Max Protetch, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above
New York, Max Protetch Gallery, Political Pop Art Works from China, 1998
Su Xinping's Art, Beijing, 2003, p. 33, no. 32, illustrated in color (misidentified there as another wok in the series)
Su Xinping was born and raised in Jining City in Inner Mongolia. After a stint in the army in the late 70s and experience there painting propaganda murals, Su entered the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, from which he would graduate in 1983. After a few years teaching fine arts at Inner Mongolia Normal University, Su moved to Beijing in 1986 and entered the printmaking department at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. He has been a professor at this top training institution since his graduation in 1989.
Su Xinping arrived in Beijing at precisely the time of the “New Wave” movement’s development and when artists such as Xu Bing were his peers in the printmaking department at CAFA. In this fertile and affecting environment, the artist pursued his own thematic interests, which consisted largely of imaginative, Surrealist-inspired prints loosely derived from rural subject matter and the flat grasslands setting of his youth. In this manner he produced several striking images of the period.
Travel in the early 90s gave the artist the opportunity to experience a full range of contemporary Western art, but it was the Lucian Freud retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the winter of 1993-1994 that would have the greatest impact upon him. Rather than specific painterly and compositional techniques, Su was inspired to think about the importance of figural painting, then marginalized in contemporary Western art, as a language for communication with society. Amidst the rampant consumerism that had sprung up seemingly overnight in 1990s China, Su would soon put his new inspirations to work.
Sea of Desire is a remarkable series of works begun in 1994, extending at least to 1998, and including at least sixteen paintings exploring related themes. By this point, Su had long deployed the compositional format of the open, infinite space and high horizon line, with which he was familiar from his rural upbringing. It was only in this series of the mid-90s, however, inspired – indeed dismayed – by the psychological transformations wrought by China’s dramatic shift towards “market socialism” that Su Xinping arrived at a crystalline expression of the ontological anxiety that characterized this age, the locus of which is the isolated human figure.
Sea of Desire, No. 8 (1996, Lot 50) is among the most powerful works in the series and the most directly revealing of the meaning of the series as a whole. One cannot help but read the figure – clad in traditional Mongolian dress and with familiar facial features – as autobiographical, an introspective reflection upon the lost values of contemporary humanity in a rapidly changing world. If other works in the series play out the drama of what seem to be competing individuals seeking their individual and collective moral compasses, Sea of Desire No. 8 is the Shakespearean soliloquy in which the question of being is contemplated in a tragic, sunset-hued environment at the edge of the world.
Enshrouded in Difficulty, No. 3 (1997, Lot 166), from a different but concurrent series offers a similarly meditative theme, though seen from a different perspective. Here the lower horizon line enhances the monumentality of this slighter figure, whom we view as though through a fish-eye lens: we see from above his legs and feet planted precariously upon a meager rock in a hazy yellow sea, and his uplifted head seeking signs from the heavens as though from below. If this stranded man in his worker’s clothing seems more at peace with his condition, it is no less precarious – and the narrower color range of his setting no less beautifully executed.
Struggling Man, No. 1 (1997, Lot 165) presents what could be the same man who was once stranded now swimming awkwardly from his yellow sea towards the viewer. As in many of the Sea of Desire pictures, the man takes an active stance against his desolate environment, the struggle an act of heroism and hope against an uncertain fate. How different in character and narrative import Su Xingping’s individuated, humanized figures are from those of Fang Lijun, whose drowning men bear a superficial thematic similarity (see Lots 178-183).
Untitled (2006, Lot 51) is thematically similar to the Banquet Series, which the artist began in the late 90s and which shows groups of people toasting the implied viewer of the painting. In this more recent body of work, the existential anxiety of prior paintings has yielded to the bubbly joy of the communal spirit and the lighter colors of the palette. But in many of these works, too, the figural caricatures, the peculiar lighting of the scenes, and the lack of any dissenting gestures suggest that Su Xinping remains ill at ease with the self-satisfied celebrations of the new China. In this particular recent work – one wonders just what is being celebrated beyond the viewer’s visit to the site. The lone figure has returned – now well dressed and with drink in hand – but it remains to be seen whether his toast is genuine, and what it portends for this eloquent, insightful artist’s future.
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