From the artist
The definition of the historical lineage o f"Rational Painting" was crucial in both the artistic practice and theoretical discourse of the entire '85 New Wave movement. In the 1980's, when a myriad intellectual currents emerged, there was nonetheless a certain overall tendency shared among various artistic phenomena and practices across the entire country. First used alongside such terms as"lofty", "solitary" and "profound" as general descriptors of style, "rational" was ultimately elevated into an academic concept, and Rational Painting concomitantly came to designate an artistic current. This was due largely to Gao Minglu's essay "On Rational Painting", published in 1986.
In retrospect, the year 1986 was a crucial point in the entire '85 New Wave movement, and this was definitely not a coincidence. In the seven or eight years before 1986, Chinese youths experienced Scar Art and Stream of Life Art, which for the first time allowed artistic expression of the previously suppressed traumas and humanistic concerns. The "Stars Exhibition" also made them realize the importance of mass movements and the right to participate in discourse as the only means to acquire cultural-political power through art. On the other hand, Western modernist philosophy and art gradually arrived in China in the 1980's, immediately drawing the fanatical devotion of young Chinese. In this period, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre were among the most influential philosophers, and no doubt supplied the intellectual foundation of art. At first, people's thinking was dominated by concerns about individual existence and existential desperation, but gradually it shifted towards broader reflections on society as a whole and on human cultural traditions. In art, this intellectual shift manifested itself as a "transition from experience to interpretation, from emotions to rationality,"1 as Gao Minglu put it. Different intellectual responses among the different young artist communities across the country also generated their respective kinds of art.
In this historical context, a "National Symposium on Oil Painting" was held in Beijing in April 1986. On this occasion, Gao Minglu gave a speech entitled "The '85 Artistic Movement," which summarized the discourse of rationalism originating in 1985 with such terms as "rational spirit", "current of rationalism", and "rational painting" and articulated its transition into a self-conscious movement. Several groups of artist representatives in the audience were inspired and agreed to organize a national large-scale exhibition using slide projections. This ultimately resulted in the "'85 Youth Art and Intellectual Currents Slide Exhibition and Academic Conference" co-organized by the China Art Journal and the Zhuhai Academy of Painting. The event took place in Zhuhai, Guangdong from 15 to 19 August, 1986. The "Zhuhai Conference," as it is known, can be considered the first self-conscious collective endeavour by participants in the Rationalist discourse. The three young artists Li Shan, Zhang Peili, and Shu Qun were designated representatives of Rational Painting, which confirmed their arthistorical status. In an issue of Meishu from the same year, Gao Minglu published the article "On Rational Painting," which further cemented the centrality of this concept in art theory. When the above history is considered, it becomes evident that the rise to prominence of "Rational Painting" was a historical necessity and not a coincidence.
In his article, Gao Minglu unequivocally categorized Wang Guangyi and Zhang Peili as representatives of Rational Painting. Members of the Northern Art Group, led by Wang Guangyi, "attempt to strike out its own path in the gap between the competing cultures of East and West. Through serial works, they reveal the world's breadth and profundity and the eternal principles of humanity. They believe their philosophy can be expressed through the religious but anti-mystical atmosphere of 'solemn grandeur' and 'lofty stasis'."2 Zhang Peili had come under Gao's attention ever since the '85 New Space exhibition. Gao wrote that works by Zhang and others in his circle "try their best to avoid rustic sentimentality, purposefully working against Stream of Life art and discovering modern consciousness within everyday urban life... On the one hand, they reduce the reality around them into microscopic and static details such as a street corner or a single person. On the other hand, they also enlarge such details to a cosmic spatio-temporal context. At first glance, this context appears dark and vague, bathed in the cold glow of outer space. A certain relationship is established between realistic space and the cosmic space of the imagination (often informed by indirect knowledge)."3 It is easy to see that Rational Painting, as Gao Minglu defined it, was a specific reaction against Scar Art and Stream of Life Art, with their overflowing humanism. As such, it had every reason to abandon the creative means of Socialist Realism and to explore the potential for abstraction and conceptualization in art. In other words, around 1986, when Chinese art had retraced Western artistic modernism in under two decades, the key question became how to progress towards postmodernism.
As representative spearmen's of Rational Painting, works by Wang Guangyi and Zhang Peili from this period accorded completely with Gao Minglu's theorization. In 1986, Wang Guangyi underwent his first change of direction and began the Post-Classical series, in which he directly appropriated iconic images from Western art and subjected them to rational analysis and "correction" in a clean, orderly language to underscore the visual experience of classical art in contemporary times. Such familiar works as Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and David's The Death of Marat under "correction" in this process, which was also Wang Guangyi's period of practical experimentation in Rational Painting. The experience of the Post-Classical series would manifest itself directly in his later Red Rationality and Black Rationality series. Here Wang overlaid grids and English letters taken from Wittgenstein over his images, turning them conceptual. The artist's own subjective position became abstract and hard to detect, which of course ensured the "rationality" of his creative work in addition to clarifying his interpretation of ambiguity. Rationality would later inspire the Mao Zedong series, important to Wang's career and to art history alike. Wang Guangyi would later reflect on this period that "I believe my painting methods precisely expressed the rational spirit of the 1980's."4
Around 1986, easel painting was Zhang Peili's primary artistic medium. In the New Space exhibition he exhibited two works from the Swimming and Music series. Contrary to Wang Guangyi's meditations on profound philosophical questions, Zhang Peili focused on urban life and individual experience, and yet he addressed even such seemingly subjective and familiar topics without any trace of emotion. Whether in Swimmers or Let You Enjoy Jazz, what the viewer sees is a snapshot from life frozen and collected by the artist. In such scenes, according Gao Minglu, "in order to reexamine things in a purely intellectualized manner, in order to transform the natural experience of the world into a solemn meditation on it, he [i.e. Zhang Peili] freezes his subjects' time, space, and activity. In so doing, he shields his meditation from interference from the sensible world and ensures the intellectual coherence of his imagination."5 Zhang's way of representing the world was not the same as the immensely influential Realism from before. It was not to depict a specific scene objectively, but to render faithfully an impression of a whole gained through a vision of a small detail. This is why details in his works are often omitted—a rational representation outweighs the delineation of details. Gao Minglu has described Zhang Peili's representational style as a kind of Neo-Realism and a prototypical kind of Rational Painting.
Around 1985, before the emergence of Political Pop and Cynical Realism, Rational Painting held universal sway in the Chinese painting scene. Works from this period laid the foundation for Rational Art and abstract aesthetics and paved the way for the later development of abstract and conceptual art in China.
1 Gao Minglu, "About Rational Painting", Meishu, 1986 issue 8
2 Refer to 1
3 Refer to 1
4 "I Express the Spirit of Rationality Appropriately -Wang Guangyi discovers the beauty of 'Cold War'", Guangzhou Daily, December 2007
5 Refer to 1
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