Urban Yearnings: Portraits of Contemporary China

Su Xinping

Liu Qinghe, Su Xinping, and Zhang Yajie

February 13 – April 25, 1999

Towards the end of February, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) will present a large-scale exhibition of contemporary Chinese art organized with the Asia Society in New York. It is an ambitious project that encompasses a diversity of art forms including video and installation works, oils and ink paintings, and features artists from the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora. Because of its large scale, some of the pieces in the exhibition will be showcased at the Asian Art Museum in Golden Gate Park.

We are pleased to see contemporary Chinese art featured prominently in a major museum whose prestige will guarantee the media’s attention and coverage. In conjunction with this event, the Chinese Culture Center, in collaboration with Red Gate Gallery in Beijing, China, will also present an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art. Titled Urban Yearnings: Portraits of Contemporary China by Liu Qinghe, Su Xinping, and Zhang Yajie, this exhibition of 24 paintings, oils and ink, focuses on the artists’ visions of cosmopolitan life in a rapidly changing society.

The transformations that China has gone through in the last two decades propelled the country into a period of modernization. Along with modernity, however, came commercialism, an influx of people into cities, the desire for instant monetary gratification, competitiveness, and a widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. The conflicts of a communist state ideology and an essentially capitalistic economy gave rise in the late eighties to art forms that became popular in the nineties, such as Political Pop and Cynical Realism as parody and criticism of political ideas and the growing materialistic middle class.

Su Xinping

The psyche of this emerging middle class is a prevalent subject found in the paintings of the three artists in our exhibition. Liu Qinghe, Su Xinping, and Zhang Yajie capture the complex emotions experienced by the Chinese in urban areas such as mixed sentiments of alienation, self mockery, desire, indifference, cynicism, anxiety, and pleasure.

Su Xinping, who is also featured in the exhibition at the SFMoMA, graduated from the Tianjin Institute of Fine Arts and received a Master’s Degree in Printmaking from the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. He is currently the Deputy Head of the Printmaking Department at CAFA. Su is well known for his lithographs. In recent years, he has translated from the print medium to oil his series Sea of Desire, a group of images that depict figures leaping out onto a sea of waving hands in a state of utter abandon or ecstasy. The surrealistic quality gives the images a heightened unreal feeling, hence disconnecting the subject from any contextual reference. Are these images a reflection of the disconnectedness felt by the Chinese in their own surroundings? Or are the images of figures mimicking each other a reflection of the mindlessness of modern man?

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Liu Qinghe

Liu Qinghe graduated in 1987 from the Folk Art Department of CAFA, where he also earned a Master’s Degree in Chinese Painting in 1989. In 1992, he completed a residency program at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid, Spain. He is currently a Chinese Painting instructor at CAFA. Using the traditional medium of ink and color on paper, Liu’s works are far from being traditional. His figures possess a grotesque realism. Facial features are exaggerated yet they reveal few emotions. The men and women are depicted in mundane settings while their attire proclaims a comfortable middle-class status. This false sense of security is betrayed by a disturbing emotional distance that the viewer can discern between the figures. Grim as it may sound, Liu’s paintings convey the tensions, superficiality and banality in this class of people.

Zhang Yajie graduated from the Department of Printmaking at CAFA in 1984 and currently teaches Photography and Art History at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute. Using exclusively blacks and grays and whites, he creates portraits of people with identifiable emotions. He manages to capture in his oils the idiosyncrasies of an individual’s gestures and facial expressions, some playful, some serious, and some neutral. The figures represent mostly young people one finds on the streets of Beijing. Underneath their casualness and unconventionality is a group of people one can relate to-individuals with real problems, yearnings, and hopes.

Zhang Yajie

With the boundaries of the world becoming blurry with mass communication and media, internet access, and a global economy, China strives to achieve balance between the state, the market, and international powers. All these developments have affected the lives of the common Chinese. Artists are looking into how this yet-to-be-reconfigured society affects their private lives and individual choices. Attention is now turned toward the individual as the three artists in the exhibition have shown us. No doubt China will continue its economic reforms and more changes will be seen in the coming years. It will be fascinating to observe how contemporary Chinese art develops during this period.