscape paintings in which he treats elements in traditional European landscape in his personal style. International landscape doesn't evoke the kind of serenity often found in landscape paintings, but a sense of loneliness and menace. By creating works of large formats, Yan allows one 'to enter' the paintings and by maintaining the representational element of his images, Yan indirectly opposes technical means such as photography and video and thus proves that the gesture of painting is still current and appropriate today.