Fang Lijun, born in 1963 in Handan, Hebei province, belongs to a generation of artists whose lives were marked by the democracy movement’s destruction and the consequent fallout of cultural conservatism. As an artist who participated in the school of Cynical Realism, Fang Lijun quickly became known for his stylized portrayals of men who wear simple peasant’s clothing and whose heads are entirely shaven, functioning as classic examples of the alienated riffraff known in Chinese as pizi. The roughshod, menacing poses of Fang’s figures have been recognized as brilliant metaphors for the anomie that set in after 1989, when the democracy movement was thwarted by the Chinese government. Characterized by a truculent countenance, a low brow and usually appearing against a generalized background like a plain sky or open sea, Fang Lijun’s figures inspire an unspecified dread and reveal a social anxiety to which they themselves are heir. As a consequence, the characters populating his painting have become exemplars of a generation whose idealism was irreparably dashed, resulting in an alienated reading of culture and the self in contemporary Chinese life.
It’s easy to see Fang Lijun’s paintings as autobiographical—the artist himself sports a shaved head and is not dissimilar in appearance to the subjects of his works. But it makes more sense to read his figures as emblematic of the generation on the cusp between traditional forces and a new, rootless group that places little trust in most interpersonal interactions or the society in which they take place. Furthermore, as Fang’s work has developed over more than a decade, a wide variety of characters beyond his trademark men have come to populate his pictorial space.
Educated in the print department at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, Fang Lijun is a highly skilled printmaker whose works are spectacular demonstrations of woodblock printing. The seven-part 2003 (Lot 178) is an extraordinary, large-scale example, the frightening narrative of which – a signature man, isolated and drowning – is even emphasized by the narrow tonal range in its grisaille coloration. At the same time, Fang is no less accomplished as painter, and it is revealing to compare his different strategies of expression in different media, such as in 1997.11 (Lot 183), which depicts a similar theme. Although the three men in the painting seem in less dire straits, there remains an ominous feel, a sense of abandonment in a vast sea at the edge of the world. At the same time, this spectacularly-hued, textured sea is beautiful to behold, representing the painter at his best.
But Fang’s body of work does not speak so much to his unusual technical abilities as to a figurative reading of contemporary China’s identity, in which the rogue subject/artist takes his place alongside – or perhaps apart from – more conventional figures found in Chinese society. By peopling his paintings with an essential face, repeated many times, the artist is able to represent Chinese people abstractly and symbolically. In this way, his work bears comparison with that of Zhang Xiaogang (Lots 155 to 160), a few years Fang’s elder, whose style could not be more different but who reflects upon a similar theme.
Amidst the advancement of the market of Chinese contemporary art internationally, Fang Lijun’s persistent deadpan cynicism appears to be inspired by an acute critical focus upon his native, mainland culture. But he is best known as the image-maker of a very specific point in time, that moment of a generation’s disappointment by the defeat of democratic forces. The significance of his art has therefore taken on more than the considerably ironic flair with which it is invested; it provides an allegorical reading of the contemporary Chinese psyche. The very painting of his various surrogate selves so relentlessly may be seen as a protest against the conformism of Chinese culture, as well as the ministrations of a one-party state. The art of Fang Lijun is a marker of the attitude of a generation whose political dismay has become symbolic of larger, more open forces under duress for nearly two decades.
It is possible to see in Fang Lijun’s combination of threat and knowingness – of acerbic sarcasm and jokey, almost surrealistic playfulness – the powerful mixture of ambivalent attitudes that can only be rooted in contemporary Chinese life. Set against a mountainous background of ridges and plateaus, 2001.9.23 (Lot 179) presents boys and girls, all bald headed, dressed in various colorful uniforms, floating in mid-air amidst decorative flowers that are like exclamation points for this joyous, if chilly vision. 2004-2005 (Lot 180) is an even more arresting, unusual image, painted on a very grand scale, which shows the huge hand of a baby cutting through a gray haze, as though wiping away condensation from a glass, to reveal a blue sky beneath. Do such youngsters and infants represent the future generation, the hands of the future that will quite literally clear up the confusion of the present and recent past like a deus ex machina?
As with the best work of Fang’s generation, no definitive interpretation of intent is secure. What is certain is the iconic power of Fang Lijun’s magical realism, which speaks to and foments social and psychological disturbance, thereby assuring his position amongst the most influential artists of contemporary China.
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