It’s almost counterintuitive — in the midst of the glorious chaos that is China as it modernizes itself, Chinese painters are technically spotless. In their hands, paint has been tamed, a tool with which they slickly create canvases with flawless surfaces that almost hide their workmanship.
With such controlled execution, they are almost too good for their own good. When technique is no longer the question — when skill has made anything possible — then what becomes important is content. Ludovic Bois of the gallery Chinese Contemporary, which has locations in London, Beijing and recently opened a New York space, believes that there are two directions for art in China.
“The two new schools that are represented by the young generation are: The cartoon school, where artists create their own world influenced by the new glamour and the advertising society which surrounds them,” Bois told The Japan Times last week at his New York gallery, “and the chaos school of other artists who are more concerned about the tensions in China, whether they are social, environmental or political. Both schools are in high demand, however cartoon art is more ‘sellable’ due to its more engaging subjects.”
Chinese painters, many of whom choose human caricatures as their subjects, broadly take three approaches to content: social commentary, alienation from the self and humor. Currently at Chinese Contemporary’s New York gallery in the popular art enclave of Chelsea, Bois has brought together three young, female Chinese painters in an exhibition titled “Cartoon.” Each of the three — Han Yajuan, Wang Ke and Li Li appear to represent one of these approaches.
The favorite of collectors at the show, 27-year-old Han uses a cartoonish sensibility to portray the new fantasy life that young Chinese women dream of enjoying amid the rising economy’s promises of wealth and luxury. Big-headed girls done in soft pinks are surrounded by the trappings of modern success — designer sunglasses, purses, a Volkswagon beetle — suggesting a commentary on the new consumerism in China.
But the combination of perfect execution and a message that is well-worn within any society make these works more like magazine illustrations than anything profound. In light of the other artists in the show, it is understandable that they are more popular — these are paintings you could put in your living room without having to explain.
Li Li is an entirely different case. A joyful, demented, mischievous, shocking one at that. The 25-year-old painter from Sichuan province, in only her third group show, uses the flatness of the cartoon aesthetic to a greater degree than either Han or Wang. But within those simplified spaces, Li Li has created gleefully horrendous, laugh-out loud moments of depravity.
“Bleeding Apples” (2007) shows a girl in a catsuit stabbing apples on the floor, from which blood spurts out in attractive patterns. And that’s just a warm up. “Girl’s Toy” (2007) shows another girl, her face a half moon across the top of the canvas, applying — with great concentration — nail polish to her delicate fingers. Nice enough, until you notice that she is actually painting her nails with the blood of a smaller girl whose arm she has ripped off.
“I am the type of person who, at any time and at any place, is daydreaming,” Li Li tells The Japan Times by e-mail. “I am always smiling and I love joking around, though I often hide my emotions. As a result, humor is often present in my works, but the mood within my paintings is often pained and sad.”
All of these images would be horrifying — it goes on for several more canvases — if it weren’t that the paintings inspire guilty laughter as much as repulsion. Li Li has somehow captured that deranged innocence of a child that knows it has done something wrong but will enjoy playing until they are found out. She has crossed some line, but with such humor and abandon, that the shock of the paintings becomes part of their appeal. This shows a mind at work, not someone offering what already exists.
“What is remarkable is that she is a very mild and kind young woman,” says Bois. “She is a happy person, and I often wonder where such cruelty and violence comes from.”
In an art world awash in social and political commentary, or obsessed with the process of creation, it is refreshing to come across humorous art, works that ask for little more than to amuse. It is not an easy thing to do, as was apparent at the Mori Art Museum’s recent exhibition “Laughter,” which felt hit-or-miss in its attempt to fulfill its intended purpose — especially after the stunning section of traditional Japanese art, “Smile.”
Japan itself has more than enough anime-inspired art of its own, but in comparison to the boldness of some Chinese painters, it often seems flaccid or superficial. While art star Takashi Murakami can be admired for his zeal and passion, his works ring hollow and sad. And the younger generation of artists who take from anime often seem to be looking at their bellybuttons, consumed by unclear personal dramas.
While the skill of Chinese painters can make them feel facile, their world is more explosive. And in this show, their cartoon-like art feels different from the now familiar Japanese style.
While the Chinese market has been heating up in Europe for a while now, it is just hitting its stride in the U.S., with several galleries in Chelsea dedicated to Chinese works and auction houses Christies and Sotheby’s each selling two selections of Asian art a year. Opening this week at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston , a show called “RED HOT!” further introduces the cartoon aesthetic of Chinese works. But for a simple taster, “Cartoon” at Chinese Contemporary is a great place to start, and Li Li an artist to watch.
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