Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong
Song Yonghong, Beijing Art Now Gallery, Beijing, 2000, p. 176
Song Yonghong-Square of Desire, Guangdong Museum of Art, China, 2008, p. 113
Among the original Cynical Realists, Song Yonghong is indubitably the most masterful storyteller of all. His peers, the likes of Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun, have expended much time and energy in search of their own brand of painting, one unique in style and in content. Song Yonghong, however, chose to direct his attention onto the picture itself and its literary, narrative potential. A most rudimentary composition would still carry a principal plotline. His works are much in the way of Quentin Tarantino movies, where often only a small cadre of characters is featured. However, every one of them possesses a distinctive persona and would interact with each other in most mesmerizing ways.
In his essay "The Polemics on Reality," Song Yonghong described his role as an artist to be a sort of bystander, watching and observing quietly. As pre-eminent art critic Li Xianting has noted, "The works of Song Yonghong are always executed from the vantage point of an onlooker. An aloof, derisive and voyeuristic air fills the pictorial space. Unusually sensitive to the latent qualities of ennui, spurious humour and even malevolence in the recesses of daily life, Song Yonghong exposes the mortifying, simultaneously hilarious yet despicable behavior of today's society."
A member of the graduating class of 1988 at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, a youthful Song Yonghong came away with strong influences from fellow alumni Geng Jianyi and Zhang Peili. Along with their paintings of cool, collected objectivity, Song Yonghong's own work was also displayed at the "New Generation Art Exhibition" in 1991. Over the course of next few years, the artist would slowly mature into his signature style. In his earlier days, Song would build compositions with simple figures set against ordinary settings, albeit contrived. Post-1989, the artist then learnt to fully realize the power of amalgamating a compelling narrative with technical proficiency. Ordinary people are portrayed against ordinary backgrounds. Bland, insignificant moments are captured, though never without a hint of mockery or absurdity. Upon beholding of his imagery, feelings of awkwardness, anguish and very often amusement, are stirred. An ambivalence permeates his compositions; it is at the same time, the artist's expression of a self-deprecation as well as an unforgiving reflection of contemporary sociology.
Starting in 1995, Song Yonghong came to identify "the hazards of reality." Instead of the individual, the society has become his target of scrutiny. Production Line (Lot 889) is the artist's grating statement on the hazardous, modernizing forces of the Chinese nation. Set in a factory that processes chickens, the painting depicts an instance of management inspecting operations. Chickens arranged in a queue are suspended upside down as their innards are being emptied onto the conveyor belt below. The stench of death suffocates the motorized production line. The executives stand for icons of human civilization, looking on in composure and nonchalance. As China embarked on its transformation, urban development rocketed and a modernization of agricultural processes ensued. Production lines and assembly
lines were abounding all over the country as mechanization brought efficiency and performance. Robotic and impersonal, technology has stripped away much and begot instead a swarm of environmental problems—these, in the eyes of our vexed artist, are the hazards of life in a new China.
Toward the licentious impulses of eroticism buried in the urban crevices, Song Yonghong has always held a special fascination. In the "The First Guangzhou Biennial, Oil Painting in the 1990s," the artist showed Old Couple. The painting portrays an elderly couple, both topless and the husband's hand resting on his wife's breast, motionless and expressionless. A brown monotone governs the image, enhancing the air of incongruity and elevating the effect of tedium. Such a compositional formula would persist, as the artist continued to position naked figures in public sites. In the most restricted of spaces, Song Yonghong releases the most forbidden of urges. His shriek for freedom resounded into his eventual Bath of Consolation Series, where erotic themes became his creative axis.
Public Bathroom (Lot 890), featuring a pair of male nudes, is one of Song Yonghong's masterpieces of the mid-1990s and led directly to the creation of his celebrated Bath of Consolation Series. The public bathroom of China in the 1990s is depicted. The male figure on the right has his back to the viewer, relishing in his bath, while his left counterpart is lying prostrate on the stone bench, with his mouth ajar, as the water splashes down onto his face. An assortment of objects is scattered all over the floor — paper cups, bars of soap, flowers and even a bottle of Shampoo. The ineffable angst and stifled anxiety of daily life are conveyed in a Surrealist manner, while the miscellaneous items symbolize its many hidden desires. Already holding a filled cup in his hand, the man on the left voraciously consumes even more water from the shower. The notion of the "bath" reoccurs in Song's body of work—having shed its more literal meaning, the bath becomes a representational vehicle in his later Bath of Consolation Series, offering great room for psychological associations and metaphorical allusions.
If Song Yonghong's paintings exhibit an aura of ludicrousness, hilarity and agitation, it is because reality is unequivocally ludicrous, hilarious and agitating. As a silent bystander, the artist bares the many convoluted strata of conflicting sentiments repressed in contemporary society and manifests them on his canvases, inviting unexpected interpretations as well as ambivalent reactions.
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