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10 Chinese Artists - Extraordinary Talents from the Ever-Shifting Society

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November 6, 2014

China is a truly extraordinary country with an overwhelming population of 1.3 billion, and its deeply traditional society, which is at the same time uniquely contemporary and extremely progressive. From very young to those in their 50s, the following ten artists are all so obviously influenced by both China’s recent history and its ancient artifacts. Being ultra famous and super fresh, these exceptional visual artists create top-notch artworks that deal with the constantly shifting Chinese society, its politics and economy, while successfully maintaining a connection to the deep, thousands of years long cultural roots and artistic traditions. The list is by no means exhaustive but tries to represent a cross-section of China’s contemporary art scene, which has been greatly influenced by the recent period of rapid Westernization and its effect on traditional Chinese values.

Editors’ Tip: Contemporary Chinese Art by Paul Gladston

Explore further about Chinese contemporary art. After the Deng Xiaoping’s policy of Opening and Reform in 1978, the People’s Republic of China has gone through a liberalization of culture which led to numerous forms of avant-garde, experimental, and museum-based art. Having in mind a fast-growing international market and a thriving artistic community, contemporary Chinese art is prosperous despite remaining issues of censorship. Paul Gladston’s Contemporary Chinese Art sheds light on the current art scene placing it in the context of wider cultural, economic and political conditions. Focusing on the artists from mainland China working with various medium and discussing art created in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and diasporic communities, Gladston maps the ideas and practices that shaped Chinese art. Enriched with 150 images, this book is a valuable contribution for unraveling the complexities of politics, art and culture in today’s China.

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Ai Weiwei - An Activist

Ai Weiwei (1957) is a prominent Chinese contemporary visual artist and political activist, famed for his bold artworks, so openly critical of the Chinese government and the state of human rights in his homeland. Weiwei grew up in forced exile during the Cultural Revolution and returned to Beijing in 1976 after Mao Zedong’s death. In the following years, Weiwei studied animation at the Beijing Film Academy and co-founded the infamous ‘Stars’, group of the early avant-garde Chinese artists. In the early 1980s, Weiwei moved to New York where he got influenced by pop art and started creating conceptual artworks made of altered readymade objects that brought him worldwide exposure. After twelve New York years, Weiwei returned to Beijing where he got deeply involved in political activism and promotion of new generations of Chinese experimental artists.

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Wang Guangyi - Exploring The Duality of China

Wang Guangyi (1957) is an internationally famed painter from Beijing, and a leader of China’s New Art Movement, widely recognized for his billboard size paintings of intricate narratives that combine images of his nation’s heroic past with status symbolism of luxury brands. Such is Guangyi’s acclaimed series of paintings titled Great Criticism which powerfully juxtapose aesthetics of agitprop revolutionary images to the kitsch sensibility of pop art and popular consumer logos, in order to highlight the conflict between China’s political past and its highly commericialized present. By adopting this cold-war era language Guangyi ironically examines the ongoing polemics of globalisation, focusing his attention on the intersection of China’s communist history and the ongoing rise of Western influence on his homeland.

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Xu Bing - Exploring The Manipulation of Language

Xu Bing (1955) is a Beijing-based contemporary artist, best known for his astonishing, large-scale installation pieces and his extraordinary prints which explore the creative use of language and its profound effect on our understanding of the world we live in. Growing up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, Bing and his family were relocated to live in the countryside for two years. Upon his return to Beijing, Bing enrolled and obtained his Master’s degree at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, the institution he presides of today. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square bloody protest, Bing’s artworks received harsh criticism from the Chinese government as it perceived them as a critique of the establishment. Shortly after and due to growing pressure, Bing moved to the United States where he received international acclaim for his extraordinary, mixed-media installations that question the idea of manipulation of language.

Zeng Fanzhi (1964) - The Most Expansive Chinese Artist

Zeng Fanzhi (1964) is one of the most popular Chinese contemporary painters and one of Asia’s most commercially successful artists, recognized for his exceptional paintings heavily influenced by his physical and emotional circumstances. Fanzhi grew up during the China’s Cultural Revolution, and in the late 1980s attended the Hubei Academy of Fine Art where he was greatly influenced by German Expressionism. After his move to Beijing in 1993, Fanzhi’s career exploded, and since then he has been regularly exhibiting his artworks all over the globe in some of the most respected contemporary art galleries and venues. In 2008, Fanzhi set a world auction record when his Mask Series 1996 No. 6 piece was sold at Hong Kong auction for mind-boggling $9.6 million.

Zhao Bandi - The Panda Man

Zhao Bandi (1966), also known as ‘the panda man’, is a renowned contemporary Chinese visual artist, widely known for his famous witty artworks, including paintings, sculptures, installations and costumes featuring panda bears. Bandi’s acclaimed series of comic-like photographs, titled Zhao Bandi and the Panda, featuring himself in conversation with stuffed panda bear through speech bubbles, playfully deals with troubling issues of modern day China, such as drug abuse, air pollution, violence, and unemployment. Using pandas, beloved Chinese national symbol, as his own spokesperson, indirectly critical of the establishment and society, Bandi wonderfully plays with the boundaries separating art, advertising, and political activism. Since the early 1990s, Bandi has been exhibiting his works in galleries across Asia, Europe and America, but he definitely broke to international fame during his 1999 exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

Li Jin - An Ink Painter

Li Jin (1958) is a highly influential Chinese ink painter and one of the best-known painters in the so-called New Literati group. Jin is a graduate in painting at the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, where he today works as a teacher. Jin previously trained in dyeing and weaving at the Tianjin Academy of Arts and Crafts, where he developed his masterful skill of pattern and color. During the 1990s Li Jin gradually formed his uniquely playful style, quickly gaining huge attention and becoming famous worldwide for his seductive depictions of the good life and the Falstaffian figure, modeled on Jin himself,  that appears repeatedly in his work. The subject matter of Li Jin’s painting, derived from life’s simple things, like food and wine, stands wonderfully contrasted to the formality of historical literati art.

Luo Zhongli - Capturing Rural China

Luo Zhongli (1948) is one of the most famous contemporary Chinese painters, widely recognized for his realistic portraits of Chinese peasants and paintings that wonderfully capture the life in China’s countryside. Born in the outskirts of Chongqing, Zhongli developed a deep affection toward rural China and its people that remain a major theme in his body of work. Following his graduation from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1980s, Luo took his Master’s degree at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium. During these years, Zhongli held numerous solo exhibitions in Europe and US, which gained him huge attention and acclaim from both art critics and art audience. Since then Luo Zhongli has been very prolific and continued to create exceptional artworks which have been highly popular on the auction market.

Chen Yifei - An Oil Painter

Chen Yifei (1946-2005) was a prominent Chinese painter and one of the key artist ‘responsible’ for the development of Chinese oil painting. Yifei is widely known for his exceptional realistic portraits of traditionally dressed melancholic Chinese women and mesmerizing landscapes of the Chinese countryside. Educated in Russian socialist realism style, Yifei began painting the cultural revolution propaganda quickly after graduating from the Shanghai College of Art. After years of a highly prolific career, Yifei found great commercial success after moving to New York in the 1980s where he created renowned series of dark paintings depicting traditional Chinese subjects. Upon his return to Shanghai at the end of the twentieth century, Chen Yifei produced some of his finest works, including an exceptional, masterfully painted series of impressionist Chinese landscapes.

Ren Hang - A Taboo Breaker

Ren Hang (1987) is a Beijing-based visual artist and poet, widely recognized for his explicit photographs, often sanctioned by China’s highly conservative society and its strict conventional codes pertaining to art and mass communication. Hang’s seemingly sexually explicit works, full of naked bodies and private body parts, reveal the artist’s extraordinary skill in managing desexualized nudity and turning human bodies into mesmerizing living sculptures and paintings, captured with his camera. In 2000, Hang was invited to participate in the infamous group exhibition of Chinese contemporary artists, titled Fuck Off and co-curated by Ai Weiwei. Just like its second edition in 2013, the exhibition shook the art world, but more importantly, it gave artists like Ren Hang a chance to break free and showcase their bold explicit artworks that would usually be censored in their home country.

Liu Wei - A Multi-Faceted Artist

Liu Wei (born 1972, Beijing) is one of the most talented Chinese visual artists, widely known for his paintings, sculptures and installation works which explore contradictions of modern societies and the transformation of the urban landscape in developing cities in the post-Mao era of China’s rapid urbanization. Even though many of Liu Wei’s artworks employ allegorical references to Chinese culture, they actually deal with universal issues that affect all contemporary societies and thus successfully resonate with art audiences worldwide. Wei’s sculptures and installations are very often created using found materials that are placed in new contexts in order to draw completely new meanings out of them. With his frequent use of geometric and architectural forms, Wei cleverly references the urban surroundings in his work.