Fan Jiupeng, Liu Lei and Zhang Xuerui, are three of China’s post eighties generation artists. This generation has, in general, suffered less, yet at the same time, are probably less enthusiastic and less bold than their predecessors. Over the past fifteen years, artists in China have been mainly responding to societal issues and relating the scars of the past, working in the spirit of change and renewal, using bright colours and large scale works. It is apparent that artists of this younger generation are more moderate in their expression, and possibly more solemn and sad; even if humour is prominent in the work of Fan Jiupeng.
Former student of China’s main expressionist artist Liu Xiaodong, Fan Jiupeng has undoubtedly retained the influence of his teacher, yet he has formed his own unique language, playing with the form and idea of the double-sided works in oil or on tracing paper. He effectively creates a system whereby the painting is to be viewed from both sides, and where each figure is painted from the front and the back. He plays with the ambivalence of the individual and the double personalities that we live by. In this series his subjects are China’s youth, rightfully sullen and sulky adolescents of the one-child generation. His most recent works humorously and playfully depict the Chinese middle class and people on the street, the laobaixing(1); his use of large sized tracing paper providing a more thorough medium to explore his two-sided works and his often extremely amusing subjects. With an ironic tone, he illustrates a certain group of society: listless youth on their sofa, scenes of daily life, a bored couple. His strong and sure brushstrokes are surprising for an artist of his age, giving considerable strength to his work which has evolved from the large sized portraits and self-portraits where bunches of keys hang around the necks of his subjects; the keys of youth highlighting hope filled futures…
This future and youthfulness is communicated in a considerably darker tone in the work of Liu Lei and Zhang Xuerui. Both graduates from the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), they present in their own style and vision more contemplative paintings: Liu Lei’s works verge on hyperrealism, whilst Zhang Xuerui is resolutely abstract – presenting a style rarely explored by Chinese artists.
Liu Lei’s series of oil paintings on small canvases depict a very specific world – that of the students of CAFA and their studios at Wangjing, an area close to their university. Yet there are only two elements of this life that are represented: lights and light switches. The students live in overcrowded, dilapidated and grimy housing built in the 1970s, with their long cold corridors and communal living areas, shattered lights and dirty walls. This seemingly unpleasant scenario could initially repel the viewer, yet for those who are familiar with this architectural and social element of Beijing may find something familiar and moving in these works. The two objects – light and light switch – are extremely detailed and may be described as photorealist; the difference being that the artist draws us into a personal and almost warm environment. These small still lifes consecrate elements of daily life and encourage a form of meditation.
As for many abstract works, there is a clear aspect of meditation in Zhang Xuerui’s paintings, which is approached through repetition and rhythm. A graduate of the architecture department of CAFA, Zhang decided to devote herself only to painting and, within her painting, the juxtaposition of squares or cubes - one hundred each time arranged in a grid-like fashion, with one colour per canvas in shading tones. Colour, shading and regularity are three essential components of her paintings. The repetition stems from the learning process of the ancient art of Chinese calligraphy, with each stroke of the brush repeated hundreds of times until reaching perfection. This repetitive approach of movement, carried out thousands upon thousands of times over the past two years, resembles a philosophy in itself and is a unique characteristic of her work. The pure colour is chosen as a symbol of humanity and optimism. The darker shades call on temporal and directional concerns. The extremely precise construction of each and every one of her paintings could also make reference to her background in architecture. More than anything, however, it is a way for Xuerui to represent the chaotic nature of the society that she has grown up in. The consistency of squares contrasts the colours that evolve along the length of the grid: a game between emotion and reason, precision and blurriness, instantaneousness and time… this young woman is a proponent of Daoism, which divides the world between yin and yang, yet also inverts and merges the two. Her work is rhythmic, almost musical, profound and with a three dimensional quality.
Each of these three artists represents their world in a very personal way, where society inspires and leads to reflection translated with humour, anxiety and repetition. This exhibition proposes three alternate languages of Chinese youth that sways between hope and disillusion.
(1) laobaixing (老百姓) literally means the "old hundred names" and is an expression to name the "ordinary people".