This painting resonates with the prominent American medical portrait tradition as exemplified by the well known iconic image The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins.
The painting captures a heart-warming yet grotesque moment shared by two painters: Feng Guodong and Ma Kelu on their retreat in 1990s. The image depicts a dinner as a self-curing medical attempt.
After Feng Guodong discovers that he had cancer he decided to have his full mouth of teeth replaced. Since Chinese dentistry is less than advanced these teeth were ill-proportioned in his mouth. This detail lends the idea to the title of the painting.
Feng Guodong passed away on the evening of his first solo opening after 30 years of quiet practice, but his paintings as well as his image remains alive and gains ever more provocative today.
Both Ma Kelu and Feng Guodong belong to the so-called No Name School and have been practicing painting independently.
It depicts a young man floating in a bathtub. The painting was in memory of Ma Xiaoxiao the son of Ma Kelu. Ma Xiaoxiao died in a bathroom in a studio in Brooklyn on Feb. 7th 2007 at age 21.
Covered with subtle shades of greens and shading, the seemingly sad theme does not seem to give up hope and life. This painting is very much indebted to visual traditions such as Ophelia, the ultimate death and beauty encapsulated by a body floating in water. Nonetheless, the broken and fragmented nature of the portrait adds a mysterious conceptualism to the composition.
These paintings presented four generations of Chinese painters who struggled and flourished. Feng Guodong — Ma Kelu — Bingyi and Ma Xiaoxiao. Together, they form a group portrait of Chinese avant-grade art and artists from the last thirty years.
Little White Teeth
Bingyi also deals with very specific subject matter in her painting. In Little White Teeth (2007), for example, she depicts two painters she knew personally. One of them is Feng Guodong, who, with an anguished expression, is showing us his “little white teeth.” Feng was a struggling artist in Beijing who died of cancer in 2006. When diagnosed with the disease, he sought to replace his teeth with new ceramic ones as a symbol of health, which he knew he could never recover. The painting depicts a moment when it turned out that the new ceramic teeth prepared for him were actually too small for his mouth. This work is unique among Bingyi’s paintings in that the character’s pains and emotions are figuratively represented rather than abstractly implied by her fine handling of brushstrokes and colour. Just as in Dawns Here are Quiet, though, the blossoming plum trees do create a balance to the otherwise hopelessly heavy tone of the painting. Here, the flowering tree attests to the life of the painter, as if saying, “he was here.”
Epitaph (2007) can be seen as a horizontal companion to Little White Teeth. This painting commemorates the death of another Chinese artist, Ma Xiaoxiao, who was the son of the other painter depicted in Little White Teeth. In Epitaph, Ma is shown lying in a bathtub, indicating that he committed suicide in the bathroom of his Brooklyn apartment in February 2007. Unlike the case of Feng, the death of Ma—who was a mere twenty-four years old and looked to Bingyi as his mentor—is depicted as calm and peaceful, as if he were having a beautiful, serene dream. In this otherwise entirely abstract, all-over monochromatic painting (again the colour is green), Ma seems to hover between fleeting senses of “here” and “there,” as if enjoying a peace of mind that he probably wished to achieve during his lifetime.
Both Feng and Ma belonged to a group of Chinese artists who never really “made it” or received any benefit from the current boom in the market for contemporary Chinese art. By depicting the darker side of this boom, Bingyi casts a critical gaze on the phenomenon itself, precisely because she is perfectly aware of being involved in it. As an art historian who received her Ph.D. in Art History from Yale University in 2005, Bingyi just as easily could have written an essay to commemorate these artists’ lives and work. Or, as a curator who has organized a number of exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art in China and in the United States, she could also have presented a memorial exhibition of their work. But these artists were struggling so much just to get by in their lives that they did not even leave behind enough works to be written about or to be shown in an exhibition. It is as a fellow painter, therefore, that Bingyi decided to pay respect to them by welcoming their presence in her own work.
As I have been suggesting, life and death are continually present in Bingyi’s painting in one way or another. However, her true subject is the experience of feelings—be they tender or hard, or a mixture of the two. And she conveys those feelings with her exquisite technique of painterly abstraction and her skillful control of brilliant colours. In this sense, Bingyi’s paintings can be understood as referencing the legacy of American abstract painters such as Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, who sought to convey a state of feeling through spontaneous brushstrokes or mellow fields of colour.
Dreaming Poeny Pavilion
This painting is based on the Chinese opera classic Poeny Pavilion penned by Tang Xianzu from the seventeenth century.
A long play of fifty-five scenes, revolves round the love story of Liu Meng-mei (Willow Dreaming Plum), a young student, and Tu Li-niang, the daughter of a high official in Nan-an in southern Kiangsi. In a visit to the family garden a the back of the official residence, Tu Li-niang fell asleep and was accosted in a dream by a young scholar, Liu Meng-mei, with whom she had an affair in the Peony Pavilion. Having awakened from her dream, she became lovesick and un-consoled in her longing, until she finally pined away with a broken heart in the seclusion of her maidenly chamber.
Text by Eric Shiner:
The former group, Myths, includes works such as Peony Pavilion, a painting that depicts a precise moment in a Chinese opera when a young man, faceless, senseless and deprived of his vision by a mask, finally finds the most powerful expression of human connection through feeling the peony flowers before him while reaching to a young woman who appears to be asleep and buried by the sea of blossoming vegetation. The intercontextuality between the painting and the play is more than just a commentary of history and appropriation. It is about the perpetual longing for and questioning of churning thoughts that are otherwise known as emotions. In an international culture where we are consumed by ideology and conceptual constructs, how can we address the ethics of humanity?
a. End of the world depicts a stifling silence that happens when the world comes to an end.
The headphone-wearing little girl is an ultimate expression of the Chinese one child policy: it supposedly brings hope and energy to the population yet often becomes an artifact of loneliness and isolation. The peach blossom behind the girl seems to be on fire with flame while her body is emerging as mush as disappearing into the brilliant dottiness of the green land.
This painting is based on a so-called shortest story in literature history:
Before the Apocalypse happens suddenly there is a knock on the door.
b. Mao’s Awesome Homeland depicts Mao Zedong standing in front of a massively open and foggy landscape gazing across the famous chained-bridge on the Dadu River (it was the site for the most bloodshed battle during the Long March). Later Mao wrote a poem to express his sense of awe standing in front of his magnificent country congratulating the founding of the nation. On the other side of the bridge a bed and a tilted flag are placed on a tiny platform and are almost entirely obscured by the landscape. The most intriguing character however is an hairy fisherman who appears to be fly fishing on the left corner.
c. Nail House Chongqing is based on the New York Times story on the couple Wu Qing and her husband.
In the heart of Chongqing the developers opened a giant black hole. However the Wu couple managed to run a smart PR campaign against both the government and the developer. Indeed they manage to keep the two-story house a symbol of one’s right to keep her/his home.
I have juxtaposed these two moments from history (one fictional and the other journalistic) to indicate the dramatic change that China has endured during the last 7 decades. (Long march began in 1937). Since then Mao had promised people their homes and home country. Nonetheless it is the Wu couple who ultimated managed to keep their homes. Ironically they did it with the help of the Internet and American media which Mao would have seen as entirely outlandish.
China is changing.