The use of colour in painting is problematic. Especially if they are bright ones. Very Red or Very Green for example. That is, however, the title Feng zhengjie chose for his latest series. For it is the mastery and play of pigment that characterizes Feng zhengjies work.
Red and green are the two most popular colours of China. They are found everywhere. In the last remaining courtyard homes of old Beijing with their red lacquered columns and roofs festooned in green. In Chinas rural interior, on propaganda billboards hailing the one child worn by young designers or the oil sacs dragged about by migrants in search of employmentBut Feng zhengjie dares at times to draw more distant associations, like Yellow and Violet, two colours that he discovered during a trip to Norway, or Blue and Orange, that for him easily symbolize the dosage. A tough too much colour and the piece becomes vulgar. Applied with discretion, and their contrast yields superb results.
Colour appeared within the very first work by Feng zhengjie, in 1984,when his talent was first discovered a time when he was preparing to become an instructor. The peasant cloths that swaddled him in infancy surely inspired him. I had a cousin who collected Nian Hua , those brightly coloured drawings that farmers hang up in their homes during Chinese New Year I loved going along with him when he went to buy them. I was blown away by the colours.
Having begun his studies at the Sichuan fine Arts Academy, Feng zhengjie continued his apprenticeship while mulling things over. In the wake of the events of Tiananmen in 1989,he understood that he could not be contented to paint conventional images: that he would not only by the great western classics, Michelangelo, Raphael and Cezanne, but also by the great Chinese mastery like Xu Beihong and Qi Baishi who had already begun to pry open the doors of modernism.
Upon arrival in the big city, the rural youth observed, with a mix of surprise and empathy, the fever pitch at which his contemporaries chased after wealth. He understood in reflect upon Chinese societys frantic evolution, but he had not yet found the key. After five year of experimenting with materials and techniques, Feng zhengjie was ever in search of his subject
Until one day, in 1995, he went to see a friend who had put tighter a photo studio. Young couples clambered to create highly orchestrated clichs before their wedding. In their dream album, they would appear one after another in the guise of mandarins, pastel-hued characters from the thirties or British aristocrats. Costumes piling up, smiles frozen, Feng was astounded and disappointed:Those poses, so devoid of spontaneity, I felt that these newlyweds epitomized the stage in Chinese society that occurred in the middle of the 1990s, so superficial.He thereby created an affectionate mockery, his first series, entitled Romantic Trip. Young couples seemed to be flying within their imaginations. The backgrounds were bright blue. The colours clashed within the scene, at time as tiny bubbles, symbolising the ephemeral and Fragility nature of such overly staged sentiments.
Feng zhengjie then moved to Beijing where a small community of avant-garde artists hailing from the countryside settled within the Huajiadi suburbs. Though he enjoyed contact with friends, readily available on any given night around a bottle, his studio time was unwaveringly devoted to pursuing his research. With a group of comrades he created the kitsch group and exhibited in a private gallery in Tianjin, experimented with them for several months, juxtaposing explosive colour combinations. The kitsch movement dissipated near the end of the century, but Feng zhengjie had by that time distanced himself in order to follow his own path.
Chinese society also continued in its evolution. In 1999,when China was celebrating 50 years of communism, a number of articles were published regarding the pursuit of a Chinese identity. Feng chose to disrobe his characters and over a rather brief period, around six months, created the except Cool series, futuristic and hybrid individuals, entirely nude except for select clues to their intoxication with fashion: sunglasses, brightly painted nails and lipsWith this series, through the use of a refined visual language, Feng begins his description of the interior.
Starting in 2000, anew series appeared, Chinese Portrait, which consisted of closely cropped images of the faces of young Chinese commoners. The staging had been simplified to the bare minimum. Attention was drawn solely to the mouth and eyes, or at times an improbable hair colour, incredibly pink or yellow. Viewing these images, one feels the subjects internal discomfort. We sense fear in their eyes, like the one which can be red in those of peasants who abandon their fields to try their luck in the big city by the tens of millionsI wanted to depict the vulgarity of that period as well as that moment of extreme instability, internal fragility. We are in a period of exploration. We must find our own values.
Then why not look to the past? At the beginning of the 21stcentury, hip Chinese urban youths rediscovered a new fashion: that of the 1930s. films, songs, traditional clothing, plates and decorative objects reappeared. Feng zhengjie came across a series of posters from shanghai dating back to the citys famed thirties and was dumbfounded by the modernity evident in that early stage of opening up. I wanted to show the parallels, to confront the tow most creative periods of the past century.a new series was born: Butterfly in Love. It allowed the meeting of two individuals. Initially couples, then simply tow women. One seems to have been extracted from the posters of the 1930s crimped hair and Qipao, the emblematic dress of old Shanghai, with its slit high up on the thigh. The other beauty, while very contemporary, appears nude with died hair. What a culture shock! The two women observe one another with surprise and interest. As if a reunion between two very distant members of the same family, their emotions mitigated by utter incomprehension. Their environment helps to invert the visual code; showing a woman from the 30s before a computer or a contemporary beauty in a classical operatic scene. The colours are similarly transposed. The youthful featured grandmother wears an orange evening dress, and the contemporary woman holds in her fingers a pearly peony.
Another habit is to look to the West, which unavoidably made its appearance on the Chinese scene since entry into the WTO at the end of
The artist progressively approaches his subject; concentrating ever more on contemporary women. Once again close-ups appear. The portraits occupy the entirety of the often very large canvases. Though no longer clearly Asian or Eurasian, these women have become sublimely beautiful. A connection can be linked back through the work. Like in the Chinese Portrait series, the backgrounds have undergone absolute simplification. The female subject wears an accessory from the 1930s which makes reference to the Butterfly in Love series: a peony, a long necklace or a silk scarf. Moreover, the considerably distended eyes, having appeared in Look to the East, Look to the West, have become a second signature for the artist. The straying pupils, pushed to the extremity of their sockets, lend an interrogative or dreamy quality to these women. The title of the series has changed. These beautiful women are simply called China. It becomes difficult or resist their powers of enthrallmentThe colour contrasts are stunning: fuchsia or dark green hair, vermillion lipstick and blue eyes make strange bed mates with the touches of pearly pink present in the make-up, a necklace or a peony. A hymn to bizarre seduction.
With the coming of 2006 we see the once alabaster complexions of Fengs China become more verdant. Some are nearly terrifying. Despite their beauty, a deep sadness and discomfort emanates from their eyes from that point on their hair remains either green or red. Of a sudden, the face is substituted by an enormous flower. A bright fuchsia peony over deep green foliage.
In Shenzhen, where he found himself in the spring of 2006for an exhibition, Feng zhengjie amused himself by creating a sculpture using balloons. He had enjoyed their ephemeral quality during his Romantic Trip stage. Once again their ability to inspire dreams, to fly away or deflate amused him. Thereafter, during the summer months, his giant peonies were transformed into balloons. The general composition of the canvas remained the same. From a distance, one might imagine the balloon to be a face and the background to be hair. Two colours became omnipresent. Ted and Green, a metaphor for China.
The title this new series, Very Red and Very Green, calls attention to excess. Is it that of the Chinese economic machine, this gigantic factory that gallops so wildly for the world? Or is it rather the dreams that are elicited, like that of the character that appears suspended as if by a hot air balloon? Is it an allegory for real estate bubbles, financial bubbles or speculative bubbles that seem to be germinating throughout the region and threaten to one day deflate or explode? Is it a roundabout way of expressing a dream of social elevation, the success with which the new generation is obsessed? The painter smiles at all these interpretations. Of course its a little bit of all of thatdoes not contemporary Chinese society make up the basis for his work?
But he is far too refined to to express it so clearly; to put it so bluntly. Within his impish eyes there float millions of tiny balloons when he explains:I want to provoke reactions, feelings within the viewer. But what will result from those reflections? That is up to the individual. Everybody is free to think as they will. Some will only see the beauty of these balloons and there is truth in that. Its enough. Others will think of their fragility, of their false and artificial side. To each his own interpretation18新利，! Only hope that after having seen my work, people will ask themselves questions.
That is Feng zhengjie. The Master of colour, having reached maturity, his uncompromising gaze, critical, but always light, buoyed with humour. As if he were to leave a back door openthe possibility sated, Feng zhengjie is the inventor of his own style, so distinctive, that evolves and is enriched from one series to the next.
By joining the two extremes of his palette an essentially simple concept over the course of the past decade he has succeeded in tracing the portrait of contemporary China and has made felt the ripples and quandaries of its society
Caroline Puel, journalist and writer, has lived between China and France for twenty years. She received the Albert Londres Award (French Pulitzer) for her articles on China and has written a dozen commentaries on Chinese avant garde artists and movements.