The works of Fang Lijun—with their mischievous and nonchalant bald figures, ambiguously suggestive gestures, and absurd and unrealistic spaces—profoundly express the Chinese mentality in the 1990’s and place him among the foremost representatives of Cynical Realism. The disillusionment of ideals in the 1980’s led to a generational shift in mindset: people refused to reveal their opinions, to be concerned with anything, or to probe any important questions, and felt nothing but helplessness towards reality. In contrast to the confrontational criticality of the ’85 New Wave, Fang Lijun prefers to use his self-satirizing bald personas as a means of transcendence. Such an attitude is not difficult to understand: following the economic reforms, China experienced rapid urbanisation and marketisation, and Fang’s self-satires reflect perfectly the helplessness felt by those marginalised in this new environment. Series One, No.4 (Lot 879), created during 1990-91, was one of Fang’s very first serial oil paintings and also one of the first to feature bald figures as a theme. It is invaluable in helping us to understand Fang Lijun, who has influenced an entire generation of Chinese artists.
The early 90’s were a period of extreme hardship for Fang. On the one hand, as a fresh university graduate he was suddenly thrust into the unfamiliar “real world,” with its attendant financial and other practical pressures. On the other hand, although he had earned recognition inside and outside China for his three sketches of bald figures at the 1989 “China/Avant-Garde Art Exhibition”, he also became alarmed and worried about his weak foundation as an artist. There are two main reasons that attribute to this sense of doubt.1 Although his sketches had found a sympathetic audience, how was he to develop them into a substantive and compelling artistic idiom? How would he create largescale series of oil paintings based on these sketches? These were the questions on Fang’s mind in 1990-91.
Thereupon Fang devised a plan for himself. The first subjects he thought of were bald heads and water, but as a young artist without a clearly recognisable personal style, he had to decide between the two, “After making many sketches, I felt that I had a firm grasp of the inner meanings. Now I needed a presentation that would attract attention. So I could only choose the bald head because it was a striking image… For me, its importance lay in canceling the idea of the individual and bringing forth instead that of the collective, which I thought would be more effective.”2 Evidently, the bald head had a stronger impact and was also more suited to Fang’s interest in self-consciousness at the time. In 1990, he embarked on serial oil paintings. Aside from his sketches of bald heads, he also took as creative material everyday photographs of his good friend Yu Tianhong and others. Moreover, before producing the group of seven oil paintings in Series One in 1990-91, Fang had done a lot of preparatory work in the form of sketches entitled Series Two in early 1990. Series One to some extent retains elements of this transition between media: despite being oil paintings, they are completely in black and white, devoid of chromatic relations and endowed with the flatness of a sketch. Moreover, monochrome matched Fang’s mental state at the time. In Series One, No.4, Fang depicts two bald men in the foreground and background. Rendered in black and white, their faces appear identical, and yet it is difficult to know exactly what their relationship is. These bored, uninterested, and mischievous figures become a pointed satire of life. The individual is submerged into the collective and appears to lose existential meaning. Fang Lijun places these two uninspiring figures by the ocean, which reminds us that water was a perennial preoccupation for him even before he began to thematise it explicitly. The air of cold nonchalance thus engendered has been described by the critic Fu Lan as “pervasive loneliness and chronic outcast-ness.”3
Series One was the earnest beginning of Fang’s creative career, and 1990-91 was an important period when he became completely devoted to his art. In March, 1991, Fang and his good friend Liu Wei showed works for the first time in a private Beijing residence. In April of the following year, the two exhibited together again in “The Paintings of Fang Lijun and Liu Ye” at the Capital Museum. As representative works, the Series One paintings were included in the latter exhibition, and it was from the aesthetic of Series One and other works that the critic Li Xianting identified “Cynical Realism” as a general stylistic characteristic, which would prove profoundly consequential in 1990’s and for which Fang is widely regarded as a major representative. As Fang’s subsequent career attests, the experience of the early 90’s proved immensely beneficial to him, and indeed reversed his ill fortunes fundamentally. From 1992 onwards, he would never suffer any more economic hardship, and his reputation both in China and abroad would reach unprecedented heights. The most significant outcome of the early 1990’s, however, remains the development and accumulation of Fang’s creative powers. Throughout the decade, his artistic idiom would unfold entirely around the two elements of bald heads and water, endlessly gaining in nuance while remaining anchored in them. Series One is a window Fang Lijun made for himself. Through it he would explore a wider and richer world.
1 Fang Lijun has said, “The 1989 exhibition was formational for me, because that was a start. That was a time when many people said they wanted to go to your studio to look at more works… At the time I already knew that I needed to accumulate. Otherwise opportunities would go wasted.” Xiansuo, ed. by Shu Kewen, White Space Beijing, September 2005 edition, quoted in Chronology of Fang Lijun, Culture and Art
Publishing House, 2010, p. 200
2 Pi Li, “A Conversation with Fang Lijun,” Meishujia, January 2003, vol 1
3 Fu Lan, “The Oil Paintings of Fang Lijun and Liu Ye,” 1992. Reprinted in Chronology of Fang Lijun, Culture and Art Publishing House, 2010, p. 233
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