Scroll the Catalog above or read the Transposition Essay below
The Linda Matney Gallery’s exhibition, Transposition: Asian Cultures, offers a rare opportunity to view- and purchase from- a landmark collection of contemporary Chinese art in Virginia. Outside of major urban centers, Americans have few chances to see contemporary Chinese art. This exhibition introduces seven accomplished artists who widely exhibit in China but who are just now gaining recognition in the United States. A portion of Transposition art is showcased at the Peninsula Fine Art Center with events on February 8 and 15
Art has the unique ability to transcend language and bridge cultures, and this exhibition presents a window into current Chinese society, fostering a better understanding of China and its people. “Contemporary Art” is a relatively new concept in China, emerging in the 1980s and 90s during a turbulent period of modernization and economic expansion. While Communism and Confucianism are still influential and had, at times, severely restricted artists in the past, Chinese artists now enjoy a broad and general freedom of expression. The Linda Matney Gallery assembled the Transposition collection in conjunction with Landmark Arts & Cultural Exchange, an American group that helps coordinate opportunities for important contemporary arts and artists to travel between countries and facilitates for meaningful cultural exchange.
The Transposition works display this freedom, featuring an array of subjects, moods, and methods, from landscapes to figures, the deeply personal to the cautiously socio-political, and the serious and contemplative to the whimsical and ironic, all presented in varying degrees of realism and abstraction. Working in oils, the artists maintain a conscious connection to Chinese ink painting traditions while utilizing modes familiar in Western art such as naturalism, expressionism, and surrealism. Their varied messages and forms will easily relate to Western viewers on multiple levels.
Many of the artists in the exhibition demonstrate a national character and connection to local traditions while connecting to larger trends in modern and contemporary art. In particular, the expressive brushwork of the literati tradition is a common feature. Traditionally, the literati were “scholar-artists” who practiced calligraphy, painting, and poetry for their own aesthetic enrichment and pleasure. The literati aesthetic emphasizes spontaneity and individualistic brushwork believed to express the artist’s personality and mood. These features connected literati painting to Modernist expressionism and were especially inspirational to mid-twentieth century artists associated with American Abstract Expressionism and European Art Informel. Utilizing similar drips, stains, and thick, painterly brushstrokes to capture personal reactions to their place and time, artists in the exhibition reveal these associations between their national traditions and Western Modern art.
The oil paintings of professional artist Peng, Leihong (b. 1975, Hunan) demonstrate these connections between Eastern and Western art and balance realism and abstraction. Peng’s landscapes and figure paintings have a layered, almost pixelated effect created by the compositional structure, handling of paint, and subtle color combinations. In Dongzhai 5, for example, a tree in the foreground frames and is placed over a scene layered with houses, water, land, and mountains. The patterns of the branches, the splatters of paint, and the lines carved into impasto flatten the scene, while the use of white and blue creates reflections, suggesting depth. Peng’s choice of color along with the dots, splashes, thin lines, and sweeps of the brush almost seem like ink, while some works like Dongzhai 3 and Flower 4 are framed in the format of a traditional scroll painting. Blending naturalistic modeling and literati elements, these works illustrate Peng’s concept of “New Contemporary” art, which displays traditional Chinese subjects and forms and personal expression while being open to modern influences and current times.
The land and cityscapes of Gao, Xiaofei (b. 1971, Anhui) also demonstrate the evocative brushwork of literati painting, while the impasto oil paint and brooding colors of expressionism convey contemporary experience and a dark, personal mood. In land and cityscapes, dark blacks and browns dominate, capturing the grit and pollution of the city as well as the “melancholy mood of female artists” such as herself. The blurred, broad lines and uneasy angles of buildings imply the dynamism and disruption of rapid urban modernization.
While Gao’s landscapes relate to others in the exhibit, she is also known for her distinct figurative works. Gao speaks of a need to express the emotions of female experience which seem to be suggested in these works. Figures are painted without faces, some rounded and stylized like nesting dolls or folk figurines, while others look as if derived from faded photographs. Painted in minimal colors, these scenes suggest memories and time passing. A couple on the beach, a group of children, and a protective family unit of a mother, father, and child dressed in robes evoke the bonds of family and tradition. Lacking distinguishing details, the figures are deliberately generalized to express universal emotions like love and sadness so that, according to the artist, any identity can be projected onto the figures. As in Gao’s landscape paintings, emphasis is placed on the formal choices of color, placement, and brushwork to express the mood and concept.
While Gao presents more generalized figures to evoke universal emotions, Wa Qi Bi Huo, also known as Ye, Feng (b. 1969, Sichuan), creates paintings with a very specific identity in mind. A member of the Yi ethnic minority, Ye promotes traditional Yi culture as a professor and professional artist and has published over twenty papers in Chinese academic journals on the topic. The Yi mainly live in the southwestern provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou and have their own language and distinct style of art evident in painting, sculpture, embroidery, and lacquer work. Animals, birds, mountains, flowers, and other natural motifs are depicted in symbolic colors like black, red, and yellow. These forms relate to a traditional animistic religion that includes a deep reverence for nature, ancestor worship, and shamanism.
Ye Feng’s paintings utilize these traditional motifs and colors while referencing classical Chinese and Western art forms. Heavily outlined and textured forms in yellow, black, and white are placed against flat red backgrounds, evoking traditional elements as well as a Modernist primitivism. Abstracted figures dominate the compositions and are rendered in geometric shapes with somber faces in profile and frontal views. Their simplified triangular or rounded forms echo the landscape, suggesting their connection to their mountainous homelands. The stacked figures in Clouds on the Horizon wear triangular hats and heavy white and black robes, referencing traditional Yi costumes and the stylized motifs found in traditional Yi art. A dark mountain looms behind the solemn-faced figures in Sisters, embodying the rugged life and strength of the Yi people. “I always stand on the totem of my nationality, and from my root, I am searching for my own totem of art,” says Ye. As in other examples, his formal choices convey a powerful, personal expressionism.
Another southwestern professor and professional artist, Yang, Chunsheng (b. 1960, Yunnan), also finds the question of who he is to be fundamental, and his work reveals both Chinese and foreign influences. Unlike the other artists above, however, Yang abandoned the “fashionable” methods of abstract painting for a more realistic approach. While his work displays a slick realism with naturalistic details and modeling, the mood and effects of his works are surreal and disquieting which may allude to the current socio-political situation in China.
“Interesting paintings can only hint at exploring our own reality,” says Yang, and the scenes of his Beijing Travel Notes series call what we think we know about reality into question. The juxtaposition of detailed figures with flat swathes of minimal grounds, the unexpected contrasts of scale and color, and the skewed placements of figures are unsettling. Set in Tiananmen Square, as indicated by the familiar portrait of Mao Zedong above the archway, Beijing: 3 Uniforms depicts the famous location as a frozen space in mostly icy blue and gray tones. Large, looming figures in dark heavy coats, gloves, and hoods with backs turned guard the scene, their cropped forms providing sharp contrast to the small figure they frame in the middleground. Striking in his color and detail, this uniformed man walks hurriedly across the smooth ground, his entire form a bright red. His disproportionally smaller size and unexpected color as well as the sense of urgency and purpose suggested by his pose create a sense of unease and mystery.
Beijing is uncanny in the same way. The exact location is ambiguous; the seemingly solid wall and floor of the square or room could also be understood as sky or landscape. What seems like piled snow on the ground also appears to be mountain peaks or clouds as seen from above. A uniformed man stands on a curb on the ground which doubles as a ledge across this sky. Against a wall with abnormally large molding, a tiny white figure, again in stark contrast to the larger figures walking through the scene, appears to be looking at the wall or out to distant mountains in a landscape. In both works, the monitored spaces, frozenscapes, and uniformed figures make subtle allusions to surveillance and oppression, while the distortions of space and scale suggest the uncertainty and surreality of contemporary China, where technology and modernization simultaneously connect and disrupt communities. As Yang explains, in Beijing, different people from all over the world come together and have a “natural and mysterious encounter” in this public space. Real experience blurs with the virtual, as Yang also notes that “normal life has become a ‘performance’ on the screen.” In their strangeness, these works visualize this hyperreal aspect of contemporary existence.
Strange juxtapositions also characterize the paintings of professional artist Yu, Xuemin (b. 1963, Lhasa, Tibet). In Broken Mirror 1 and 2, the scenes are divided into three sections and are painted as if angled like a trifold screen or mirror. Yu describes the series as a “contemporary fable” which addresses “how to reconstruct the relationship between man and nature, between man and society, between man and himself in an age when…images are distorted by tampering.” Like Yang’s work, the naturalistic forms are recognizable, but the juxtaposition of objects and the rendering is unexpected and distorted. In Broken Mirror I, the three sections initially seem interrelated. Faded red containers sit atop or behind a rusty coal or gravel hopper on wheels, their warm colors complemented by the cool gray-blue-green sky and ground. The scene continues in gray scale into the right panel of the canvas, while the left section features the dark branches of a leafless tree and a traditional-styled building with an upturned roof angled against a sunrise or sunset. Instead of a scene, however, this panel appears to be a picture on a wall or board propped up by two yellow table legs. The contrasts and blending of gray scale and color and the manmade and natural suggest the uneasy relationship between nature and industry, reality and artifice.
Contrasting forms of nature and culture also compose Broken Mirror II. Against a flat gray backdrop, a golden brown grand piano with a broken frame commands the center section. It is flanked on the left by a dull brown wall on which hangs a bird and flower painting of the same brown color and what appears to be a cannon barrel positioned like a column. Facing it on the right is a striped tan wall with a white cloak hanging on a coat rack. The juxtaposition of disparate objects gives the work a surreal quality, while the angled and faceted manner in which the scenes are rendered relate to the title and the tampering of which Yu speaks.
The distorted perspective that mirrors create is also a feature in the figurative works of Peng Leihong. Like many of the other artists in the exhibition, Peng works in multiple modes, unrestrained by doctrine. In the Anti-Mirror series, detailed, naturalistic, semi-nude figures are seen in long horizontal rearview mirrors, their faces obscured. They look to be posing as if in an advertisement or display, but the fact that they are being seen in a mirror, and in rearview at that, gives them a voyeuristic quality that is at once playful and sinister. The contrasting realism of the figures and the spotted, gritty, abstract background of the mirror further accentuates the uneasy mood.
That unsettling yet playful quality is shared by Zhao, Xianfeng (b. 1968, Liaoning). While this is his first exhibition in the United States, Zhao is an esteemed artist in China, having been awarded the prestigious national designation of Senior Craft Artist. He shares the expressive brushwork of the other artists, but is distinguished by his imaginative figurative paintings and drawings. Prolific and highly original, Zhao explains his practice as a “recording [of his] spiritual journey” and process of life.
His large series of faces and contour drawings are especially arresting. Mask-like with open circular mouths and eyes, the faces are layered with colored lines and scribbles. Some faces contain human, animal, or bird forms as if thoughts are being visualized or identities are being obliterated or transformed into something new. His numerous whimsical contour line drawings, reminiscent of drawings by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, or Alexander Calder, include figures fishing and in boats and water, some with wings and others acrobatic. Repetitive forms extend from a few of the figures as if suggesting movement or thoughts. Delightful and intriguing, these works embody the fresh, unexpected perspectives and impressive range of emotions and approaches evident in this exhibition as a whole.
Transposition: Asian Cultures offers a unique opportunity to see high quality work from a range of prominent Chinese artists working in China today while affording American viewers a chance to better understand Chinese culture through contemporary Chinese art. Emphasizing formal issues of texture, color, and composition, these artists connect the literati tradition with Modern expressionism, conveying both a national character and a modern sensibility. They use these traditional and modern forms to express personal responses to local culture, the natural world, and urban experience, reflecting the “New Contemporary” art identified by Peng Leihong. Transposed to Virginia, these works offer glimpses of contemporary experience that are not so different from our own.