The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China


Geng Jianyi
Executed in 1995
oil on Canvas
139.5 by 99 cm.; 54 7/8 by 39 in.
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ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai


50% – 1999: Geng Jianyi & ShanghART, ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai, China, 1999, p. 17
Karen Smith, Nine Lives – The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China, Scalo, Zurich, 2005, p. 108
Karen Smith, Nine Lives -The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China - The Updated Edition, AW Asia, New York, 2008, p. 114



Geng Jianyi is one of very few contemporary artists to have made substantial contributions to a wide variety of schools and lineages, often playing a founding role in their composition, while consistently refusing to be limited by any single ideology or stylistic tendency. A core member of the Pond Society, Geng was also, prior to that collective experience, an organizer of the earlier '85 New Space exhibition in Hangzhou, thus propelling the regional avant-garde while building further links with the "Rational Painting" aesthetic shared locally with Zhang Peili and with members of the Northern Art Group like Shu Qun and Wang Guangyi. In his individual production, however, Geng manages to maintain a position that anticipates the later styles of larger movements time after time; by working largely with questions of the social traces of the self—locating the individual within broader historical forces—the artist is able to predict the directions in which these more general aesthetic motivations will develop. His earliest figurative painting, for example, anticipated the move toward rational painting defined by the development of a formal language apart from romantic expressiveness, while the techniques of abstraction and graphic dislocation he developed over the years spanning the transition from the 1980s to the 1990s laid the groundwork for the implementation of a neo-Pop Art, as with his notorious face or smile paintings and a set of almost collage-based iconographic inversions. In another notable painting practice he developed, Geng, influenced by Surrealist ideas of randomness, even employed generative imagery long before the possibilities of the digital. Standing at the leading edge of artistic applications of new theoretical ideas and social observation, the artist enjoys a history of influence among his peers visible in the contours of much of his conceptually-driven work.

One of his earliest works, a composition of acrylic on canvas entitled Two People Under a Light (Lot 803), was actually the central work by Geng Jianyi included in his graduation exhibition from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. Two squat and solid figures sit at a sturdy wooden table; that on the left is a broad-shouldered man in a red sweater with his eyes—obscured by glasses in black half-frames—dipped in concentration, a newspaper in his hands and a tall cup ahead of him, while that on the right is a slender woman in a loose blue turtleneck with her hands clasped on the table, her bored eyes staring straight ahead. Colouration is subdued but stark, a singular use of lighting reflected in the shadowed drapery of garments that repeats the darkness of the black background framed only at its extremes by a drab olive border. Lit only and explicitly from one side, both faces are half in shadow. These two figures are clearly representative of the emerging urban intellectual milieu, perhaps cultural workers still embedded in massive state-operated industry but engaged in the blank pursuits of form. Although they sit side by side, the arm of the figure on the right positioned just slightly to the fore of that on the left, there is no interaction between the two whatsoever, suggesting the alienation of the urban environment despite the trappings of class and the availability of leisure time; Geng deftly demonstrates an aesthetic only one step removed from official bureaucratic structures that nevertheless manages to remain outside of the dominant and expected visual regime. When first exhibited in 1985 the work actually proved intensely controversial: diverging in tone from the mainstream academic mode of the time, which drew in style if not intention from the more broadly accepted school of Socialist Realism and the pessimistic visual variant of Scar Art, he shifted the conversation of figurative painting away from notions of semblance perhaps even more violently than Abstract Art was at that moment able to do. The exhibition of the work spurred the Zhejiang Academy to call several days of discussions and critique, after which it was ultimately proclaimed that the style represented an improper artistic diversion: depicting a torpid state of melancholia, Geng had strayed too far from the vigorous smiles of Socialist Realism (another extreme he would go on to play with in an upcoming series). For art history, however, his experiments would prove fruitful, opening up a path toward the analytical aesthetics of the following decade.

The later work As if Fighting (Lot 806) is immediately recognizable as a descendant of the rational and passionless painting Geng Jianyi pioneered in the mid-1980s, its energies transferred into the manipulation of imagery and the realignment of connotation in place of the production of meaning per se. On a painterly if pallid grey-blue field of swirling strokes, two energetic male figures are depicted almost in four similar shades of yellow that fade almost to a silhouette, the upper figure in a warmer orange tone and the lower in a cooler yellow. Their faces are completely washed out, as with Geng's earlier grey paintings, but here even movement is obscured almost to the point of illegibility: although the title implies that the two are fighting, they could just as easily be dancing. The bodies are locked together limb against limb, abstracting the motion of the human form and reducing it to a singular moment of iconicity. This is a classical gesture of Pop Art, albeit in the form that precedes its current polish; Geng demonstrates an interest in the appropriation and transformation of images drawn from political propaganda or similar sources, mobilizing it to a new set of uses that develops the discourse of Political Pop in a more intellectual direction.

Eternal Rays of Sun No. 2 (Lot 804) functions similarly, creating something of a collage in oil on canvas instead of reproducing in full the abstracted or otherwise altered imagery of media circulation. A photograph or etching of a soldier—dressed in military garb along the lines of the socialist role model Lei Feng—supporting a wizened elderly figure is painted in black and white and set at the very centre of the composition; the image at hand is actually drawn from the scenes, often originally etchings, printed on bank notes. From this central point pairs of off-parallel white lines radiate outward through a field of faded red, creating the effect of a minimal sun that gestures toward the old Maoist truism of the reddest sun within the hearts of the people, imagery that reached its apex during the Cultural Revolution. Geng Jianyi draws on this cliché for the sake of media critique, remaining committed to the principles of his specific medium of choice on a level rarely evident in Political Pop. Produced as part of a series of 10 pieces exhibited during the now infamous Passaggio a Oriente exhibition of the Venice Biennale curated by Achille Bonito Oliva with Francesca dal Lago (1993), the work is theoretically simple but presents a deft graphic and conceptual statement; the approach to collage composition would prove influential over the years to come.

For Interchange of Light (Lot 805), which belongs to a rather extensive series spanning several years, Geng Jianyi works more directly with the medium of capture rather than the social products of media. Generally speaking, in this series the artist overlays two distinct faces drawn from photographs on a single plane and paints the result with the play of light and colour; in this particular specimen, however, the process is indistinct, allowing the work to be dominated by a potentially even more productive set of relationships between brush, texture, colour, and form. As a single image in its own right the painting functions as a study in flow and seepage, becoming an element in the conversation of lens- and brush-based media that characterized its era. The first half of the 1990s witnessed an influx of new technical possibilities, inciting an explosion of unprecedented work with video and photography; even painting was subject to these new ways of looking, and Geng Jianyi was at that moment more sensitive than most to the relationships between and intersections of such varying strategies for sorting interpersonal structures. Produced during a tumultuous period that saw the artist move from Hangzhou to Beijing and back within the space of a year, the series of works seems to suggest the shades of social being by which one person fades into the next and the work or person of one artist might influence another, implying an obtuse and never pure network of contacts that come to bear in one way or another on the work of the studio.

The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China