By Ian Findlay
Chinese painter and sculptor Shen Jingdong makes art that features everyman — himself — as hero. Shen is at the center of his art wrestling with Communist ideology, change, and a propaganda machine that demands heroes. His figurative art speaks to the underlying desire of people to be a part of society and not separate from it.
Every generation of painters and sculptors seeks to establish its own visual individuality, its own iconography through which its many visions of the world will be interpreted. The iconography of classical Chinese painting was dominated for centuries by traditional paintings’ motifs and content, from flora and fauna to interpretations of majestic landscape to calligraphy and formal figuration. The iconography of traditional art forms had passed safely from one generation of masters to another and spoke to the comfort and security of a long, well-established visual culture, that included print-making, carving, sculpture, ceramics, and the decorative and functional arts.
In the first half of the 20th century, however, Chinese art’s orthodoxy was challenged by young artists who had been influenced by new Western ideas and by the political and social changes brought about by such events as the 1911 Revolution and the May Fourth Movement of 1919. The calls for artistic freedom were clear as was the desire to accept Western art influences through which to create a modern visual art that spoke to society as a whole. The demands of the artists of the early years of the 20th century found voice again among post-Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) artists’ groups, most notably the Stars Group of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Since then, artists in each decade have established their own iconography through which we have come to interpret and understand China’s changing cultural world, artists’ expectations, and the rapid modernization of Chinese society.
With the opening of China to the outside world in the 1980s, under the late Deng Xiaoping, many artists could not reject China’s official art quickly enough, especially the art made during the Cultural Revolution, which was considered by many to be little more than propaganda. The ruthless crushing of the Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations on June 4, 1989, however, seemed to say that experimentation was over. On the contrary, it inspired many artists to look for fresh sources of creativity. Throughout the 1990s, artists across China gradually established a visual culture that contained a broad Chinese iconography for their changing society. And it was one that increasingly attracted foreign collectors. Zhang Xiaogang, for example, looked to the family photograph for inspiration, while others have been drawn to cloned figures
against desolate backgrounds or set within turbulent landscapes or endless portraits of Mao Zedong. The Nanjing-born painter, print-maker, sculptor, and soldier Shen Jingdong (b.1965), however, was, by the mid-1990s, looking beyond his role as a stage designer with the Battlefront Modern Drama Troupe and the painting and prints inspired by his formal art education at the Nanjing Art Institute, from which he graduated in 1991.
As a professional army man for 18 years, Shen also experimented with a wide range of media including painting, sculpture, video art, performance and installation art, and photography that addressed some of the confusion of much of China’s art since the early-1990s. Shen also curated and organized a number of exhibitions and events that spoke to questions of identity and angst in China’s ever-expanding consumer economy. By combining his army experience with his experimental art Shen has, over the past decade, brought to life engaging series of paintings and sculptures that are now often referred to collectively as Heroes. Both series feature known and unknown figures that have populated China’s political and social landscape for decades. Yet, even as they may be familiar to an older generation, many of the current young generation—artists and non-artists alike—struggle to associate with them as figures central to their history or even name them.
Although now best known for his Hero paintings and sculptures, Shen Jingdong’s oeuvre has included, from the early 1990s onwards, a range of prints and paintings covering ordinary subject matter. Early oils included portraits of family and ordinary daily activities. In the mid-1990s, he made a series of mixed-media paintings and installations around the traditional Chinese family names both entitled Hundred Family Names (1995 and 1996, respectively). In 2004, Shen made a series of oil paintings interpreting such classical figures for good fortune, prosperity, and longevity. In 2003 and 2004, he made a series of erotic paintings entitled Little Porcelain Figures series, which remind one of the erotic Chinese trade paintings that were made for foreign export during the latter half of the 19th century. These erotic works, like many of Shen’s heroes, were eventually turned into sculptures.
At first glance, Shen Jingdong’s Hero paintings and sculptures, made over the past decade, reveal works that are of bold colors, simple lines, regular but anonymous in features, somewhat tense, and with a militarist bent common to workers, peasants, and soldiers of the first three decades of Communist Party rule, and especially prevalent during the Cultural Revolution and the late-1970s. The early paintings and sculptures—while severe, stiff figures—did possess an impish humor behind the cartoon-style faces. The figures, then as now—alone, in pairs, threes or in groups—exuded Shen’s enigmatic quality much in the manner of his recent Great Man (2009), which is reminiscent of other works that speak of Mao Zedong; Female Soldier with Rosette (2009), a young heroine bursting with pride; Auntie (2010), a common face on a community’s streets; and Lei Feng (2010), the “legendary” model Communist hero who represented the selfless aspects of the revolution. While Female Soldier with Rosette and Auntie are lowly figures in the Communist propaganda hierarchy, Shen gives them almost the same weight as the figures of Great Man and Lei Feng. One might read this as Shen’s respect for people at all levels of society.
Such figures are in his customary red and green but, over the years, Shen’s range of colors has included bright yellow, green, red, light blue, and grey, for example. The color changes are more in the subtlety of the hues rather than a complete break from his palette. Colors have long driven his figurative narrative, adding emphasis to personality, facial expressions, and actions.
The quality of Shen’s paintings is further enhanced by his careful layering (three to four layers), which creates the impression of fine porcelain surfaces. One sees this in such works as Female Soldier and the Accordion Player (both 2009) and Self Portrait (2010). But this feeling of porcelain is particularly dramatic in Shen’s triptychs that make up his Harmony series (2008). These large works highlight heroes, ethnic minorities, and people from all levels of society, which adds significantly to the bold social and historical narrative that Shen has developed over the past decade. As serious as these works are, there is a puckish sense of humor at work, too: this is clear in many small paintings, for example, the Magritte-inspired Untitled (2010), where a cap fl oats above an empty head. To take Shen’s cartoon-like art and formal sculptures of leading political figures as a critique of contemporary China is much too simple an idea: Shen is clearly deeply respectful of his society and culture; and he understands their failings.
“My work is not a criticism of society. It is humor,” says Shen. “As one looks back at the 1970s and 1980s and up to now, one sees that there is a lack of broad experience in life for many people. But many families had to overcome great difficulties and they didn’t speak of the hardness of their times. They pragmatically overcame problems and hardship by looking to a better future for their children. One needs humor in life, too.”1
Shen’s early heroes were mostly passive. In his most recent series, however, his figures are spirited and active. They run, jump, shoot, play music, march, are involved in bodybuilding, and swim for example. These were common enough activities for workers, peasants, and soldiers as well as ordinary people in the past. The new consumer society offers escape into entertainment rather than activity. But in Shen’s art such activities lend themselves to enhancing the enigmatic qualities, not the least of which is the inscrutable look on his subjects’ faces and his juxtapositions of Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck and his heroes, who seem to be enjoying the joke. Where Worker, Farmer, Soldier, Student, and Businessman (2010) speaks to the emphasis on social change where students and businessmen are now included, the works entitled Propaganda Poster and Worker, Farmer, Soldier (both 2010) look back to the alliances and the spirit that drove the revolution in the first three decades of Communist party rule. The visual content was often a far cry from reality. But one recalls the stridency of the propaganda posters of the 1970s with adegree of nostalgia and a realization that such posters really did rally people to the cause. The painting entitled Swimming (2010) is a portrait of a soldier (Shen) gasping for breath as he swims, borne along safely by light blue waves. This is clearly a direct reference to Mao Zedong’s 1965 swim in the Yangtze River, a major propaganda coup in its day.
Shen’s extension of his painting into sculpture added not only the three-dimensional aspect to his ideas, but also an emotional aspect that both charms and disturbs. It charms because we have a sense of what his subjects were like as living individuals, but it disturbs because its hyper-real smoothness suggests the unreality of his subjects’ lives. He speaks to a world long since past, but gives no sense of the harshness of people’s lives. One senses that Shen, an astute observer of his society for two decades, understands that for Chinese people the past—its glories, failures, and tragedies—is as real as today’s traffic jams; and that situations can change overnight.
Shen clearly loves his works, seeing in them an element of Peter Pan, the refusal to grow up, to let go of the past, and an understanding that “people are basically the same with the same basic concerns.” Watching Shen standing before his art or walking around it while talking really is like being with a parent. He feels it is hard to let go of his finished works. “Yes, I do have an idea that I am a little Peter Pan. I really didn’t want to grow up because society is so complicated and in art an artist can find their own world. I like that.
“When I have finished my paintings, I see them as my children. So I don’t really want to grow up,” says Shen. “I am very protective of them. After I began to make metal sculptures of the paintings in 2003, I took a lot of pictures of them. I feel that the pictures, the sculptures, an the photographs represent three different spirits of my work.”
For Western viewers who have no experience of China in the 1970s and 1980s and are only connected to China’s high-energy consumer society of today, Shen
Jingdong’s works may well be viewed as curious historical artifacts, somewhat sentimental in their vision. The paintings may be oddly cartoon-like, the sculptures may be hyper-real fantasies that mimic the two-dimensional. But as one spends time with Shen, one comes to realize that his historical, cultural, political, and social attachments to the past speak loudly to him today. He sees in his art a great past humanistic spirit that has somehow been forgotten. And he feels sad about this.
“China is a very special place. In Mao’s time and in our own time things are not the same. There have been many changes. The spirit of Lei Feng, for example, is now so distant it will soon be forgotten,” says Shen Jingdong. “So I hope that my paintings and sculpture encourage people to think about the positive things of the past.”
1. Unless otherwise stated quotations from the artist are drawn from interviews conducted by the author on July 1 and 2, 2010, in Beijing.