Painting in the Twenty-first Century
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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+.