New Figuration: Chapter 1

Hadrien de Montferrand Gallery, Beijing 2 February - 17 March 2013

By Iona Whittaker

Guo Hongwei, Painting Is Collecting - Insect No.8, 2013.

The first virtue of this exhibition is variety; the second is its consistency in spite of that variety. Piggybacking on the recent rash of ‘young artist’ shows, New Figuration: Chapter 1 is less an instance of simple following than of being seemingly inclined to better the rather sporadic standard of many emerging-artist displays – at least, this is its effect. Though the sensation is difficult to define, it is generally one of evenness, like handling an object of irregular dimensions but on which each side has been consummately smoothed.

There are 20 works – in watercolour, oil, acrylic and pencil on paper, canvas and, unusually, flattened-out cardboard boxes – on show. That there are a few works on canvas present in a gallery dedicated to works on paper should be let slide – in part because it is a work on canvas by Chen Han that is the most absorbing; Plotting Against a Sad Punishment (2012) is its slightly laboured title. A small 24 by 32 cm field frames the upper bodies of three young men, who closely face a blank wall. Their bowed heads spell a shame that seems amplified by brown shadows that threaten to expand around them. The other works by this artist, executed in the same painterly mode and flesh and ivory tones, also express veiled narratives – a letter, an embrace or a regret – but all only in part.

The pencil drawings by Zhang Shujian and Zhu Xinyu’s paintings on large expanses of cardboard, though completely different in subject and atmosphere, are acute in their portrayal of light. In Zhang’s intense, virtuoso drawings, it is light hitting hair and skin in a series of queer images wherein lustrous dark hair is pulled over a female face, braided or clenched hard between childish teeth. The artist’s Self Portrait – Back (2012) is a hood worn back-to-front to expose the shaven round of a head. Zhu Xinyu’s paintings are contrastingly ethereal, his work having developed recently to achieve a new height of density where before there were translucent layers. Regardless of what stories their subjects might conjure – a nighttime pine forest, children in a rowing boat or the scene of a kitchen with objects and surfaces appearing slightly offset – all are bathed in the same phosphorescence. Both artists’ work has an element of shock.

It is the small-scale, more placid pieces by Guo Hongwei and Lu Chao that most thoroughly absorb the eye in detail. Guo’s rows of insects are trapped beautifully in bounded watercolour that bleeds within their outlines but never outside the edges of bodies or fine wings. Lu Chao’s Suspension series (2012) renders the void of the paper as a white stage on which lie an antler, tree and rocky outcrop in the Chinese manner, casting weightless shadows onto the blank depth behind and below them. The seam of intrigue or oddness running through the show as a whole is nourished also by these pictures.

Thus might be briefly described New Figuration’s first chapter, a carefully composed exhibition that one hopes will continue as it has begun, with works that adhere themselves at once to the memory, and to continuing imagination.

This article was first published in the May 2013 issue.