Materialistic Idols Reluctance to Grow Up
- Jiang Hengs Flirtatious eyes and Gaze
Speaking of Jiang Hengs art, one must mention a few key points. They are:
First of all, we must speak of Jiang Hengs professor. Jiang Heng was a student in the oil painting department at the art college of Huanan Normal University, and studied under professor Li Bangyao. Albeit our common understanding that Huanan Normal University categorizes as an institution of a lower tier in comparison to the Guangzhou Academy of Art, however Huanan Normal University hired a groups of professors from Hubei Academy of Art in the early 90s. They were once important players in the movement of contemporary Chinese art. As a result, their presence at the art college has gradually changed its artistic ecology of the former academy. With the local southern artistic sphere, it had induced completely different artistic outcomes. And Jiang Heng is part of its harvest.
Among the artists who came to the south and are still teaching at the art college of Huanan Normal University, besides Li Bangyao, there are also Fang Shaohua, Yang Guoxin and Shi Lei, they each occupies an important position in the framework of contemporary oil painting. What is especially important is their importation of artistic thoughts and compositional concept from Chinas interior. It includes the Political Pop art from Hubei in the early 90s and the artists individualized approach of representation in expressionism. More importantly, throughout their teaching, they have always put the emphasis on highlighting individuality, emphasizing on incorporating the individual with his emotions, emphasizing art as an intervention on reality. With which, meaningful artistic issues could be formulated, and using it as a base of entry to current matters. Looking at a few oil paintings from Jiang Hengs earlier period, they were indeed influenced by foreign elements. For example, Jiangs Untitled series from 1994 depicts a red male body in swing as its main subject and contrasting with a background motif expressing desire. These works have mixed certain styles of pop art, yet was executed in the expressionist approach. There are shadows of the Hubei style of painting. And the Cartoon Generation series from 1996, has stylistically reflected the art of Li Bangyao. Without a doubt, this was the formative years of Jiang Hengs artistic style.
Secondly, the cartoon generation movement headed by Huang Yihang in the Guangzhou area in the mid-nineties has also had a direct impact on Jiang Heng. Today, no one questions the significance of the Cartoon Generation from Guangzhou, even though there are different opinions about it. Although if we trace back on the origin of the so-called cartoon wave now popular in the art arena, we find close ties with Guangzhou. I am not making the statement that art with cartoon features are all derived from the Guangzhous Cartoon Generation. In my view, the reason for the popularization of cartoon style is more complex than what we imagine, its sources were diverse. However, similar styles were indeed first appeared in Guangzhou. What is interesting is, as a professor of the Guangzhou Academy of Art, Huang Hanyi had to come to Huanan Normal University art college to seek for support. Thus the first and second exhibitions were successfully held at the exhibition hall of the art college. It demonstrates certain moving tolerance from the art college of Huanan Normal University. Jiang Heng has been one of the active participants in the formative stage of Guangzhous Cartoon Generation, and testified for the rationale of cartoon with his own style of oil painting. Consequently, he became one of the most representative Chinese artists from the Cartoon Generation in the mid-nineties. The aforementioned Cartoon Series was a direct outcome of this sizable southern artistic movement. Later on, his famous signature style wide opened eyes with the nave and flirtatious gaze on the highly materialistic female idols, was formulated in this process.
Moreover, the rapid transformation of Chinese society in the 90s, especially once the wave of economic reform hit on the southern provinces, not only the existing spiritual framework and its artistic approach of representation were completely changed, but more importantly, this wave has induced the direct representation of the New Generations materialistic desire. One should not belittle the material desire induced from this transformation, nor should one treat such desire as a passive reaction. In contrast, the materialistic desire in China today has far exceeds the boundary of the individual, but has grown into a spiritual phenomenon. If we ignore this phenomenon, we will be unable to make the slightest objective judgment on the art of today.
In other words, the artistic trend from Chinas interior, the local uprising of artistic movement and the rapid transformation of Chinese society make part for the external conditions of Jiang Hengs art form. Without these conditions, it would be difficult to imagine how he could formulate the style we are familiar with today.
Besides, Jiang Hengs perspective, his unique view on life and society, as well as his overall understanding of others and on art were also crucial to this formation.
Behind Butterfly Flutters
Today, Jiang Hengs art people are familiar with is his repetitive symbolized beautiful women gazing with flirtatious eyes, they smile innocently, posing in various flirtatious poses and expressions that satisfies the secular standard. They display this kind of so-called nave and beautiful gendered information. To a certain extent, I think Jiang Hengs women with flirtatious looks is a repetitive statement of sarcasm, it conveys information contrasting with its superficial appearance, or even of opposing and conflicting content.
Revisiting Jiang Hengs Material Worship and the Patriarchic Mindset behind it
I remember in one of my essays discussing the Cartoon Generation of Guangzhou, I have mentioned certain causes for the formation of this style,
The primary subject of the Cartoon Generation is the self, whether the self possess sufficient ability of transcendence, can the self go beyond the boundary of southern culture in order to gain a new platform of observation, and to redefine themselves according to the cultural value of their artwork. As a steppingstone to foreign civilization, there are indeed certain advantages in the south. However, as region on the periphery, it is lured by various sources, therefore it is easy for art to sidetrack to the path of superficiality and contentiousness, which is now obviously a fact. what influences us is precisely the abnormal infatuation of the so-called depth. cartoon overflowing into china caused the traditional way of reading to rapidly collapse. This gave birth to many of the cartoon characters from the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time, the popularization of computer technology and the increase on artificial environments further barricade the organic relationship between human and nature, yielding large production of computer characters besides the already existing cartoon characters. The founder of Cartoon Generation, Huang Yihan has entitled his first work, We are children reluctant to grow up. The truth is, this title accurately refers to the younger generation who has physically reached maturity yet are psychologically lacking behind a generation who completely immersed themselves in comics and computers. 
I once commented on Jiang Hengs works and was of the opinion that the conception of cartoon did not fully explain his artistic pursuit. In my view, what Jiang Heng seeks to express is an issue to do with growth and development, which is accompanied by constant chaos, incessant coaching and upbraiding, and infatuated dreamlike youth imagination. It is a denial of growing up either genuinely or spuriously, in the intervention of the legitimization of adult society. There are three keywords to this: growth, material desire and idol. I think that the artistic practice and significance of Jiang Hengs art reside in these three keywords.
This southern art movement at the time was once almost rejected by the entire art world. And not so long ago, its similar style has become the illustrative choice for most young artistic groups born in the 1970s. The contrasts of this phenomenon in time have even caused people to ignore its initial fact. As I have mentioned at the beginning, Jiang Heng belongs to the earlier Cartoon Generation, the formation and development of his symbolism has been almost ten years. From this perspective, I am also one of the earliest critics who have commented on this artistic phenomenon. As I retrieve my comment from the time, I discover that my interest was not on the cartoon per se. To analyze them with todays context, the so-called cartoon perhaps was only a intelligible strategy of compositional appropriation. Of course, from which we also find the visual reference specific to that young generation. As critics apply different concept to comment on the styles of todays cartoon, I think one of the problems among them is their gullible believe in Cartoon, and have forgotten that similar style has already been important content in publishing and film industries around the 1970s. The reason I am reiterating my comment from the past is that I discover, even with my view at the time, I have already more or less treated cartoon as an intimate issue reflecting on the process of growing up. The Children reluctant to grow up proposed by Huang Yihan was perhaps his subjective view of young people as an elder. If we enter into the particular context of the new generation, in terms of growing up, what is before them is obvious not unable to grow up, but refusing to grow up. This attitude of reluctance strikes a cord with the social and historical background associated with growing up, which reveals the intense, or even conflicting relationship between the adult society and its non-adult counterpart. I admit, what I noticed at the time was the symptom of physical maturity and psychological immaturity, but have perhaps neglected its meaning. In my view, the reasons for artists to choose cartoon or cartoon-like forms, from the surface its an outcome of their specific visual influence during their adolescent period, more thoroughly, it infiltrates their attitudes on the adult society that manipulates their growing process. If this hypothesis is true, then certain types of uniformity shown visually are in themselves an interesting response. It tells us how they view the grown-ups society. In dealing with the grown-ups society, that is becoming gradually pretentious and cynical, as artists, they can perhaps only use forms that has once been abandoned or neglected by the grown-up society, such as cartoon, to express their rejection of this society (here I am referring to the art world in the grown-up society). Of course, as the art world transforms itself, cartoon began to come a prominent style, and letting this rejection to become the beginning of a new cycle of art movement. Whether its later followers shared similar motives, or was driven by the prospect of future success and have chosen cartoon, of course needs to be discussed otherwise.
The first keyword is growth.
As I set Jiang Hengs flirtatious beauties against the background related growing up, the sarcasm of his works began to emerge. The rosy dream hidden subconsciously in the early years of adolescence or pre-adolescence was once oppressed from the adult world, and also parts separate ways with the promotion of depth in the art world in the past while. Naturally, as of sarcasm, I am not emphasizing Jiang Hengs intended flirtatious beauties as a visual description to react or ridicule. I believe he did not have any sarcastic creative intent. In other words, he is not interested in the superficial reaction. Or even, hes not rebellious at all. In the contrary, he is only concerned with the material desire conveyed through the images. It is precisely for this reason, could I have interpreted the certain truth in his works, because what it essentially displays, perhaps he might not even be clearly aware of, is a kind of deterrent attitude in rejecting the grown-up society.
I still remember the word by French existentialist writer Jean Paul Sartre, which basically means that one can not choose his birth; and at ones birth, he is thrust into adult society. I cannot remember his exact words but the meaning is there and it complies with the basic laws of existentialism, which is existence precedes essence. In Sartres view, people are not born with the thing-in-itself; it is given to us after birth by the external environment, which, to us, is the adult society. Therefore, ones birth constitutes one episode, in which one is thrust into the society. Once he is there, the adult society starts writing on and shaping his nature/essence, until he is remade, or as most philosophers argue, is possessed with an inherent existence. From the standpoint of existentialism, the essence in ones nature is not born but imposed upon him. Ones nature is not self-derivative but other things will derive from it, such as the predetermined essence that philosophers discuss.
With this, I think we have a better understand the flirtatious beauties under Jiang Hengs brush. They were not representations of true beauty to begin with, but the imagined idols of desire, who are placed in a void, gazing with pretentious and nave eyes, observing the constant inflation of the grown-up society with their constant facial expression. In sum, Jiang Heng has not only realized his intent of rejection with the women gazing flirtatiously, but have allowed that age to be eternally planted in a moment of enjoyment for the artist. At the same time, he has also concealed a type of sorrow of adolescence, and has used idols to replace the intervention of reality.
If we apply the theories of existentialism to art, in especial, to artistic styles, we will find that art, including its style, is also created and defines the many rules in an artistic society, described in line with its own significance so as to provide people with its identifiable traits. In other words, an artist, on deciding to do art, will be flung to the artistic society where, through his exploration and innovation, he will acquire the essence. Of course, the essence here denotes the essence of art. Art initially does not have any essence and its existence precedes its essence. That is an undisputed fact.
From that point, when one discusses art, one does not discuss its so-called style but rather, uses art as evidence to discuss the society, which gives rise to its birth and shape. Then the artistic society drifts towards the adult society and then to authoritarian society. To me, there has never been such a thing as pure art. Pure art exists only in theory and is used as rhetoric, to express ones rejection of or resistance to social reality. Yet, to deny the existence of pure art is to refuse discussing the aesthetic roadmap of art. I even think that there is no connection between art and beauty. The material idols under the brush of Jiang Heng, with their enchanting eyes, appear to be patronizing the spectators. In fact, seen from Jiangs practice, there is a long distance between his artworks and aesthetics.
 See Cartoon Generation: Report on Consumption Life in Southern China, unpublished text.
First of all, Jiang Hengs art points to growth, to an environment he can not choose but have to live in. He was hurled into it at the very outset and there he had to accept the rules of the game. At the same time, at a certain point, under certain conditions, one learns how to respond to things. This response is art and at the same time, not art. It is an adjustment, with which one lessons the tension he is under living in social reality. Once the style has become an effective mediator, its symbolic significance is established. In that context, art is indeed a kind of emblem rather than anything else, such as philosophy or aesthetics.
Jiang Hengs development faces two dilemmas. One is created by adult society and the other by the visual context.
The first is of a universal character, which is a common feature of adult society in which rules and disciplines reign. These rules are repeated day after day and, hand in hand with ones growth, immersed into adult life. When characterizing social phenomena, they become what is defined by sociologists as generation gap, so as to describe the discrepancies or even confrontations in taste between two generations. Growth is indispensable but it has to be achieved in accordance with the rules of adult society. Yet, clashes are also inevitable and, evolving with the changing time, may lead to serious social problems, which will then harass and increasingly reform the aged adult society. The clashes often take the form of youth agitations and, on a personal level, become the will to refuse, to refuse to grow up, to refuse to bend to the rules of adult society. However, growth cannot be denied or stopped. Therefore, only interests may be stalled. If one refuses to grow up, he had better subsequently evolve towards art, and show his resistance to the style.
Refusing to grow is not only the starting point of his art, but is also the continuous power source behind the artistic practice, which doggedly targets youth. This begs the revelation of the backdrop, against which Jiang Heng studied art, a visual context that is shifting.
It was not a long time ago when what had been termed as shallow art became cartoon style, which is now accepted and widely discussed. It was the pursuit of a whole generation. A few years ago, Stan Lee boldly used the popular Disney style as his artistic principle. That was attributable to the environment, which was conducive to the spread of pop culture. Certainly, we do not know if it was pop art that resulted in the emergence of Stan Lee or the other way around, i.e. Stan Lees participation promoted pop art. That is not so important. The important thing is in an environment, to be popular becomes the objective of the new art, and traditional visual styles, with which teenagers, the youth and general public are infatuated, suddenly becomes Avant-Garde art. This is doubtless a kind of subversion to the aesthetics, which is obsessed with making in-depth analysis. .
In the 1990s, when Japanese cartoons made inroads into China, a quantity of pirated cartoon books, along with the cartoon programs on TV and attractive cartoon toys in the stores, became the playmate of the young people, who barely had any private time. These shaped their visual taste. In addition, in reality, as adult society pretentiously prohibits things, the young generation intentionally or unintentionally regarded the taste as a carrier of their denial, so as to unleash their right to self-expression. That is the most important visual context that accompanied Jiang Hengs growth, and it explains the basis of his artistic style. In other words, he grew up under the influences of such visual contexts and could find justification in the process for his later styles in art. Today, his images of women with seductive eyes, not only carry the yearning one has for denial but also effectively strengthen the cartoon elements in the visual context. In time, they will grow into striking symbols of individual art, and will become celebrated in the artistic community.
Now, we have to come to the second and third keywords: material desire and idol. In my view, these two keywords are both different and similar. They vary in the concept but in the visual field, they constitute Jiang Hengs art, and the stylistic origins of the artistic trend, which is associated with his own.
Material desire, cynicism and pretending to be daft, these combine to shape contemporary Chinese art since the 1990s, and are the ideological background to this movement. No matter how rebellious some of the individuals are, regardless of the once effective subversion that lay in store in traditional artistic style, out of which the movement stemmed, by the 1990s and the succeeding century, spurred by the economic boom and inflation of art capital, everything becomes the substitute of material desire, cynicism and sham stupidity. Together, they mark and exhibit the holistic ethos of the age. What is special about Jiang Heng is that, when he gives material desire a tangible form, he not only transforms the innermost denial of adult society into an idol, but also imbues the idol with a seemingly frivolous but in fact neutral temperament.
In other words, the beauties under Jiang Hengs brush with their winning eyes wide-open, stares into the distance, and has nothing to do with sex. That is to say, Jiang Hengs beauties are not sexy. The reason is rather simple: his beauties are not flesh but are the exterior of material desire, a standardized idol. What is more, when Jiang Heng keeps repeating his idols, he is only stating a concept, one that is about the relationship between material desire and idol.
That is indeed an interesting phenomenon, using beauties as idols, with their physical attribute divested of its fleshiness. Seen from that perspective, Jiang Heng is a standard conceptual artist but not a perceptual one. It is not his goal to be expressional. On the contrary, stripping the works of their expressional features is conducive to the concept he wishes to express. Thus, he draws a line between him and expressionalism.
Interestingly, Jiang Hengs concept is imbued with his personal perceptional experience, and is mixed with many growth hazards, which, once deprived of the pervading desires, is left with a flamboyant imagery.
For some reason unbeknown to me, whenever I look at Jiang Hengs imagery, or at those seemingly duplicated idols series, I am gripped with an overwhelming desire to pry into his innermost secrets that accompanied his growth. To me, there lurks behind his imagery a psychological dream of a youth, whose core is to cast off maternal control and run towards patriarchic prowess.
I am not acquainted with Jiang Hengs teenage life. Generally speaking, the dilemma and denial of, and resistance to growing up, in my opinion, is a common problem not only for his generation but also for his succeeding generations. The images of Japanese cartoons have behind them game-like indulgence, which visually legitimizes the refusal, sheltering the entire generation of girls and boys from the aggression of adult society. However, this is a haven in imagination only, in fact, growing up is inevitable and we all have to come into adulthood, and do so under the rules and disciplines of adult society. Then rebellion will unmistakably evolve into daydreams, into an alliance between fleeing and running away.
I dare to assert that Jiang Heng has indescribable reliance on women. It is not bodily reliance as it is commonly perceived. It is physical, with the hormonal scents scattered about. In an open society, the physical scent is so omnipresent that it has become nauseating. The handsome artist does not mind such superficial things. Engraved upon his soul is the tenderness that is drifting away from of youth; tenderness, which, like the rules he has to bow to on a daily basis, is not unrelated to power.
I think that we may without doubt consider growing up as a process by which we break free from the maternal body. Interesting, acknowledging patriarchic power and bowing to the rules are not contradictory. The objective of the rules is to make men the subject of confinement, paving the road for patriarchic power. Seen that way, the body may prove that in leaving the maternal body, certain nostalgic feelings will be retained; and with it the warmth the increasingly mature flesh has inherited from its maternal origin. The artist may not be fully aware of the significance his growth entails for his visual choice. But his vision has been consistently lingering on idols woven by young girls. This can be interpreted as a crooked representation of the maternal legacy there remains. At the same time, he does not allow himself to be made a prisoner of physical allurement. Instead, the retention of the maternal legacy, which has become an emblem of the material idol, harkens back to his concealed and irreplaceable fond reminiscence of the maternity. At the same time, he is undecided about patriarchic power, and does not wish to give himself up easily to adult society, whose foundation is patriarchy. Luckily, art is his profession and thus he has the chance to paint girl idols intermittently, so as to resist the brutality, peremptoriness and aggression of patriarchy. In this way, Jiang Heng shows in his images certain restraint that resembles material desire and this obviously makes a lot of sense. His perception of girl idols is itself imbued with restraint and helplessness at his inability to annihilate patriarchy. His art is his response to growing up and it is rosy colored: a flamboyant cantus divested of its sexuality. The result is that in ten long years of art experimentation, the artist has deepened his adulation for material-worshiping idols, his indescribable yearning for the maternal body that is drifting further and further away with each passing day, and his lingering thoughts on patriarchy. In a new wave of art movement, Jiang Heng is a prominent example, by which to keep the private visual territory, despite the social conventions and rules in the materialistic adult society. Thus, growth itself is instilled with a modal surface, while spiritual ethos is preserved deep down, so that the tender entanglement with power, with patriarchy can continue, although perhaps to no avail. Still, the entanglement is crucially important. If it is terminated, then the artist and his generation, or artworks holding similar artistic conceptions, will lose what significance there remains of them.
Apart from the typical big-eyed beauties, there emerges another object: fluttering butterflies. Jiang Hengs butterflies are not without their connotations; it is a visual elucidation of the material-desiring idol as well as a fleeting memory of a fleeting scenario. Yet, I feel that the fluttering butterflies are like a group of symbolic expressions, which express the lightness of breaking away from maternity and of lingering alongside patriarchy. There is antagonism in the hesitation, antagonism which is not very strong but flutters upwards and downwards in the air. Perhaps, to his generation, maternity and patriarchy are like fluttering butterflies.