SHANGHAI - When a painting by the early 20th century Chinese artist Xu Beihong fetched 33 million yuan ($4.1 million) at an auction earlier this summer, the news made the front page of the China Daily. It was the highest amount ever paid for a Chinese oil painting. The buyer was an unnamed local private collector.
Sotheby Holding's auction of contemporary Asian art in New York in March took in $13 million, setting sales records for many of the artists. The local media avidly reported the gobbling up of Chinese art by Westerners, all of a sudden smitten by art from China.
In a rocketing economy where government owns the land but is curtailing rampant speculation with new regulations, art is the new real estate in China. But, longtime observers bemoan speculation, saying it artificially warps the prices, and even affects the form and quality of the art.
Yet China offers a one-of-a kind, forward-racing, ever-morphing art scene, a heady stew stirred by artists, speculators, critics and curators. Buyers are also playing a role in molding the new faces of Chinese art.
A visit to 50 Moganshan Road, a section of former warehouses along Suzhou Creek in the northern part of Shanghai, reveals one aspect of the art scene. In the past couple of years, Moganshan Road has become a chic Soho of Shanghai, with abandoned buildings turned into a beehive of galleries and studios.
On weekends, tourists and visitors stream through. Some are willing to traipse into the warrens of small, single artist studios; others aim for the big-name galleries, such as ShanghArt and BizArt. On many Fridays and Saturdays, visitors stream out of taxis and chauffeured cars to attend the frequent openings and fashion shows.
What hangs on the walls ranges from pop art with allusions to Warhol, such as the paintings of Ji Weibao; to the fine-tuned geometric fabric canvases of Ding Yi; to personal and conceptual photography and video installations.
Alternatively, a visit to Taikang Road, a narrow lane in the tree-lined French Concession, reveals more established galleries and stores. What hangs on the walls ranges from high-school attempts to diverse and excellent derivatives of Western oil paintings as well as classic Chinese ink paintings.
Both Moganshan and Taikang offer smorgasbords for the eye; like so much of current Shanghai scene, there's kitsch, imitation a-plenty, technical verve, a facile ability to copy, and a willingness to produce what sells. Sometimes, the range can be seen in the studio of a single artist.
Some observers, such as Swiss expat architect Evelyn Chong, say that Chinese artists and architects alike "just want to copy, copy, copy." Chong and others think that may stem in part from the Chinese system of pedagogy, which, like the methods of teaching the difficult Chinese language itself, relies on rote and recitation.
However, visit some artists in their private studios in distinctly nontrendy addresses, or the museums of modern art, and a different quality emerges.
Xiang Jing, 38, teaches sculpture at the College of Fine Arts at Shanghai Normal University, where she has a studio. She makes life-size and larger than life-size, realistic fiberglass figures, usually of the female body, which usually suggest a subtle, Chinese feminism.
"I want to make the body as body; it holds its own power," she says.
Xiang, who graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, works from memory rather than from models.
"I remember my mother taking me to bathhouses in Beijing and seeing all the female bodies. I remember them vividly." Xiang catches women of all ages at revelatory moments, with expressions that speak of the universal condition of women. Her favorite of these pieces is "Your Body (2004)," one version of which is installed at Duke University's Nasher Art Museum; another sold in England for $130,000 earlier this year. Coming from a different direction and generation is Qiu Deshu, 58. Qiu's landscapes stem from the Chinese mountain-and-cloud ink paintings of 12th century Southern Song dynasty. However, he achieves his effects with acrylic on canvas overlaid with transparent, porous traditional Chinese ink paper, called xuan. The paper itself is a metaphor for incorporating the old. The result is a textured and translucent third dimension placed over his acrylic forms, a technique that he has named "fissuring." "It's a style that's neither Chinese nor Western," he says.
Qiu and a handful of other artists recently were represented at a show called "Revival: New Ink Art, Shanghai," at the Duolun Modern Museum of Art in Shanghai, an annual exhibition that focuses on new directions in traditional ink paintings. William Wu, art historian and collector, and former professor of Chinese art at Dartmouth and Mills colleges, says Qiu is an example of a Chinese artist who has grounded himself in a Chinese art tradition yet takes it in a new direction.
Qiu's paintings go for $2,000 to $30,000, and hang in private galleries in New York and Denver, as well as in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
For Wu (no relation to this reporter), one of the central questions of contemporary Chinese art is, "Who is the artist painting for?" Many, he says, paint to satisfy buyers whose pockets bulge with euros and dollars. If that's the only reason, he says, "The Chinese artist will lose his essential Chinese-ness."
That is not likely, says Victoria Lu, the California-educated creative director of the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai and one of the most passionate defenders of contemporary Chinese art. She is curating the September show, "Entry Gate to China: The Neo-Aesthetics of Heterogeneity," the first Shanghai MoCA biennial of contemporary art.
While she acknowledges that money plays a role in the current art scene, it by no means defines Chinese art. Like everything else in China, the sheer high number of artists promises diversity.
In her view, the art scene in China, especially in Beijing, is thriving, and artists are healthy and secure, she says. When a delegation from New York's Museum of Modern Art came to China earlier this year and complained there wasn't enough to buy, Lu says simply, "They didn't know where to look. The speed at which Chinese contemporary art is developing is something the West doesn't understand."
Art in this century, she says, will be highly influenced by what contemporary Chinese artists are creating, predicting that art from the new generation of artists will reflect Chinese values, social connections, social criticism and responsibility.
As Wu says, in China, "Change does not mean you kill your father. You have a variation of your father's name. The Chinese way is to come out of the tradition with a variation more than a clean break."
Wu thinks the best that can happen in this cauldron of global activity is for Chinese artists to stick to things relevant "to China, to their lives in China and to open up the eyes of Chinese patrons to a whole range of things they never expected."
Another longtime observer of the Chinese art community also points to the speed at which the Chinese art scene is changing, and cautions against making generalizations. Lorenz Helbling, who opened the highly influential ShanghArt gallery on Moganshan Road 10 years ago and helps collect Chinese experimental art, photography and video for the Haudenschild Collection of San Diego, a highly regarded private collection of Chinese contemporary art, notes that China's newfound openness to the world community will help expand the artists' world views.
The generation of artists in their 20s are seeing first-hand photographs, film and videography, and are responding to them with originality and a new-found freedom, he notes. That's different from previous generations, especially Chinese artists in their 40s, who grew up with only second- and third-hand looks at Western art, because they could only see photographs of paintings and sculpture in books.
Yet, that generation has gone through a thorough and disciplined art education, and the best artists are technically fluent. They can paint and draw in many styles and have copied all the masters as part of their training.
With this foundation, it will be exciting, say Helbling and others, to watch how the artists develop as they feel increasingly free to express themselves and become a more integral part of the global art scene.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, www.sfgate.com