From the Cartoon Generation to Animamix
A Reflection of Jiang Hengs Artistic Pursuit
A Graduate from South China Normal University, Jiang Heng is reckoned to be one of the most representative artists of the Cartoon Generation rising into prominence in Guangzhou.
As early as in the beginning of the 1990s, Huang Yihan, spearhead of the Cartoon Generation movement, went by chance to Shenzhen, which was then the only window of China in the countrys reform and opening-up. Many things new were ushered into China from Shenzhen. Huang Yihan came into contact with a young community, which was obsessed with computers and game machines. Most of those people were of middle-class background and the latest generation, growing up under the influence of cartoon culture, in the age of rapid business and commercial development, as China opened up to the rest of the world. Therefore, they saw the world in a brand new way.
When he returned to Guangzhou, Huang Yihang led a group of 1970s-born young artists, writers, poets, musicians, with whom he often met at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. Jiang Hen was one of the participants. In 1992, Huang Yihai raised the notion of cartoon generation, thinking that this 1970s-born cartoon-generation developed in parallel with the age of TV in China, with cartoon and pop culture as well as with the market economy. In the history of Chinese art development, the Cartoon-generation for the first time put forward the concept of brand new cartoon-generations social artistic experimentation. In addition to aesthetics, they all accept the baptism of Animamix. In fact, as cartoon-generation artists vary in their background, viewing angle, attitude towards life and survival, artistic experience and career, they exhibit widely divergent responses to the societal evolution in China and to individual life experiences.
Materialistic Idols Reluctance to Grow Up
As the emergence of the cartoon-generation almost coincided time-wise with that of gaudy art, which was put forward by the artistic community in North China, some art critics associated Jiang Hengs work with gaudy art. However, as Jiang Heng is accustomed to gauging some specific traits in contemporary Chinese art with his own sentiments, he has fragmented all kinds of traditional cultural patterns before assuming some kind of comic and satirical stance, with which to highlight the exaggerated and bizarre side of daily life. His early works have in them marks and traces of academy education; also can be gleaned from them are the influences upon his generation of western expressionist techniques and surrealist compositions. Game Series was a perfect reflection of the aesthetics of the time the work was created, with the canvas filled with appropriated themes and scenes of game machines, when what it wanted to depict was the facial expressions of the men.
- Jiang Hengs Flirtatious eyes and Gaze
After graduation from university, Jiang Heng went into phase two of his artistic career and started focusing on the phenomena of consumption in a commercial society. In his series Cartoon and Beauty and Beauty - Fish, the facial expressions of the depicted characters gradually start to show resemblance with advertisement and trademarks, demonstrating the visual and physiological gratification and consolation the consumers derive from consumer products advertisement. In his Pet Pig and Landscape in the age of Consumption series, the canvases display real scenes in a consumer society, with a jocular, ironic personification, revealing the truth and secrets in realistic life and equating the age of commerce with that of consumption.
The first time I raised the concept of Animamix aesthetics was at the exhibition Fictitious Love at Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art in 2004. So far, Animamix has seen more than a dozen versions and Jiang Heng has been invited to participate in relevant exhibitions on several occasions. In 2006, in a special article published at Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, I formally put forward the English word I had coined earlier: Animamix (Animation+Comics), which denotes an aesthetic attitude. Animamix are not animation plus comics per se. It has four basic traits.
First of all, many diversified Animamix-style images in pop culture are about the adoration of youth. It is in pursuit of idealized beauty of youth; it is not only about the creation of imaginary characters in animations, cartoons or comic strips, but also about the worship of youth. Pushing like tidal waves a quantity of diverse ageless bodies in pop culture has already influenced real life, making the pursuit of artificial beauty the main psychological concern of the people. The collective memory of ageless youth gradually and imperceptibly shapes the youth aesthetics of the 21st century, enormously influencing artistic creation but also profoundly influencing the popular aesthetic philosophy of the entire age. The advertisement- and trademark-like beauties in principle retain the visual features of agelessness and never-withering youth.
Speaking of Jiang Hengs art, one must mention a few key points. They are:
The second feature of Animamix refers to the miraculous and fickle narrative texts in the art works, which endows the images with a poignant sense of description, and renders the images an expressive visual language. The personified creations that pervade the cartoon and animation works, plus the narration of a matching language or texts, naturally give rise to twisted or exaggerated esthetics. From his earlier Scattered Objects to the current Butterfly Flutters series, symbols such as apples, flowers, butterflies, thighs, high-heels, pistols and pills, constitute a metaphorical story. Influenced by the colorful lights that fill up the age of digital media, Jiang Hengs canvases are graced with ornate colors and exhibit the third trait of Animamix, i.e. an extremely new and colorful visual experience generated by colorful light of the digital media.
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.
The fourth characteristic of Animamix is that it is a new form of aesthetics attributable to the combination of a wealth of capital, human, and material resources, and multidisciplinary interactive collaboration (heterogeneity). It differs from traditional artistic endeavors in that it often requires the integration of teamwork, and the multiple superposition and cooperation of specific professional labor. Heterogeneity isa unique feature of Animamix. In recent years, the artist is engaged in paintings, sculptures and Animamix and has in so doing pushed the cartoon-generation from the close of last century into the new century of Animamix.
The Animamix that the author proposes is oriented towards the growing aesthetic trend, and is derived from gradual shift in plebeian taste around the world in the past centuries; it is an integration of individual artistic styles from many generations, which has naturally come into fruition as the epochal aesthetics of the 21st century. Comic strips, cartoons and animations have developed to a stage when they can be independently categorized as aesthetic standpoints and have been widely popularized into every field. Under the bombardment of the media, it has become an emblem linking youths at every corner of the world, and is no longer a collective memory or recognition monopolized by a single era or a single community. It is more like an expression of individual pursuit, a way of relaying the spiritual prowess of will and a way to unleash the emulation and recreation of imagination.
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.
Jiang Hengs artistic style and motif have been changing and shifting without cease. The art of Animamix is to document the art we create in a virtual environment, and to document the fourth dimensional space that exists in the digital media and world. The age of Animamix, in presenting youth, beauty, innocence, purity, sensitivity, fragility, illusion and dreamlike raving, has distanced itself from the earlier cartoon-generation and gaudy art. The artist has made his transition from the past to the future. Animamix is his aesthetic way of keeping pace with the advancing time. It is also an unavoidable vogue style of the age.
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.