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21 Dec 2021 / by Doryun Chong

Painting in the Twenty-first Century

Oil painting on canvas of a painting hanging on the wall of a brick building in the middle of a construction site. The painting hanging on the wall depicts three people standing on a balcony with the Eiffel tower in the background.

A painting within a painting from Christian Jankowski’s series, The China Painters.  © Christian Jankowski; Photo: Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery; M+, Hong Kong

How do traditional mediums of art stay alive and relevant as the world in which we live changes irreversibly? In an era when the collective image bank grows explosively and exponentially thanks to the internet, social media, digital technologies, and artificial intelligence, can static images of paintings be more than tiny, insignificant bytes in the infinite stream of data?

Painting has faced repeated ‘crises’ and even ‘deaths’ at least since the invention of photography in the nineteenth century. Cinema, television, and other image-making technologies may have, to a degree, overtaken and undermined the hallowed standing of painting with its previously unique ability to represent the seen and conjure unseen, imagined, and spiritual worlds. At various points throughout history, political ideologies have emerged that exalt certain styles of painting and cast suspicion on others.

Close-up photograph showing an acrylic and pencil painting on canvas with small, dark grey rectangular cells, which fill the canvas, create the appearance of a brick wall.

Manila-based artist Maria Taniguchi's large-scale ‘brick paintings’, such as Untitled (2015), are painstakingly handcrafted, foregrounding time, process, and materiality over a specific image. © Maria Taniguchi; M+, Hong Kong

Undaunted, artists have time after time found ways to reconcile with new confrontations and use them as an impetus to reinvent painting and renew its relevance for each era. The labour, skills, and inner reflection required to make a painting instead of, say, snapping a picture on one’s smartphone continue to be appreciated and admired by specialists as well as the public. Painting is as much a medium of communication as a crystallisation of matter. It is a time capsule preserving a moment, the maker’s emotional state, or the materials selected and applied—or all of these.

What a painting is in a physical sense has not fundamentally changed: it is pigments applied on a flat surface. How artists interpret it and how it is done have greatly diversified and expanded, however. A brief, selective survey of recent paintings reveals the many ways in which artists continue to reinvigorate the medium. Technique still matters, as evinced by the public and critical acclaim accorded to Wilson Shieh’s meticulous gongbi paintings. Whereas Shieh brings his dexterity to often humorous and witty subjects from the contemporary time as well as the recent past, Yuan Jai and Hao Liang apply their equally accomplished hands to topics and forms culled and recomposed from traditional Chinese iconography.

Ink and gouache painting on silk of a pregnant woman in a transparent black dress and large hat. She holds her belly while a small naked child looks up at her.

Notice anything unusual here? Wilson Shieh's Mother (2012), like many of his paintings, features surprising details. © Wilson Shieh; M+, Hong Kong

Intensive labour accompanied at times by tedium and exertion can culminate in painting’s singular persuasion, as exemplified by the work of Kim Beom and Maria Taniguchi. These strictly regular geometries that conceal—or sublimate—possibly turbulent emotional states contrast with the overtly expressive styles of Christine Ay Tjoe and Firenze Lai. Existing images and forms, whether an archival photograph or the architecture of a city, can be the basis for immediately identifiable styles, as in the work of Atul Dodiya and Mark Bradford.

Painting with uneven swathes of colour painted, splashed, and scrawled across a white background, featuring black lines and patches of pink, red, blue, and brown.

Christine Ay Tjoe used handheld oil sticks to rub, scratch, and strike the canvas for We Are Getting Highly Overrated Because You've Never Known Us 01 (2015). © Christine Ay Tjoe; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Antonio Cho Shing Kwong MH, 2019

Acrylic painting on canvas depicting a figure with a scarlet sweater and dark red trousers sitting with their feet on a sofa, leaning against a grey tiled wall. The figure wraps their arms around their bent legs. The sofa stands on a white floor and black fabric is draped over it.

Hong Kong painter Firenze Lai's brushwork in The Bonesetting Clinic (2012) reveals dynamics between the human psyche and the environment. © Firenze Lai; M+, Hong Kong

Horizontally oriented ink on silk painting depicting a landscape of rocks, mountains, clouds, and water in dull hues of grey, green, white, and brown.

Working on silk without a hint of brushstroke, Hao Liang turns styles and compositions from different time periods into found objects in Eight Views of Xiaoxiang—Dazzle (2015). © Hao Liang; M+, Hong Kong

Ink and colour painting on silk in three parts. The middle section depicts a colourful garden view and small peach tree with nine ripped peaches interspersed amongst red blossoms. In a landscape-oriented rectangular above this tree is another painting of a branch with nine green peaches hanging off it. On either side of this middle section are two narrow vertical rectangles with red frames, each containing three circles sitting from top to down on a pastel colour background with a branch sprouting flowers. The top circle on the right depicts a peach on a flowering branch, while the top circle on the left side depicts a large peach adorned with three flowers. The middle circle on both sides depicts a large peony, with the one on the right rendered in brighter colours. The bottom circles on both sides depicts a rock formation viewed from the front and back.

The distinctive, colourful style in Yuan Jai's Longevity Triptych (2006) gives traditional Chinese painting motifs and domestic wall furnishings, such as couplets and centrepieces, a contemporary spin. © Yuan Jai; M+, Hong Kong

Mixed media work on canvas depicting a close-up of Hong Kong high rise residential buildings. The lines of the building are rendered in a mix of orange, red, and yellow, layered on top of grey, black, and green, making the image appear completely abstract at first glance.

Mark Bradford's Circus (2014) responds to Hong Kong's urban density with layers of architectural drawings, public housing renderings, and city maps. © Mark Bradford; M+, Hong Kong. Museum purchase and gift of Honus Tandijono, 2016

Horizontally oriented oil and acrylic painting depicting a crowd of people at the seaside watching a departing steam ship. A gold pattern of a bird on a perch is overlaid on the water, giving a collage effect. A red line cuts over the whole image. On the top right corner are the words 'S. S. Rajputana leaving the port of Bombay, 29 August 1931'.

Atul Dodiya's S. S. Rajputana leaving the port of Bombay – 29th August 1931 (2014) recreates a moment in India's struggle for independence. © Atul Dodiya; M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2015

Painting with uneven swathes of colour painted, splashed, and scrawled across a white background, featuring black lines and patches of pink, red, blue, and brown.

Christine Ay Tjoe used handheld oil sticks to rub, scratch, and strike the canvas for We Are Getting Highly Overrated Because You've Never Known Us 01 (2015). © Christine Ay Tjoe; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Antonio Cho Shing Kwong MH, 2019

Acrylic painting on canvas depicting a figure with a scarlet sweater and dark red trousers sitting with their feet on a sofa, leaning against a grey tiled wall. The figure wraps their arms around their bent legs. The sofa stands on a white floor and black fabric is draped over it.

Hong Kong painter Firenze Lai's brushwork in The Bonesetting Clinic (2012) reveals dynamics between the human psyche and the environment. © Firenze Lai; M+, Hong Kong

Horizontally oriented ink on silk painting depicting a landscape of rocks, mountains, clouds, and water in dull hues of grey, green, white, and brown.

Working on silk without a hint of brushstroke, Hao Liang turns styles and compositions from different time periods into found objects in Eight Views of Xiaoxiang—Dazzle (2015). © Hao Liang; M+, Hong Kong

Ink and colour painting on silk in three parts. The middle section depicts a colourful garden view and small peach tree with nine ripped peaches interspersed amongst red blossoms. In a landscape-oriented rectangular above this tree is another painting of a branch with nine green peaches hanging off it. On either side of this middle section are two narrow vertical rectangles with red frames, each containing three circles sitting from top to down on a pastel colour background with a branch sprouting flowers. The top circle on the right depicts a peach on a flowering branch, while the top circle on the left side depicts a large peach adorned with three flowers. The middle circle on both sides depicts a large peony, with the one on the right rendered in brighter colours. The bottom circles on both sides depicts a rock formation viewed from the front and back.

The distinctive, colourful style in Yuan Jai's Longevity Triptych (2006) gives traditional Chinese painting motifs and domestic wall furnishings, such as couplets and centrepieces, a contemporary spin. © Yuan Jai; M+, Hong Kong

Mixed media work on canvas depicting a close-up of Hong Kong high rise residential buildings. The lines of the building are rendered in a mix of orange, red, and yellow, layered on top of grey, black, and green, making the image appear completely abstract at first glance.

Mark Bradford's Circus (2014) responds to Hong Kong's urban density with layers of architectural drawings, public housing renderings, and city maps. © Mark Bradford; M+, Hong Kong. Museum purchase and gift of Honus Tandijono, 2016

Horizontally oriented oil and acrylic painting depicting a crowd of people at the seaside watching a departing steam ship. A gold pattern of a bird on a perch is overlaid on the water, giving a collage effect. A red line cuts over the whole image. On the top right corner are the words 'S. S. Rajputana leaving the port of Bombay, 29 August 1931'.

Atul Dodiya's S. S. Rajputana leaving the port of Bombay – 29th August 1931 (2014) recreates a moment in India's struggle for independence. © Atul Dodiya; M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2015

At the dawn of contemporary art in the late 1970s, Chinese artists ardently explored the painting styles and discourses that had been inaccessible and even prohibited during the decades when the country was in self-imposed isolation. After cramming history lessons of the numerous courses, turns, and returns paintings had taken, contemporary Chinese artists created their unique brands, which were termed ‘Political Pop’, ‘Cynical Realism’, and ‘Gaudy Art’, among others.

Today’s China is an almost unrecognisably different place from what it was in the last decades of the twentieth century, having emerged as an economic and political superpower. Its contemporary art world has become far more open to artistic legacies and trends in the rest of the world. Naturally, a new generation of painters are developing a distinctive iconography that responds to the particular conditions of this never-before-seen China. Cui Jie’s paintings of architectural spaces that seem simultaneously retro and futuristic are an exemplar in this regard.

Horizontally oriented oil painting in sepia tones depicting a pedestrian bridge and a long rectangular building overlaid on the same frame.

Inspired by science fiction and the Japanese Metabolist movement, Cui Jie’s paintings—like Worker Cultural Palace in Dongguan and Overpass in Beijing (2015)—reflect on the past, present, and future of the urban environment. © Cui Jie; M+, Hong Kong. M+ Council for New Art Fund, 2020

During its re-emergence on the world stage, China was often called the ‘factory of the world’ because of its status as an unparalleled manufacturing powerhouse, especially of cheap, mass-produced goods. The example most often cited in the realm of art is Dafen Oil Painting village in Shenzhen, where thousands of skilled copyists churn out replicas of famous paintings—usually European and American—for the export market. In his 2007–2008 project The China Painters, German artist Christian Jankowski photographed the galleries of the Dafen Art Museum, which were under construction at the time. He then commissioned painters from Dafen to copy his photographs and asked each to include a painting ‘as if he or she were the future museum director’. The paintings within paintings range widely, manifesting not only the painters’ personal aesthetic preferences but also the discrepancies between what official art history glorifies and what the viewer desires.

Oil painting on canvas of a photograph hanging on the wall of a brick building in the middle of a construction site. The photograph shows a cobbled-together chair sitting on a city street. It has a broken antique frame, a grey seat and back pad, and stack of scrap metal and bricks to replace its missing leg.

Jankowski commissioned artists from Shenzhen’s Dafen Artist Village to paint artworks they thought should be hung in the city’s soon-to-be-completed museum. Yin Xunzhi selected a photograph from Michael Wolf's Sitting in China series for The China Painters—Museum Director's Chair (2007). © Christian Jankowski; Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road; M+, Hong Kong

This contemporary counterpart to so-called China Trade Paintings, which flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is a crucial reminder of the fact that artistic production in China has long been a cross-cultural endeavour linked to economic activity. Jankowski’s project also exemplifies how the notions of individuality, authorship, and originality, which were at the core of painting as an expressive medium, have been fundamentally destabilised. Artists have adopted collective, cooperative, and even industrial modes of production to participate in—or slyly critique—the expanded field of the globalised economy and the circulation of goods, including paintings.

This article is an excerpt from the book M+ Collections: Highlights, a richly illustrated companion to the visual art, design and architecture, and moving image works in the M+ Collections. It has been modified slightly from its original version.

Doryun Chong is Deputy Director, Curatorial and Chief Curator at M+.

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