“(Un)social Realism —- Chang Qing Solo Exhibition at Chelsea College of Arts” presents 30 works created between 2012 and 2015, illustrating the often difficult yet interesting life and strained social conditions of the most ordinary people, in the fast-developing Chinese society. Through carefully observed compositions, Chang Qing (b. 1965) unveils the current social issues of the marginalised lower classes in a contemporary, urbanised China, chronicling like few others, their all but invisible existence.
“Contemporary realism is a trend now,” exhibition organiser Xiao Lang told me. Studying David Hockney’s affectionate rendition of portraits in the Royal Academy and Alex Katz’s vivid stroke of life in the Serpentine, Lang thinks now it’s high time for contemporary Chinese artists to utter their voices,and Chinese painter Chang Qing is one of them who eloquently bring to the world a unique present-day Chinese realism.
We are living in a technology-saturated world where apparently everyone can create “art” with their smart phones: to find an interesting angle or composition, snap, filter, send. Has the creation of art been already democratised and integrated into common people’s everyday life? For Chang Qing, the answer would be both yes and no. Every single piece of painting in this exhibition has its own snapshot story arising from the ordinary street life, yet it is more than just a snapshot. In his spare time, Chang would go out on the streets around the world with his smart phone and snap whatever that attracts his eyes, either in the living room of his own house or in the public bathhouse. Literally, everywhere. “The smart phone is a tool for my creation. And it is the trained eyes of a veteran artist that make the difference.” Chang told me. His artistic instinct leads him to discern the unique and interesting episodes of the quotidian social life, which becomes the script of his art. Having collected thousands of snapshots of the ordinary subject matters, he would spend sometimes a couple of hours, sometimes a day, rendering the scenes with ink, brushes and rice paper after conscious selection, decomposition and reconfiguration.
While snapshots provide the faithful imprints of the immediate social reality, the quick-witted and caricatural aesthetics of Chang’s paintings give expression to things that are subtle, transient, yet fundamental to soul: it could be a tacit glance between the father and the son, or the face of a blind masseur beaming with ineffable pleasure, or the worried countenance of a naked middle-aged man weighing in the public bathhouse. All of these images seem to tell the wordless stories of the 21st-century China in the most heartfelt way possible, in which strokes and colours become a powerful narrative that resonates with every single viewer. Simultaneously crude in style and profound in meaning, Chang’s works are personal at heart and emanate an affectionate appeal to the universal that cannot be emulated.
What distinguishes Chang from many of his contemporaries in realistic arts? Maybe it is precisely because of the “undistinguished-ness” of his chosen subjects. There’s no intimidating skyscraper or garish post-industrial spectacle in tune with the rapidly growing Chinese society and Communist imagination; quite the contrary, the artist foregrounds the most negligible urbanites as his protagonists by amplifying their facial expressions, emotions, gestures, warts and all. Unflattering, or even brutal. Yet it is this gritty sketch of the quotidian social life that delivers a sense of intimacy and annihilates any constructed hierarchy and stereotype. Chang desires to illustrate a contemporary reality free of onerous social labels where the ordinary people exist in their organic and unembellished human relations.
“I want to present in my paintings the multiple aspects of the contemporary Chinese society. The ordinary people constitute the fabric of society, so naturally they become the centre of my art… The various human relations in this context particularly drew my attention: mother-and-son, friends, lovers, business partners… These are the elements of the social realism.” Chang told me. With his figurative and unaffected draftsmanship, Chang breathes life into the urban figures on paper.
“The Apostles” is a large-scale piece of painting that depicts a group of Chinese tourists sitting in front of a tourist site in Bulgaria. Chang wants to capture the ennui and weariness as a result of the modern tourist mode.
“Mr. Gu Jun, the Blind Masseur”
He also frequently paints people that he is familiar with. “I’m the regular of Mr. Gu Jun’s massage place. I was particularly impressed by the blind masseurs. Amiable, loquacious, giggling, these blind masseurs show no concerns about their livelihood, but convey a kind of heart-melting optimism.” Chang said.
Anyone who has some knowledge of the political history of China may easily associate “social realism” with the notorious “socialist realism” advocated in Mao’s era in which the proletariat are painfully heroised. “Do you think your ’social realism’ is an antithesis to the ‘socialist realism’?” I asked. “I don’t really intend to involve any political schema in my works. They are uncritical, uncynical, all-embracing. As a Buddhist myself, I desire to approach the true states of the society and have a fundamental respect and compassion for everything I see and paint. You may see some wry humour in my works, but it’s definitely not out of mockery.” Chang spoke in a sincere and peaceful manner.
The exhibition is eloquent of the authentic social conditions of the contemporary China. Every piece of painting celebrates the ordinary protagonists engaging in the quotidian life and provides you with a unique experience of realistic art.
“(Un)social Realism —- Chang Qing Solo Exhibition” is at Cookhouse Gallery at Chelsea College of Arts, London, SW1P 4JU, until 20 September, 2016.
It is also reposted on ARTouching Consulting website.