When one thinks about Chinese Art, what usually comes to mind is not contemporary. Conversely, when one thinks about contemporary art, they aren’t usually picturing Chinese artists. However, through their rich cultural history of fine arts and calligraphy, Chinese artists today are finding new ways to pay deference to their past while breaking away from traditional artistic values and redefining their cultural identity through contemporary art.
More than ever, these artists are drawing more and more attention from the art world, particularly now that everyday conversation has been infused with the political lexicon. Contemporary Chinese art has a particular poignancy to this subject matter. Confronted with their own tradition and culture threatening to be consumed by Western influences following the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, much of contemporary Chinese art is inherently political; simultaneously depicting a thirst for individuality while also putting their nationalism on display and trying to discover a voice to claim as their own.
With that said, let’s explore 15 contemporary Chinese artists to keep an eye out for.
1. Ding Yi
Based in Shanghai, Ding Yi is best known for his meticulous geometric paintings. These paintings, mechanical and minimal in appearance, call to mind the rapid industrialization of China and the proliferation of mass production. Though the forms that make up his paintings tend to feel unnatural and harsh, they also call to mind the otherwise organic calligraphic forms of Chinese writing. Despite their mass-produced appearance, there is a zen-like quality to the way that Ding Yi insists on painting his forms by hand. While his distinctive “crosses” began using rulers and other tools to assist in painting his precise straight lines, over time he began to freehand the marks, lending a much looser visual appearance to his forms.
2. Su Xiaobai
Su Xiaobai started off as a social realist painter, before slowly moving towards abstraction after his exposure to Western art in his studies in Germany. Eventually, most of his paintings would be reduced to simple abstract lacquer objects. Su Xiaobai primarily focuses on form, color, and surface quality. By using lacquer, he pays deference to the long history of the finish as an artistic medium in Chinese culture. Through his mastery of the medium, he is able to achieve a translucent quality to his paintings that lend them to meditation and contemplation.
3. Wang Guangle
One of the recognized pioneers of Chinese abstract paintings, breaking away from the Chinese representational tradition, Wang Guangle uses paint to conceptualize subjects such as time. His use of color, uniform brushstrokes, and gradation give his large canvases a pulsating aura that alludes to ritualistic spirituality. While some of his work is monochromatic, his works from 2018 implement two colors—one that starts on the outer edge and slowly works its way towards the center of the canvas and gives way to the second which grows in luminosity, similar to the effect of a Mark Rothko painting.
4. Huang Yuxing
Huang Yuxing is a representational artist who is known for using bright, saturated, fantastical colors to depict landscapes and figures. Though traditional Chinese motifs like trees and mountains can be recognized within his canvases, the depictions of these subjects are far from realistic. The colors that compose Huang Yuxing’s paintings create scenes of the world that border on psychedelic hallucinatory images. The familiar landscapes suddenly feel unfamiliar with the juxtaposition of color, organic shapes, and geometric lines, alluding to the disintegration of the environment due to human impact. Other than environmental impact, Huang also depicts other aspects of the human condition such as fear, anxiety, aging, and death, by utilizing abstract forms and diverse color palettes to allude to emotions.
5. Qiu Zhijie
Qiu Zhijie is known for using a large variety of different mediums to produce his conceptual art. From installations, to photographs, to video, to even performance, he merges the recording of process with aesthetic, imbuing his works with sociological, philosophical, and political discourse. In one of his most iconic works, and maybe one of the most well known works in Chinese contemporary art, Assignment No. 1: Copying the “Orchid Pavilion Preface” One Thousand Times, he wrote and rewrote text over and over until the writing itself was unrecognizable. His use of Chinese calligraphic text is a repeat theme throughout his oeuvre as he explores the relationship between words and the humans that bear them. Other themes in his works of art are the interplay between behavior and choices, and ultimate destiny, as well as the role of ideology in culture.
6. Huang Yong Ping
Huang Yong Ping’s works shook the world with his controversial use of medium. An indisputable leader in Chinese contemporary conceptual art, Huang’s works were extremely avant-garde and he was known to use elements such as live animals in installations. He infused many of his ideas about philosophy into his art, using Buddhist and Taoist themes such as attempting to eliminate the “self” by incorporating chance into his process. For example, he would use dice or a roulette wheel to determine his medium for a piece.
Though he was born in China, much of Huang Yong Ping’s work was produced in France. It was through working outside of China that his art grew to a grander scale, as many of his works featured political undertones that were frowned upon by the Chinese government. Aware of the stereotypical divide between Eastern and Western culture, he made his doubts clear. Notably, he threw Eastern and Western history books into a laundry machine and displayed the illegible pieces of paper pulp on a pedestal. He certainly did not shy away from controversy, either. Memorably, animal rights activists were up in arms over an installation of his containing amphibians, reptiles, and insects. Meant to depict the human condition and competition for dominance, the artwork was ultimately displayed without the animals due to the complaints. Despite butting heads with governments and other groups, Huang continued to produce provocative artworks until his death at the age of 65.
7. Yang Fudong
Mainly working in film, photography, and installation, Yang Fudong transports the viewer into surreal dream-like environments. His films, often slow and non-narrative, incorporate both modern themes as well as reconstructions of historical myths and settings by displaying classical Chinese tropes engaged in contemporary social problems. In incorporating multiple perspectives with no real conclusion, Yang’s works focus on the frailty of the human condition and emotion despite the beautiful idyllic settings he places the subjects in.
8. Zeng Fanzhi
Zeng Fanzhi, looking for new ways of expression following China’s Cultural Revolution, was primarily inspired by German Expressionism and French Romanticism. Like many others, he looked to Western art and found ways to deviate from Social Realism which was in vogue in China at the time. Much of his work featured individuals painted with mask-like features – impersonal and void of expression – alluding to his general distaste towards the rapid modernization of China, and a feeling of rejection. His frenzied and expressive brushstrokes allude to the feeling of insecurity that he felt during this time of great cultural change, and his use of muted colors alongside fleshy pinks and reds accentuates his empathy towards human suffering.
9. Xu Zhen
Xu Zhen’s work in painting, sculpture, and video employs humor and critique to create thought provoking art. Some of his sculptures and paintings consist of well known but incongruous cultural iconography, such as voodoo dolls and Greek gods that are pulled together into one setting to comment on globalization. Theatrical and satirical, his work challenges stereotypes, and calls into question social taboos while subverting expectations. In one installation, In Just a Blink of an Eye, he employs performers to pose frozen mid-movement in odd and gravity-defying poses as the audience waits expectantly for them to move. In some of his performances, he’s even been known to call to attention the monotony of the everyday by bursting out screaming in a crowd.
10. Liu Xiaodong
A neo-realist painter that focused on depicting scenes from everyday life without trying to beautify it, Liu Xiaodong is considered one of the most influential painters in contemporary Chinese art. His paintings range from still lives to portraits and landscapes. Though painting from the day-to-day, his large brushstrokes threaten abstraction, and his works border between reality and artifice. His spontaneous documentations of people and things en plein air serve as a visual documentation of a world that was rapidly changing, in contrast to the emerging popularity of photographic snapshots. His consideration for his portraits adds a humanizing element, as though he is friends with many of his subjects, he is simultaneously a voyeur.
11. Cao Fei
In order to explore reality versus fantasy and dream, Cao Fei uses photography, video, and other digital media. Using her past experiences immersed in pop music and youth subcultures, she draws attention to feelings of alienation. By choosing large industrial facilities as the setting for many of her works, while encouraging the individuals within her films to act out their fantasies, Cao Fei draws attention to the stark divide between the mundanity and homogeneity of modern day living and individualism. This reality is further exaggerated by the documentary style of filming in Cao Fei’s film, Whose Utopia. By showing people in their natural setting, alongside their fantasy selves in the same setting, Cao Fei is also exploring one of her frequent themes of parallel realities. In her work, utopia and dystopia exist simultaneously.
12. Zhang Huan
Perhaps one of China’s best known performance/conceptual artists, Zhang Huan’s work consists of not only performance art, but also painting, photography, and sculpture. His performance art often referenced political ideas and involved using his own body, either inflicting harm upon it, painting it, or covering it. His early performances mostly focused on how much bodily discomfort he could endure, but by the time he moved to New York, his focus shifted more towards his own immigration and identity as a Chinese artist in America. In Family Tree, Zhang Huan covers his face incrementally with Chinese characters until the calligraphy itself is indiscernible. In more recent years, he has been focusing more on painting, photography, and sculpture, referencing Chinese political and religious histories through iconography like Buddhist sculptures and Chinese or American flags.
13. Cui Ruzhuo
Cui Ruzhou uses ink wash to paint beautiful flowers, birds, and landscapes, but though he uses this very traditional Chinese medium, his works are anything but conventional. He was trained as a calligrapher, and in traditional Chinese paintings, but his landscapes are painted with his fingers. Through experimentation and refining his techniques, Cui has elevated finger painting in the art world, offering a contemporary methodology to approaching a very traditional genre of art.
14. Zhang Xiaogang
Primarily in black-and-white, with splashes of color, Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings mostly take the appearance of old family portrait photography, referencing memory and the notion of identity. In his series, “Bloodline: Big Family”, the exaggerated cartoonish, melancholic, and stoic faces of the individuals seem to imply a general collective mass, while the bright pops of red and subtle scars and differences in characteristics appear to represent individuality. This contrast is also seen in his personal life where, as a painter, he was expected to conform to the social realism of the other painters in China at the time. However, even then, he insisted on including emotion-filled marks on his works.
15. Fan Zeng
Fan Zeng was a traditional Chinese painter. Famous for his figure paintings, he incorporates the simplicity of lines and descriptive brushstrokes to imbue energy and life into the characters he illustrates. Unlike many of his contemporaries who broke free from the constraints of traditional Chinese painting, Fan Zeng retained it, mastered it, and infuses his paintings with philosophical and poetic themes. Many of his paintings are of well-known historical Chinese figures. Also talented in poetry and calligraphy, his works often included poems to supplement his paintings. Unlike the Ming and Qing Dynasty painting which emphasized fine brushwork and attention to detail, Fan Zeng followed in the Song Dynasty tradition of looser, expressive brushstrokes.
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