Individual Rhetoric in Contemporary Art
Jiang Heng is no stranger to us. He is a member of the Cartoon Generation art community that made its debut in Guangzhou in mid 1990s. After its inauguration in Guangzhou, the Cartoon phenomena swept from Southwestern China to Beijing, evolving into an important part of contemporary Chinese art.
The contemporary art scene in Guangzhou is rather fascinating. Apparently calm and unperturbed, it resembles a submerged reef lurking underneath the tidal waves, and is a resulting of undersea volcanic eruption and the subsequent accumulation of its cooled pahoehoe. It may be geographically divided into three parts: Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts; South China Normal University (to be referred to as the University hereafter); and the Jiang Yang school. Of course, there are also a number of artists having studied in Guangzhou but chosen to fend for themselves, such as Wang Du and Cao Fei. In recent years, a few artists started to relocate their studios to North China but their number is limited. Jiang Hengs school falls into the dominion of the Univeristy, which is derived from the continuation of one of the originators of the 85 New Wave Movement: Hubei Art. In his teenage years, Jiang Heng was deeply influenced by Chao and Shan cultures. He had learned both painting and calligraphy under private tutors guidance before being mistakenly granted admission into the University. To him, the rural culture in southern China, and the din and dazzle of urbanity clash against each other. While the avant-garde thinking on art in central China and the intellectual dynamism on the eastern shores are interwoven and integrated, shaping his artistic pathos.
In early 1992, in order to bolster its artistic faculty and creative strength, South China Normal University went to Hubei Academy of Fine Arts to look for talents. Earlier the following year, Shang Yang, Pi Daojian, Li Bangyao, Liu Zijian came one after another to the University. Following their footsteps, Yang Guoxin, Fang Shaohua and Shi Lei came to join them. By 1995, seven art critics and painters (oil, and water and ink) from Hubei had converged there. In 1996, Liu Zijin moved further south to Shenzhen Fine Art Institute, where he joined Yan Shanchun; while Yangshao moved northward to Capital Normal School in Beijing. The four remaining artists at South China Normal University became the four Heavenly Kings and were enshrined, so to speak. Their names are Li Bangyao, Yang Guoxin, Liu Shaohua and Shi Lei.
What fire did this small branch of migrants lay in store for contemporary art in Guangzhou? What sort of impact has it had? That awaits the testimony of the time. In the second half of 1992, when Li Yaobang came to teach at the University, Jiang Heng happened to come there to study. When they first met, their relationship was not that cordial. Having previously been immersed in traditional culture, Jiang Heng was obsessed with the idea of enrolling at an Academy of Fine Arts. Therefore, he was frustrated at having been admitted into the University and, at the outset, assumed a psychological stance of resistance. Fortunately, as an avid learner, he was soon able to ride over his own barrier and start to accept the baptism of contemporary art. In the second semester of his freshman year, with his classmates, Jiang was involved in a performance art and was as intrepid as a newborn calf. Jiang is still rather proud of his earlier experimentalism. Seen from his earlier works, he was a diligent young man with not only ideas but also a solid foundation. Yet, growth stems out of the repeated process of cocoon-breaking: gradual advancement. Between 1992 and 1995, Jiang Heng did a large quantity of manuscripts and came up with a series of works with different styles, including Landscape, The Age of the Game Machines, Games Series and Cartoon Generation. Some of them were influenced by Yang Shangs Grand Landscape, some borrowed Bacons expressional approach and some bore the marks of Hubei political pop. That period represented the beginning of his artistic pursuit.
In 1996, Mr. Huang Yihan, a teacher of traditional Chinese painting at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, initiated a campaign called the Cartoon Generation. To begin with, he started recruiting artists who had common interest with him in the said concept. At the other end, after years of exploration, Jiang Heng was looking for visual expressions that corresponded to the prevailing social reality at that time. Worthy of mention is the fact that as a major metropolis in southern China, Guangzhou was at the forefront of the fierce bombardment of visual culture, pop culture, consumer culture and post-colonial Western culture, which resulted in the break in logic of local cultural development. The result is the marginalization of both the in-depth exploration of post-89 art and the clues of expressionism, which is subsequently accompanied by the gradual interest in pictorial emblems imbued with plane features. That, we cannot always deny. In fact, from Scar Realism to Youth Cruelty (new scar realism) and then to the New Chinese Cartoon Generation, there lies a linkage, i.e. the psychological response to the dissimilation of Chinese society. Art works by the Cartoon generation acquaint one with the dazzling chaos of our local culture. While their critical attitude, through commercial consumption, aims at revealing the spiritual colonization by cartoon cultures of the new generation of Chinese youth. Seen in that light, his art vividly challenges the status quo. What is more, it is positive in that it does not evade the problematic personalities, and it bravely assesses the changes in personality one has to grapple with in reality. In recent year, the critics have questioned the role of the cartoon movement, in particular, the duplication of logics in accordance with the vanity fair, rather than the exploration in style, concept and approach of art by the cartoon generation artists.
Materialistic Idols Reluctance to Grow Up
Jiang Heng has never rested since he embarked on the path of relevant thematic creations. We can discern a clear thread that pervades the whole process. From 1996 to 2001, spending almost five years, Jiang Heng roughly shaped his personal style: firstly, the de-coloration treatment of human images; secondly, appropriation of the application of colors in accordance with traditional Chinese paintings; thirdly, the selection of gender of the figures features; fourthly, the utilization of symbolic icons. His BeautyFish series is the result of the artists experimentation at this stage, using purely female figures depicted and traditional Chinese painting techniques both in the depicted and in the background. Fish was the symbol of the period and very much resembles the visual features of New Year posters. From the perspective of semiotics, beautiful women and fish are the object of visual appreciation, and are materialized metaphorical signs. There are two special features in Jiang Hengs works meriting attention: one is that the male images are still excluded from the canvas; the other is that the visual symbols still denote realistic attributes.
- Jiang Hengs Flirtatious eyes and Gaze
With the continual evolution of this series, starting from Beauty Fish 23, fashionable and lively urban women images with reckless facial expressions start to appear on his canvases, while swarms of fishes swim leisurely at will. The picture seems to be radiating a cozy sense of touch and a tender sensual experience. In 2002, rich palette started to drift back to the canvas. Between 2005 and 2006, with the commencement of the Scattered Objects series, the monopolization of fish became history. Jiang Heng expanded his vision to a wider social sphere, with symbolic objects of the age drifting adroitly and continually onto his canvases: pistols, flowers, lipsticks, apples, pills, syringes, high heels, five-stars, naked ankles in boots and opened books. These images have rich connotations and represent irreplaceable life experiences (pills and syringes). Gazing young girls, their eyes wide open, their attitude highly seductive, alluring or adorable. However, they uniformly use heavy makeup and their skin and hair are so manicured that they have been divested of their original texture. Naturally, the materialization of females manifests the complete monopoly of industrial civilization upon humanity, as the consumer society develops to a certain extent. That is more horrifying than the annihilation of human life. As the sins are so visible, the warnings so dire and painful, this has, in using the convenience of consumption as an excuse, become the fundamental nihilism, obliterating the boundary between men and objects, and denying existentialism, whose spiritual core is self.
After 2007, there appeared some minute changes in Jiang Hengs paintings. First, the images they depict have become terser, and more focused on parts of the body; second, he has consciously chosen symbols to do with personal reminiscences; third, the proactive interposition of the canvas; and fourth, the borders between blurry physics and virtual spaces. If one peruses his portrayal of human figures in the Butterfly Flutters and Scattered Objects Blue series, one will discern the artists transition from the depiction of material desire to the decoding of individual life. When the symbols of the pills are introduced onto the canvas, the artist and the objects he depicts form a textual bond. On the one hand, as the pills and life experiences are directly linked, they have become the symbol of the materialization of the objects; on the other hand, resembling male sexual organs, the pills represent the gender-neutrality of the objects, thus enabling the artist to swap the dual roles of the objects and the subjects. Likewise, the swarm of butterfly emblems goes further to testify to this analysis. Unlike many other insects, butterflies can be male, female and hermaphroditic (as in the case of yin yang butterfly). Perhaps, Jiang Heng may be using this emblem without realizing its metaphorical significance. However, with this, the horizon of the canvas is expanded and injected with cultural genes. If we treat the body in a political context, his artistic approach may be interpreted as subversion of the traditional narrative of patriarchy. If we analyze gender as a cultural carrier, then his artistic phenomenon may be understood as dissolution of logos. Its emergence denotes a cultural esthetical system, against which ego, as the subject, is flung; while traditional moral disciplines and fossilized logics are turned upside down, and dashed into self-drifting fragments of civilization. Just as Jiang Heng says, I always feel that I am drifting, unable to find a steady point on which to stand.
In fact, one has to find in life a suppositional pivot and keep looking for the reasons behind the pivot. To a certain extent, human life is fatalistic as well as proactive. Jiang Hengs nourishment of the meaning of life demonstrates his deepening excavation of and discovery in his artistic career, in which process, art acts both as faith and the means of realizing faith.
Speaking of Jiang Hengs art, one must mention a few key points. They are:
Text by Zheng Na
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.
Written at Zhujiang New City, Guangzhou
Date: May 15, 2009
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.
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.
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. 
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.
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.
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.
 See Cartoon Generation: Report on Consumption Life in Southern China, unpublished text.