Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Jinsong A Painter of Chinese Modern Life

Beauty is a conundrum. There are beautiful things and there are images of beautiful things. There are visual idealisations of imperfect things and imperfect renderings of otherwise splendid things. What is it that makes a rotting piece of fruit less beautiful than a fresh and ripe one? Is it anything at all when the likes of a seventeenth century Dutchman can render the former in such a compelling manner so as to restore its beauty immediately?

There are numerous treaties on beauty, and yet perhaps the difficulty in finding its definition is down to the fact that the term itself: ‘beautiful’, is used to describe the indescribable. Because one man’s Madonna is another’s Medusa, and vice versa, the definition of beautiful will differ infinitely, from each beholder to the next. Therefore it is not overly precarious to define beauty along the terms of the compelling. You find yourself drawn into someone, or something, you cannot describe it, you are compelled. You find that person or object, beautiful. In many ways if one follows this line, the concept of what it is to be ‘beautiful’ is interchangeable with that of ‘shocking’.

Consider the rotting fruit again; when depicted in layered oil glazes by for instance a de Heem or a Breughel, the lustre of the fruit, slick with its sheen of emanating juice, draws the eye immediately. And yet, is this because the subject itself is beautiful, or rather because there is an element in human nature that is particularly drawn to, if not the evidence, at least the notion of death and decay?

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Still-life with Fruit and Butterflies, National Gallery of Canada

Explore the collection here

I think of the Cubists when I think of Yang Jinsong’s paintings, as do I think of the Dutch still-life painters I mentioned earlier, An artist such a Pieter Claesz had only but to depict a rich open pie, golden crusted, filled with fruits, meat and nuts perched next to a beautifully curved knife at its opening to speak volumes about the comfortable wealth of the Netherlands in his era. In doing so he could also speak of an opulence, which was at once unbecoming for a nation whose supposed puritan values would have had them be more modest. He was not moralising but rather merely remarking, he most probably enjoyed consuming the beautiful objects he depicted as much as he did creating the images of them. Another great source of wealth, though also a vice, which was included by Claesz and others was the depiction of tobacco and the paraphernalia of smoking. Often there would be a conical wrap of printed paper, out of which spilled the evidence of tobacco. A pipe might be in the background and the thinnest wisp of smoke lingering above the composition. The inclusion of the vice certainly hints briefly towards sin, but also speaks in terms of the impermanence of life. The fleeting nature of smoke that is here one minute, lingers and then is gone. Jinsong’s paintings also include these symbols of sin. Jinsong’s fish are at times scattered with syringes or pills. Now, if one things of the Tobacco which was famously traded out of the Dutch East Indies, and then considers the volumes of opiates, mainly heroin produced in the border regions of China, indeed a narcotic itself which was for many years through the 1970’s and 1980s called ‘China White’, one observes a very tidy link.
Pieter Claesz, Still-Life, 1636, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Explore the collection here
Now Picasso and co. they liked Absinthe. They liked young, beautiful, loud prostitutes and they loved to consume fabulous bottles of wine. The cafĂ© collages and cubists musings of the 1910-1920 years tell us as much. So much preoccupation can peak only of the voluminous understanding of how much fun they could have. That is not to say they didn’t know these excesses were bad for them. Then again, Picasso did not moralise, in the entire canon of literature on him, no one would level that accusation at a man, one of whose earliest famed works is a self-portrait as a late teen being administered fallatio by a Spanish prostitute. I cannot accuse Jinsong of moralising, his paintings don’t they comment without prejudice, though they staunchly fail to deny the ugliness around us.

Picasso, Pipe, Glass, Bottle of Vieux Marc, 1914, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation,
Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. Explore the collection here

Yang Jinsong’s paintings over the last five years have been a discourse on human behaviour, and of beauty. Yang Jinsong’s fish paintings are unquestionably beautiful. Some are grotesque in their violence, some are so sensual in their colour and expressively laid brushstrokes that the viewer is almost repulsed to the pint where they can smell the rotten flesh of the fish and the gag reflex is very nearly tempted. Either way, one does not eerily turn away from these paintings. There is something about fish itself that is extremely provocative. The protein has the tendency to completely polarise people, one is either a fish eater, or staunchly not, some will only eat fish and many others just can’t stand the smell. In Australia, where over the last two decades at least, the procurement of fresh seafood has been a relatively gentle challenge, we tend to be more pictorially tolerant if not inclined than elsewhere in the world. Indeed, it is no great surprise so many of our finest national chefs have all but made their name on the back of the freshness of the industry here. In China, fish holds the tendency to serve as a great delicacy, and equally become the picture of nightmares. 

 Yang Jinsong, private collection, Sydney
The concept of hospitality in China is a little different to that which westerners are used to. A western businessman might ask a client to dine and think himself generous if he picks up most of the tab for a modest lunch at the local brassiere. In China, Corporate hospitality seemingly knows no bounds. Banquets that last hours into night are commonplace, and usually end with the most torturous karaoke known to man in grim smoke filled rooms reeking of white spirit. At some point along the way, at any business-oriented banquet worth its salt in China, one or more fish will be presented. It will be proudly thrust beneath the eyes of the guest of honour who will look down at the glassy black eye of some recently steamed bass or two. Maybe it’s the English, with their pedantic attention to neatness and order that the Dover Sole is perhaps the only truly tidily deconstructed fish I can think of. As I have known it, there is no neat way to eat or portion these live fish presentation platters at a Chinese banquet. The fish comes to the table, everyone duly appreciates it, and more often than not a comically intoxicated host proceeds to portion the fish to their guests. By this usually late stage in the meal, bones, guts and whole chilli garnishes are quite an afterthought. What is thought to be the finest delicacy to bestow upon a guest is more often than not tiresomely difficult to consume. The most beautiful intended part of the meal is also the most challenging.

                                                                 Yang Jinsong, private collection, Sydney
 Yang Jinsong, private collection, Sydney
At the end of any of these Banquets, if one has survived the rice wine, comes the fruit. The like of which I mentioned earlier, it must be said, I have rarely experienced the limp flavourless watermelon which one can easily find in a country where supermarkets import fruit year round from wherever is convenient. In China, usually at rural restaurants, the melon is amongst the sweetest and juiciest you might imagine. And yet with this sweetness, comes the undercurrents. I have been fascinated to witness the appearance of the coupling figures in Jinsong’s recent paintings. These pink-fleshed girls clad in their black fishnets are up to all sorts of mischief in and about these enormous melons (whose obvious connotations are perhaps a little misplaced with regards to my observations of the Chinese bust). The seedy undertones of sex are never far away from the Chinese Banquet. After the meal, businessmen will be carted to the nearest teahouse to be entertained by their hosts. If the host is looking to score big points he will simply have a series of girls paraded in the restaurant (when the mood is convivial enough). This is when the Karaoke starts. On each trip I have taken to China there has always been at least one or two stories in the South China Morning Post or the China Daily English newspapers about a loyal official getting himself into trouble around about this time in the evening and a short, sharp moralizing column ensues. Jinsong’s luscious offerings of his bursting melons, littered with microphones and naughty nymphs, do just enough to set the scene without being erotic, moralising or boringly pornographic.
 Yang Jinsong, private collection, Sydney
Alongside the still life painting of Yang Jinsong sit his landscapes, He is perhaps not same painter of landscapes as he is of the stunning food compositions, however in an exhibition such as this they play a very important role in the literalising the themes on which eh touches in the former paintings. An Olympic games is for its host nation very much the proud presentation dish. They are the richest offerings of the splendour of a culture and its progress in the world. For the most part. Or at least what was broadcast around the world, the Beijing games were a glittering success performed underneath miraculously clear skies (for China). The games showcased the most architecturally remarkable arena and were a technological marvel, envy you couldn’t access the BBC website. Perhaps these games are all too often offered as an example of veneer over truly wonderful inner workings, at least of the country as a whole. Jinsong’s Black Lotus’ purposely includes the Olympic flag and the viewer starts to get the sense of what it is the darker elements in the brighter paintings all refer to. These landscapes are bleak, they are uninspiring and they are most certainly not beautiful. And they remind me too clearly for the drive, which I have taken a number of times between the cities of Beijing and Tianjin. These dark paintings are stark reminders of a darkness, which lurks in modern China, but of course not just China, but anywhere. I spoke earlier of glorious colourful de Heem paintings or of the boisterous vices of the cubists. The drive between Beijing and Tianjin is quite beautiful compared to those grim railway stations in the industrial ghettos around Rotterdam or the grey concrete outskirts of Paris. There is light, and there is darkness. It is not a Chinese thing, but very much a modern thing.
Yang Jinsong, private collection, Sydney



Copyright © Evan E. Hughes, 2014

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