01 Portrait of Pi Li

Chinese painting has moved in a completely different way from the West since the 1930s. The West began to give up on the image, to move towards the abstract, and then went through conceptualism and minimalism, then returned to the image in the 1970s (pop and new expressionism). Then, it emerged that Sigmar Polke and Martin Kippenberger were such artists, although it has given priority to the image from the perspective of the international art world, the starting point of this image is completely different to the iconic aspect that Chinese art uses and talks about.

Chinese art, especially contemporary paintings, actually comes from realism. Our abstract art development has been very weak, without a system, like the cold abstract art that just began in recent years. In the true sense, a painting revolution is not based on the reflection of abstract art, but is diverted from the reflection based on realism, such as Xiamen Dada in the 1980s, Zhang Peili, Geng Jianyi and Wang Guangyi’s early works. These tests referred to the elimination of painting. Painting was not reborn from them. (Including Wang Guangyi, though he still painted, his later political pop art fought against painting.) The painting appeared after 1989, regardless of Cynical Realism, its nature is actually “realism”, in a manner of speaking, Chinese painting actually doesn’t have any theoretical reflection in either“realism”or“iconicity” after 1985.

In the 1990s, Chinese painting received international recognition, in terms of time, there were two reasons why Chinese painting was recognized, on the one hand Western art returned to the image, on the other hand, out of ideological sympathy, the international art world projected self cultural situations on the underdeveloped place, therefore the “iconicity” of Chinese painting was recognized as a form of avant-garde. (Huang Zhuan joked in the 1990s that, “German art includes Beuys, and Kaethe Kollwitz, all Germans know Beuys is more important than Kaethe Kollwitz, when they come to China, they only select Chinese Kollwitz, but think Chinese Beuys copy the West, so that it makes no sense”). But after entering the 21st century, the prosperity of the Chinese art market produced a batch of expensive international artists, so the Western imagination, sympathy and projection of China disappeared. Even without the presence of cultural prejudice, they also began to strictly review the relationship between iconicity, realism of the Chinese painting and the conceptual, the avant-garde. Looking at it from the conception of Western painting which had a baptism in abstract and conception, Chinese painting didn’t fundamentally have a contemporary significance except for the period during the 1980s. The international siege of Chinese painting and even the value of Chinese painting began in this sense. It is very cruel to say that it basically represents the current perception of Chinese painting of Western mainstream art.

However, as a Chinese critic, we look back to the value of Chinese painting over the years, although the conceptual reflection wasn’t as intense as the West, we calmly think about the “iconicity” is a burden of Chinese painting, and also a breach of Chinese painting. For the conceptual itself, the later Zhou Tiehai, Chen Wenbo, and Yan Lei were the continuation of the anti-painting exploration of the 1980s; for exploration of image and the conceptual itself, the internationally well-known artists such as Zhang Enli, Duan Jianyu, Wang Xingwei, have their own avant-garde methodologies that are different from the West; and only in terms of image, not involved in the concept itself, there are a large number of artists, such as the new generation of artists since the 1990s, and so on; such as Duan Jianwei who recently held an exhibition. It is an extreme contradiction, his language is not contemporary, but he has a peculiar relationship with contemporary China. It is regrettable that our criticism and the academic fail in interpreting these things.

Actually we all know about the pluralism of values, Anti-Western Centralism, multiple narratives of contemporary art and so on. And we clearly recognize the Western prejudice against China. But we can’t just say it is your prejudice when dealing with the prejudice, instead we shall rediscover our own value, and in other words, it is necessary to find a rational and analyzable language to interpret the Chinese exploration, test of painting, as well as the context over the years. There are still the old issues, but actually we haven’t done well in this aspect. In our catalogue preface and discussions, the critics always praised an artist as“good”, while they privately said some artists were “bad”. In my opinion, the good and the bad don’t make sense. We may think about why we feel he is “good”, why we feel he is not “good”, whether the standard is that we declare it as good or bad is negotiable? If it works, why can it, if it can’t, how do we do it?

Only by rationally facing these issues, experiencing logical thinking and through serious, non-commercial writing can we create an intellectual encounter, perhaps it is the beginning of an exchange and against prejudice. It is a consensus that “another kind of modernity” exists in China, I hope that it is not only a title and a slogan, but real knowledge.

Courtesy of Pi Li, translated by Chen Peihua and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO.

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