Red Bridge Gallery, Shanghai
Private Collection, Asia
30 years have passed since China introduced its economic reforms and opened its door to the world. In this period, Chinese artists have slowly
begun to evolve and develop their interpretations of modern and contemporary art from the West. Among the many who embraced these influences from the West, Mao Xuhui was the one whose art was most profoundly affected by western styles. His creative process has been singular, inspired by movements that range from Impressionism to Expressionism, Neo-Figurative Art to Rational Abstraction. Beyond such influences lies his dogged commitment to being true to life and art, in all its intuitions and poetics. Taking the simplicity of everyday discourse, he seeks to express the grandeur of art.
Mao Xuhui, or affectionately nicknamed "Da Mao" (Big Mao) by friends, was born in 1956 in Chongqing, and thereafter moved to Kunming. In 1977, he was accepted into Yunnan Normal University to study art. Following the Soviet example, Socialist Realism dominated the curriculum at the time. A heavy resentment spurred Mao to write letters of frustration and angst to comrades Zhang Xiaogang and Ye Yongqing, in which he questioned the mainstream at the time, art as decoration or art as aesthetic. What he really wanted to do was to present tragedy in a visual form, and for many years this remained his pursuit.
In 1982, he visited the Beijing Ethnic Museum where by chance an exhibition of German Expressionism was on show. The exhibition included many leading German Expressionists of the time, and just as en plein air artists had learnt from the Impressionists, it seemed only natural that Mao would find the Expressionist movement irresistible. Mao was enthralled with their expressive style and quickly adopted this into his own art practice. Upon his return to Beijing, he sought to discover his own Expressionism.
After he graduated from university, Mao was allocated a job at the local department store. It was then and there that his ideals were shattered by the tedious reality of life and work. During the day, he repressed his feelings of frustration; despair and desperation, only to let them out at night, letting his emotions erupt violently onto the canvas. The more pressure he felt at work, the more intense the paintings became. In the three to four years that he worked at the department store, Expressionism gave him a form of release, and it is only as he poured his emotions into sombre colours and heavy brushstrokes that his raging soul hidden deep down in anguish could be let out.
Self-Portrait (Lot 923) was painted in 1984 and is a masterpiece from this period. The human face is presented in vivid yellows and reds, with rough black strokes outlining the face over a blue background. Yet what truly catches the eye are the facial features, the blazing eyes, the expressive nose, the pert lips; altogether they reveal defiance and stubbornness, a perfect depiction of his life in 1984. The artist had found Expressionism just at the right time—it became his escape and his haven.
During the 1980's, the general environment for contemporary art had become more relaxed and more art activities took place. In 1984, after
being disappointed with the outcome of the "National Art Exhibition," Mao and his friends decided to curate their own show. In 1985, the first edition of "New Figurative Art" opened in Shanghai, which then travelled to Yunnan and Sichuan. In 1986, Mao was invited to participate in the "Zhuhai Art Forum" as a regional representative of the Southwest. After returning to Yunnan, he, together with Zhang Xiaogang, Pan Dehai, Ye Yongqing, started the Southwestern Art Group, for which Mao was the leader and cofounder. This role paved the way toward becoming a key proponent in the groundbreaking '85 New Wave movement.
As the environment for contemporary art took a turn for the better, Mao
shifted his focus away from his personal experiences and toward the source of oppression for individuals in society. Throughout China's history, the "father figure" features as fundamental to concepts such as autocracy, violence and sovereignty; these ideas are deeply rooted in the core values of Chinese society. This hegemony is based on the ancient Confucian values of "Three Principles and Five Rules," where the patriarch residing on top of the domestic pyramid holds the power. It is with these ideas that Mao began his Paternalism Series, a philosophical exploration of the sociological condition of the Chinese society.
Paternalism on Red High-Backed Chair (Lot 922) is a classic from the series and also characteristic of his later period. In the painting, a huge red armchair features centrestage, using perspective to give illusion of superiority and a dominating presence. The chair alludes to the site of power and hence implies the person who once sat there as the source of power. But, whether it be chair or the person, it has already lost its original meaning, and now only serves to illuminate the invisible yet omnipresent ideology of power, which is conveyed in the painting through abstract lines. The painting retains the artist's typical use of red tones, haphazard brushstrokes, and expressionist influences, but also combines reasoning to reveal Mao's critique on the traditional patriarchal society.
As Mao's investigation continues he begins to find new meaning in the
power mechanism. Paternalism 92 (Lot 921) illustrates a development in his visual vocabulary for the concepts of power and patriarchy. In 1992, changes in society popularized forms and symbols, at the same time Mao became interested in the role of the "parent" within the patriarchy. Mao points out that in today's civilized society, power has evolved into many metaphors. Hence we begin to see objects such as: banners, gestures, keys, and antique clocks appear in his paintings, this can be understood, similar to the chair, as his method of deconstructing and finding meaning in power. Although Paternalism 92 retains the colour scheme of reds and blacks from older series, it differs in that the antique clock now replaces the chair as the main image, with the original chair superimposed on top, a detail indicating that Mao's reading of power has become more complex. Furthermore, in this time, Mao has gradually moved further away from his expressionist period, his brushstrokes have become more calm and thoughtful. By the time he started his Daily Epic series, whether in style or in choice of subject, the compositions have become less emotive and much more rational.
After 1994, China's economy fell into a commercial frenzy, where commodities and consumer interest overrode moral code. Political Pop, Gaudy Art, just like commercial products, were being mass-produced. An immense pressure overcame the artist, as he refused to follow these trends but was feeling increasingly marginalized by it. In an effort to detach he decided to retreat back to Kunming, much in the manner of the Italian master Giorgio Morandi, and became a recluse. He locked himself in his studio, and spent a great deal of his time reading philosophy and literature in hopes of attaining spiritual refinement. Through loneliness he was able to return to a basic state of living, and by re-examining the everyday, he began working on his Daily Epic series. By experimenting with different forms and shapes he found that the image of scissors was most appealing. Scissors also had a formal connection with his Paternalism series, and came to feature in his paintings. However, they were no longer allegories of authority and power, but rather they are vacated of meaning and are represented
simply as forms on flat paintings.
The trajectory from Daily Epic to Scisscors marked the philosophical and artistic evolution of Mao Xuhui. A member of the first wave of Chinese contemporary artists, he becomes a metonymy for the existential conditions and collective experiences of the time. What rages through his mind is independent of the trends and the fashions, and this very independence and individual vision that offer us a peek into the psychological interior of his generation.
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