signed in Chinese and initialled in Pinyin, titled and dated 1998 on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
USA, New York, Max Protetch Gallery, Fang Lijun, 1998
Taiwan, Tainan, Robert and Li Art Gallery, Face to Face, 2004, p. 58
Compared to most art of the '85 New Wave, the resistance and criticality of Fang Lijun's works always come across as a little amorphous. Fang tends to use his satirical self-images as a way to save himself. This is no doubt because such self-mockery is precisely faithful to the helplessness and ennui of an artist marginalized in the urban, market-driven environment of China post-Open Door Policy. Popular within and beyond China, Fang's men with shaved heads inevitably come to mind whenever his name is mentioned. Seeming existentially disinterested and engaged in vague and ambiguous activities, the figures dwell in surreal absurd spaces. The critic Li Xianting cites Fang's "bald and mischievous" figures as representatives of Cynical Realism. In the 1990's, Fang was searching for his own artistic language, another important aspect of which is water. Water had already entered his works from the 1980's and gradually became a central theme in the early 90's. Swimmers first appeared as motifs in 1991 and have since become a longstanding and important theme in Fang Lijun's work. The three lots on offer all date from 1997 or 1998 and are all based on the theme of water, but are different in style and composition. As such, they offer a rare opportunity to understand Fang Lijun's creative practice.
"For me, it is most important to be concerned with people."1 Fang Lijun is most preoccupied with humans and humanity. Even when submerged in water or floating in an ocean, the human figure remains Fang Lijun's primary subject. "I believe that human nature is not bound by standards and rules, contrary to our past proclamations about its goodness or evilness. I would like to convey and provoke debate about this understanding through painting. Human nature is the same as a leather ball-kick it and you cannot predict where it will roll. Water is very close to my understanding of human nature. Water is liquid, not rule-bound. When you look at it, it changes. Sometimes you think it is very beautiful, very comfortable, but sometimes you think it is terrifying."2 "Water is uncertain, like human feelings. Sometimes it is comforting, sometimes scary. You can't live without water and need water, but too much water will drown you."3 Humans rely on water for survival, and the two always remain in an ambiguous relationship. Seen from an artistic perspective, this indeterminacy and malleability is the reason for his later fixation on water as a theme in painting.
Among the three lots on offer, 1997 No.11 (Lot 818) is the earliest. At the time, Fang Lijun was on a 6-month invited residency at the Royal Academy of Art and the Stedelijk Museum, and was busy with the Sunlight series, which included 1997 No.11. Back in the 80's, even as a secondary school student Fang Lijun had attempted abstract subjects. In 1984, he produced a gouache-on-paper, Untitled, that featured the sun in the middle radiating light, which was rendered in multiple layers of pigment. At the beginning of 1997, Fang again painted the sun, this time on canvas, beginning with realistic renditions of light and transitioning into relatively abstract depictions of swimmers. Every painting in the series is bathed in bright sunlight issuing from the center of the canvas, preventing a clear view of the figures therein. Like Fang's gaudy and dazzling flowers, the blinding light disorients the viewer. Overwhelming and encompassing the entire canvas, it also muddles the sense of individual existence and lends itself to be understood as a symbol of absolute power. As the title 1997 No. 11 suggests, this work was painted towards the end of the series and while Fang was living in the Netherlands. Here we see three open-mouthed swimmers swimming in a deep-blue sea with all their might to escape the dazzling sun behind them. By Fang Lijun's own admission, this series is technically very demanding. He begins with the blue of the sea as ground, then adds the figures, and renders the sunlight with yellow, which in many cases combines with the blue to create an impression of a green cast. Numbering only around a dozen works, the Sunlight series was completed in 1997 and exhibited in Fang's solo exhibition at the Stedelijk in the following year. Afterwards Fang would retain a blue palette but not the yellow highlights. The series is thus extremely precious.
1998 No. 2 (Lot 892) was created after the Sunlight series, in 1998, and was likewise exhibited at the Stedelikj Museum. Drastically different from the Sunlight series, No. 2 uses Fang Lijun's typical blue palette and features almost all the new motifs he explores in the 1990's: wave patterns as background; the flowers and hopping, red-scarf-wearing Young Pioneers, both seeming to float in the water and in some nebulous space at the same time; and, in the foreground, shaved heads seen from the back and illuminated by unseen light sources. Most importantly, this work highlights another of Fang's important motifs: gaudy flowers, which first appeared in Fang's six submissions to the 1993 Venice Biennale and would recur frequently in his subsequent works. Set behind the shaved heads, these flowers are mostly red with some yellow. Their loud, attention-grabbing aesthetic anticipates the Gaudy Art to appear after the 90's. Just as Gaudy Art critiques China's commercialization, Fang Lijun's flowers are an implicit satire of the dark side of society. Fang has said that "the flowers are not what we call suggestions of beauty. They are for me ambiguous things. At the time I wanted to make my paintings especially alluring and appealing, but behind this superficial allure lied an uncertain, even terrifying emptiness and insincerity!"4 In his essay "Fang Lijun and Current Realism," Li Xianting likewise describes Fang in the following way: "after 1993, his palette began to show tendencies towards the gaudy, which amplified the satire and self-satire in his works. Afterwards he turned from lighthearted mischief towards muffled, gender-neutral scenes that resemble diving."5
By contrast, gaudy colours and Young Pioneers are absent in 1998. 8. 20 (Lot 893), which seems more distilled and focused on the image and feeling of swimming. In the summer of 1998, Fang created a series of swimming-themed paintings in about two weeks. These elegant and pure works far superior to his other output of the same period. Each of these measures 2.5 metres in height and 3.6 meter in width-the largest he had ever created until that time. 1998. 8. 20 depicts a man with a flaptop floating in an ocean with his eyes shut and hands reaching forward. Bright colours like orange and pink, common to the earlier paintings, are absent here and replaced with more naturalistic skin tones. Interestingly, these swimming-themed works are often set in summer. In them Fang Lijun seems to be very conscientious in rendering water, especially its billowing and parting when interacting with human bodies as well as its refraction of facial features. Here Fang Lijun has finally developed highly naturalistic handling of white pigments to depict water, whose effects are drastically different from Impressionism. We sense the painter's profound meditation on the potential of the figures. We sense that to paint water, one must return to the most fundamental and salient aspect of painting. For the artist, the biggest challenge is not how to showcase a mastery of details, but how to transcend them.
1997 No. 11, 1998 No. 2, and 1998. 8. 20 are Fang Lijun's three variations on the theme of water. However much they vary in style, Fang's meditations on the sea are always intimately connected to his concern for and experience of human nature and the Chinese people.
1 "Artist Journal 1994", Criticism of Fang Lijun, Culture and Art Publishing House, 2010
2 Dictation of Fang Lijun in the class of Yun Jinan, 1998.12.18
3 Refer to 1
4 Refer to 1
5 "Fang Lijun and Cynical Realism", Li Xianting, Art Leap, Jan-Feb, 1997
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