“For the growing number of young artists who rejected art based on political themes and sought individual self-expression, there remained, as before, little opportunity to exhibit their work, or to even publicly admit to being an artist.”
Chen Juyuan, Abstract Expression lI, 1975. Ink and watercolor on paper, 92 x 66 cm. Courtesy of the China Institute.
Blooming in the Shadows: Unofficial Chinese Art, 1974–1985
Kuiyi Shen & Julia F. Andrews
In recent decades, contemporary Chinese art—the art produced between 1985 and the present—has been widely exhibited in the West. Inside Out, held at Asia Society in 1998, exhibited Chinese art from the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s, and there have been many other solo and group exhibitions at venues throughout the U.S. showing more recent work and expanding into the multiple artistic mediums in use by Chinese artists today. In the meantime, the contemporary Chinese art world has been brought to the attention of Western observers through several recent essays and new appearances in art history textbooks. Yet few exhibitions have asked the question of how, against the background of thirty-five years of socialist realism, this internationally-oriented contemporary Chinese art came to be. “Blooming in the Shadows” will examine work produced by three significant groups of young artists in the critical decade leading up to the Communist party’s 1985 decision to allow modern artistic practices.
The work in this exhibition was created between 1974, the late Cultural Revolution period, and 1985, when the avant-garde movement (or ’85 Movement) was launched. Chinese art in the Mao period, and particularly during the Cultural Revolution, had become pure political propaganda because normal artistic practice was forbidden both in institutional settings and for individual artists. Art was to serve the workers, peasants, and soldiers, both by its didactic theme and its realistic (or socialist realist) style. Some young artists and writers began a quiet rebellion in the late years of the Cultural Revolution, one implemented on small, easily concealed sheets of paper or cardboard, and shown only to the most trusted of friends. The 1976 death of Mao and the arrest of Cultural Revolution leaders was an ideological, conceptual, and psychological turning point for many of China’s artists. Although the two-year rule of Mao’s direct successor, Hua Guofeng, saw the continuation of Mao’s political and cultural policies, individual artists began to break their political shackles and venture into previously forbidden realms of personal artistic freedom. However, after their long period of isolation, Chinese artists had lost touch with the outside world. Most of the artists represented in this exhibition were born after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, and had lived their entire lives under Mao. What artistic language could they use to express their new concerns?
Although hard-line policies remained the official line after the arrest of the Gang of Four, in art schools and other venues a slight loosening of controls allowed some artistic exploration to occur. At the end of 1978, when Hua Guofeng stepped down and Deng Xiaoping’s open door policy won a political victory, the cultural world shared the exhilaration of the short-lived Beijing Spring, a period when it seemed as though anything might be possible. And still, as Deng Xiaoping consolidated his power, this openness soon vanished, and the doors to artistic innovation seemed to slam shut. Art colleges continued to require graduates to paint in the same strongly realistic styles that had been practiced in the previous three decades and to display mastery in painting important political themes, so– called “thematic” figure paintings, even if they sometimes allowed a critical approach to the Cultural Revolution. The art exhibition system was still under the control of the official artists associations at the national and local levels and continued to be judged by socialist realist standards. For the growing number of young artists who rejected art based on political themes and sought individual self-expression, there remained, as before, little opportunity to exhibit their work, or to even publicly admit to being an artist. Thus, while the lyrical work they created was largely decriminalized, they continued to work in an underground art world.
Nevertheless, the unwavering idealism and independence of artists of this decade paved the way for the emergence in the mid-1980s, of the new wave art movement. With their rejection of political themes, these artists turned to landscapes, portraits, still-lifes, and other ostensibly apolitical subjects to seek formal beauty. In a highly politically charged environment, this act of dropping out was itself extremely political. Among the artists represented in “Blooming in the Shadows”, the No Names retained an interest in representation, the Stars turned in a more Western, modernist direction, absorbing anew the long-prohibited progressive art styles developed in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, including interest in surrealism, cubism, and other movements, and the artists of the Grass Society, who were trained in the native medium of ink and color on paper, tried to leave behind both the legacy of socialist realism and the burdens of tradition by turning to new forms of abstract ink painting.
The three groups represented in this proposed exhibition, the No Names, the Stars, and the Grass Society, exemplify three important trends, and also the shared experience of pushing beyond Maoism in the early post-Cultural Revolution era. All three groups were comprised of artists who were outside the official art structures of the P.R.C. The artists were of the “sent-down youth” generation of Cultural Revolution exile, and were working in state factories or on farms in remote areas. The No Name group was formally founded in 1979 by young artists who were mainly natives of Beijing, although their artistic practice can be traced back to earlier years. They held exhibitions in public twice, in 1979 and 1981. Their art was usually comprised of landscapes, still-lifes, and non-political figure paintings. Most of their works are small-sized watercolors, oils, and gouaches on inexpensive paper and cardboard, sometimes even on cut up shoe-boxes. Representative artists of this group include Li Shan, Liu Shi, Ma Kelu, Shi Zhenyu, Wang Aihe, Wei Hai, Yang Yushu, Zhang Wei, Zhao Wenliang, Zheng Ziyan, and Zheng Zigang. The second group, the Stars, may be more familiar to most Western audiences because of the well-publicized political protest held after their first exhibition was banned by the authorities. This group of amateur artists was more explicitly Western-oriented and cosmopolitan in their art works, and much more political, in an oppositional position. Their work ranges widely in medium, including sculpture, oil painting, watercolor, prints, and drawings. They also held two exhibitions: their first, in late September, 1979, was hung illegally on the fence outside the China National Art Gallery, inside which they were not, at that time, allowed to show. The show was subsequently re-hung with official permission at Beihai park. Their second exhibition, in the fall of 1980, stirred such controversy that a young critic who wrote a favorable review was fired from his job at the party art journal. The representative artists of this group include Wang Keping, Qu Leilei, Huang Rui, Yan Li, Ma Desheng, Mao Lizi, Li Shuang, and Ai Weiwei. The third group, the Grass Society, was based in Shanghai, outside the political center of the day. This group of ink painters rejected both socialist realism and the traditional painting that had flourished in pre-Cultural Revolution Shanghai [fig.59]. They brought abstract concepts, to which they had been newly exposed, and watercolor techniques into their work on Chinese paper. Holding their first exhibition in 1980 in Shanghai, they continued to exhibit several times in subsequent years. The representative artists of their group are Qiu Deshu, Chen Jialing, Chen Juyuan, Jiang Defu, and Guo Runlin.
These three groups, although somewhat different in their artistic approaches, shared a pioneering role in pushing Chinese art beyond the borders of the socialist realism. Developed initially by unofficial artists, this oppositional approach was absorbed into the mainstream official art world in the mid-1980s, initiating a major change in attitude that shook the Chinese art world to its foundations. Their practices set the foundation for the younger generation who emerged from the academic world around 1985.
The artworks for this proposed exhibition will come mainly from two sources, private collectors and the artists themselves. This body of work was, in large part, meant to be viewed in a domestic setting, and is thus suitable to the intimate exhibition space of the China Institute gallery.