Chinas Gaudy Kitsch is a mode of discourse that has developed out of the wave of pan-Political Pop art. While it was Chinas inundation of consumerist culture in the mid 1990s that provided the aesthetic context for it, it is also the fruition of the popularisation of art that has been going on since the May 4th Movement last century. Gaudy Kitsch, originated in the mid 90s, has reached maturity in the works of artists like Feng Zhengjie and Qi Zhilong.
In Feng Zhengjies art, the very choice of making portraits of beauties constitute the first layer of his distinct vocabulary. Admiration and craze for beauties represent the core of current popular aesthetics. Having originated from the worship of Hollywood stars in the 1960s to expand into the worldwide frenzy of star-idolatry today, this phenomenon reflects in a nutshell the masses disregard of elite culture, as well as their attachment to sensual pleasure offered by the pretty. It is a more positive stance to take to look squarely at such popular aesthetics, rather than ignore or look down on it. Feng Zhengjie speaks about how his thoughts had evolved along this line: Initially I was very confounded about this. Many people view popular culture from the perspective of elite culture, and they reject it. Talk of Andy Lau and all that sounds very shallow. Yet, it is very much embraced by the masses, and has such a widespread influence. Frankly speaking, there are certain things about it that I like myself. Then again, from an elite intellectuals point of view, I also find such things too tasteless. I became interested in folk nianhua (New Year pictures) during my postgraduate days. I painted in the manner of such pictures when I did life oil paintings or assignments in class. I didnt know why, but I just liked them. I never imagined that they would be linked to art-making. I felt that this is a viable approach. It is oriented to the issue Ive always been concerned with that is, drawing near to popular cultural consumption. Moreover, there is a very specific feeling to it. Its very hard to find a substitute for that feeling. Gradually, I thought, maybe I could somehow express that feeling in my own way. So I began to experiment. So, that Feng Zhengjie chooses to paint beauties embodies a greater truthfulness than what we see in elitists who maintain their loftiness and reject popular taste. This reminds me of my interview with Jeff Koons in 1999. I asked Koons, Are your works a kind of satire of popular aesthetics? He refused to give me a straight answer, but emphasised repeatedly, I am truthful. In Fengs case, such truthfulness is evident in his treatment of the beauties, in which the artist highlights his own sense of floweriness and pomp that also comes with extreme fragility and fakery. It all feels like a jumble of contradictory things, but they hold together. Its very pretty outwardly, but pretty in a way that makes you uncomfortable as if theres nothing else besides a flimsy layer, as if it could break at a mere flick. It feels very fragile. And those eyes, they look very confused, as if she feels very absurd, diffident and lost to face the world. I feel that this is very similar to what our country is like in her present stage of development. Materially, we may - and we can - think of and acquire lots of stuff, but inwardly we feel increasingly devoid of content.(All quotes taken from Gaudy Kitsch is Societys Face, the record of an interview with Feng Zhengjie)
Feng Zhengjies beauties are executed in a gentle and smooth manner. No distinct brushstrokes are discernible, nor is the structure of the human figure underscored. The sense of decorativeness in the whole image is stepped up by general planarisation and smooth-flowing lines. Such treatment is actually employed in Zhang Xiaogangs Big Family too. It is actually a style that emerged gradually with the introduction of oil painting into China and has come to maturity. Its origin, going back to the time shortly before and after the establishment of Republican China, is connected with Western realist oil painting - an art brought to China by the Western missionary Guiseppe Castiglione and basically rejected by the Chinese literati right up to the end of the Qing Dynasty. The lack of acceptance compelled Castiglione to adopt the kind of lines and frontal lighting seen in traditional Chinese painting. His East-and-West fusion style (Fig. 1) in turn influenced artisan oils towards the end of the Qing, in which the kind of expressive brushwork appreciated by the literati and art experts were de-emphasised. In so toppling what is important in both Chinese literati paintings and Western oils, artists transformed realist oil painting and invented a kind of vernacular Chinese style (Fig. 2). Subsequently, calendar nianhua emerged in conjunction with commercial advertising (Fig. 3). These pictures were produced by folk artisan-painters in the cities. They made use of charcoal powder and watercolour, and assimilated the heavy-colour wash techniques of traditional naturalistic Chinese art, further developing and perfecting a smooth, gaily-coloured and pretty look. That such pictures were printed and distributed in large quantities for the beginning of the Chinese New Year made them even more lowbrow and popular, as well as visible to millions of folks, so much so that after 1949, they rapidly spread into rural villages and completely took the place of woodcut nianhua. When some art personnel investigated the monopoly of calendar nianhua in the market in 1958, they concluded that the populace like its style for it is very bright and clean (Quoted from writings and reports related to a calendar nianhua forum held in 1958 by the China Artists Association, to which calendar nianhua makers as well as celebrated artists and critics were invited.) In China during the early 1950s, the States cultural administrations used to organise large-scale nianhua campaigns. Many famous oil painters and printmakers joined in. In terms of style, works in that campaign largely relied on the heavy colouring of traditional naturalistic Chinese art, as well as the single lines and colour-filling of folk woodcuts. It was right about that time (between 1952 and 1953) when Dong Xiwen churned out The Founding Ceremony of the State, which sported a nianhua style (Fig. 4). From the 50s to the 70s, the calendar nianhua which developed out of an act of catering to the means of popular consumption - and nianhua combining woodcuts and heavy colouring gradually marched in step with the States ideology in terms of taste and aesthetic values. Towards the latter part of the Cultural Revolution, this eventually gave rise to the oil painting style characterised by red gloss. This developmental trajectory of the style and mode of discourse is very clear.
The most creative vocabular element in Feng Zhengjies works is colour. The combination of pink and pastel green takes fashionable, commercial and Chinese folk hues, and creatively converts them into oil colours that have a strong Chinese and stylish flavour. The fact is: one of the reasons traditional Chinese folk woodcut nianhua (and traditional craftworks) use the colour red extensively is that they are mass-produced for the festive season. In addition, the Chinese people have always looked forward to prosperity, wealth, longevity, joyousness, good luck and auspiciousness, thus forming psychological structures and aesthetic habits that take red to be symbolic of celebrations and good fortune. In the folk colour scheme, the complementary colour green is used extensively to serve as a foil to red and to accentuate it. Hence we have combinations of bright red and green, a spot of red in a plethora of green, red blossoms and green willows, green leaves to go with red flowers, and so on. This is different from the mix of black, white and grey that features so dominantly in highbrow literati paintings. It is also incompatible with the chromatic concepts of post-Renaissance Western realist oils based on theories of light and colours. Here is a system of folk aesthetics with tones of celebration and joy, where decorativeness and planarisation are the norms of form-creation.
18新利， It was in Cultural Revolution art that the predominance of red reached its climax. The sun is the reddest, Chairman Mao the closest to us; throughout the decade-long Revolution, millions of people sincerely believed that Mao Tse Tung led the people of China towards glorious Communism. Millions loved Mao with a zeal akin to that of devotees to God. All across the land, red flags fluttered and songs were sung. Even walls of entire cities had been painted red. The people were living in an ocean of red. My red heart is always turned towards the red sun, red are the mountains and rivers of our motherland, lets create a red new world. The colour that has embodied for millennia Chinese peasants (if not the entire Chinese peoples) common psychological orientation towards joyous celebration also became at the same time the most richly symbolic colour in 10 years of Cultural Revolution. Yet this quasi-religious craze differed from the religiosity found in the West or elsewhere. It was more like the festivity of grand Chinese New Year celebrations as enjoyed by Chinese peasants, very much in line with Lenins famous quote, The victory of the revolution is the peoples festival. In serving the national ideological purposes of the Cultural Revolution, the folk colour scheme of joyous celebration was completely transformed into the colours of the States art orthodoxy (Fig. 5).
In subsequent years, art of the wounded arose to defy Cultural Revolution art. It focused on the small fries, images of suffering, and the look of obsoleteness and backwardness . In addition, academic realism returned to the European realist style. Two large-scale modern art movements came about in the early and mid 1980s. All these caused the colours and ethos of Cultural Revolution red gloss to disappear from the art scene. Playful Realism, Political Pop and Gaudy Kitsch appeared after 1989. As the cartoon generation arose after 2000, a tendency towards gaudiness began surfacing on canvases consciously or otherwise. Note, for instance, the use of colours in the mid-90s works of Fang Lijun and Song Yonghong (Fig. 6 and 7), as well as in a great number of Gaudy Kitsch works. Equally notable is the use of pink and pastel green in Zhou Chunyas Peach Blossoms series. Perhaps the people of China have by now emerged from their darkest (in the psychological sense) and most heavy-hearted days. A shallow happiness now dominates the mentality of the whole society.
In Feng Zhengjies early works, bluish-green served as a foil to red instead of green, the common complementary colour for red. He avoided making his images look vernacularised and earthy by not applying bright red and green directly. By the time he worked on facial close-ups of beauties, his combination of pink and pastel green had truly reached its acme. Adopted from fashion, the pastel colours remind us of all kinds of cosmetics, or the pink, pastel yellow and pastel green Barbie Doll series. It is romantic, childish and trendy. Putting pink and pastel green together marks a kind of phase transition. While Cultural Revolution collectivism transformed the bright-red-and-green folk colour scheme into the norms of the States art orthodoxy, Fang Lijun, Song Yonghong and some of the Gaudy Kitsch artists turned that same colour scheme into an expression of lightheartedness and humour. Feng Zhengjies pink and pastel green, on the other hand, are transformed into stylish symbolic hues. Coupled with his planarisation, a smooth and gentle touch that is slightly irksome, smooth-flowing lines and overall decorativeness, they generally convey a sense of the happy, pretty, lovely, gaudy, shallow and fragile. In a creative way, Feng has reproduced the feel associated with pinup girls in early 20th century Chinese calendars. Interestingly, while calendar nianhua were the fashion of the day from the 1920s to the 40s, they were not considered decent art. In those days, even Chen Duxiu, who advocated the popularisation of art, disdained them greatly. Not until the period between the 1950s and 70s were calendars finally showcased in Chinas national exhibitions. The reason that Feng Zhengjies beauty portraits can stand on their dignity today lies in transformation, or the artists examination of Chinas fashion and consumerist culture today. He loves the prettiness he sees, but he is also pained by its shallowness. On the strength of such conflicting yet truthful feelings, he changes one beautiful face after another into, as it were, psychological profiles of the contemporary Chinese so sated with sensual pleasure.
Li Xianting 2008-1-4