Allegories of Loss

Today Art Museum

Solo exhibition of Su Xinping

In many ways, China has permanently changed. The materialism of capitalist striving has overwhelmed a country that not so long ago was physically as well as psychologically attacking its intelligentsia for supposed right-leaning tendencies.

Cheers
2006 

As a result, Chinese intellectuals—its writers and artists, journalists and activists—face a classic double bind; they can neither forget nor not forget the past, the damages of which linger on. In light of the super capitalism now embraced, references to the problems of the Cultural Revolution, or the more recent troubles of Tian’anmen Square, seem like distant memories, so that it would be bad taste—or bad politics—to take up such subjects.

Often in Su’s paintings, we see people raising their glass in a toast, and as a visitor to China, I can comment that this is a ritual enacted again and again. In one affecting work, two Chinese men, both bare-chested, make their toast in what can be read as a post-nuclear landscape, which is detailed as a dark red environment. The sense of desolation is always present in these large works; they belong to a reality that is utterly current but which also refers to the literati landscape that is so much a part of the Chinese cultural tradition.

Chinese intellectuals—its writers and artists, journalists and activists—face a classic double bind; they can neither forget nor not forget the past, the damages of which linger on. In light of the super capitalism now embraced, references to the problems of the Cultural Revolution, or the more recent troubles of Tian’anmen Square, seem like distant memories, so that it would be bad taste—or bad politics—to take up such subjects. Yet the troubles that beset China are still well within living memory, and it remains hard for artists to remain uninvolved with the country’s vast economic transformation, even though wounds inflicted a generation ago have not had the chance to publicly heal. And while it is up to China’s sculptors, painters, and performance artists to raise doubts about the greed accompanying the new affluence, it is hard to do so when they take part in the current comfort: their privilege places them in a position where they are between a rock and a hard place, in the sense that it is hard to criticize what they themselves belong to.

While Su has denied that he is joining with traditional painting, it matters little whether he paints consciously or not his debt to the Chinese art tradition. The legacy of Chinese painting infuses itself into his work even though it makes use of Western materials such as oil paint and canvas; indeed, the very ambition of Su’s conscious attempt to render a treatment symbolic of his present-day circumstances strikes me as classical. The anguish of his lonely figures, cut off in their remoteness, cannot be denied. Yet, interestingly enough, these paintings cannot be regarded only as Chinese—Su’s reading of his situation, its tragic ecological devastation, is increasingly a globalized problem.

Earlier in his career, Su was far more specific about his influences and sites. Trained as a printmaker, first at the Tianjin Institute of Fine Arts, then at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where he received a Master’s degree in 1989 and where he now runs the print-making department, Su first gained recognition making black-and-white prints that documented his childhood in Mongolia.

These works come close to being anthropological in their documentation of Mongolian culture; but, at the same time, Su paints parables of psychological and spiritual meaning. In one work from 1995, a central figure is portrayed as diving above the profile of a man with oversized eyes and an extended left arm; behind the two, in the background, we see a group of hands, all of them pointing to the composition’s right. The viewer may feel hard pressed to read the specifics of the print, but it appears true that each element fulfills a symbolic function, even if we remain unsure as to its actual purpose. There is a sense of darkness and foreboding that reappears in Su’s art, lending it an atmosphere of grief. His often-present sense of loss remains key to our understanding of his work, which asks questions as much as answering them.

Sometimes Su beautifully renders horses, a theme he returned to regularly in his career. They seem to be far more innocent than his portraits of people, who, after all, must face their responsibilities in regard to nature. Su never directly judges, but his moral qualms concerning China’s brave new world are nonetheless conveyed.

Still, even though it is easy to construe desolation in his work, one does not sense that the artist is specifically judging a class or individual; the general situation appears frightening, but at the same time inexorably fated, so that a sense of uselessness accompanies the greater awareness brought about by his art. The sadness of this state of affairs is not lightly presented; however, they may be read as generally troubled as well as referring to the particulars of Chinese society now. The moral quandary in Su’s art remains unresolved; the group who toasts to a greater health does so in a miasma of polluted air, a real problem in Beijing, where Su lives.

Landscape

Su’s findings seem resolutely pessimistic, in the sense that the world is lost despite the harmony and prosperity the people who toast each other are supposed to bring about. When a toast is made in a gathering at a restaurant, for example, it carries its participants toward an optimism that is communal in nature. Yet the people inhabiting Su’s imagery hardly feel happy or determined to include others within their point of view; instead, they embody an isolation that expresses a discontented view of life. For many of us who belong to the intelligentsia, no matter Asian or Western, Su’s doubt strikes true because it fosters a realistic awareness of the sadness of change, in part because it is so difficult to effect change. However hard, we try to rise above and beyond our fate, even if the mortality we face lends itself at the very least to melancholy if not abjection. When I asked Su whether the landscape in his paintings was globally oriented, in the sense that he was referring to a post-nuclear world, he demurred and said that he was referring to China’s imminent environmental catastrophes. Inevitably, being a Chinese artist originally from the steppes of Mongolia, Su looks to the local for his inspiration. Yet viewers from other landscapes may reason that their situation mimics Su’s, a reading that Su in fact suggests by making his paintings as allegorical as possible.

. In one work from 1995, a central figure is portrayed as diving above the profile of a man with oversized eyes and an extended left arm; behind the two, in the background, we see a group of hands, all of them pointing to the composition’s right. The viewer may feel hard pressed to read the specifics of the print, but it appears true that each element fulfills a symbolic function, even if we remain unsure as to its actual purpose. There is a sense of darkness and foreboding that reappears in Su’s art, lending it an atmosphere of grief. His often-present sense of loss remains key to our understanding of his work, which asks questions as much as answering them.

Today Art Museum (今日美术馆)
Credits: Story

This exhibit featured in some cases have been created by an indenpend third party may not always represent the view of the insitutions, listed bellow, who have supplied the content.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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