Is painting an outmoded medium? Are painters today simply reinventing the wheel? About Painting explores this question. Taking examples from six established, mid-career and emerging painters, their style and language offer the means to examine the force and life of a medium that remains a fundamental form of human expression. A medium that is alive and very well, even though its demise has been pronounced imminent now for a very long time.
Painting is a basic human instinct. It exists today for the same reasons that brought it into existence thousands of years ago; no matter how sophisticated our language and ability to communicate, there are times when words fail us, when a visual image, the stroke of a brush, a patch of contrasting colour or a simple form, speak directly to our emotions, to the soul, to the imagination, and across all barriers of culture and language. To use the words of Zhao Gang, whose works feature here, painting is “the most effective means of providing comfort to humanity”.
Every painter aims to create an unforgettable composition. What may make it unforgettable is harder to define. Some paintings are deemed great because of the era in which they were created; some of those thought of as being great in a moment fail to resonate beyond their times. It is not possible to predict the fate of the paintings in this exhibition – that future will be determined by the success each artist will continue to achieve, but more likely by events we are at present unable to imagine – yet, from amongst a large number of possible contenders for an exhibition on the theme of painting in China today, their work has been chosen because it possesses that intangible quality, call it “power” for want of a better description. Each of these six, Jia Aili, Wang Yin, Zhao Gang, Duan Jianyu, Li Shurui and Qiu Ruixiang, work with a style and language that is recognisably their own and, in their various ways, present narratives and stories, personal experience and broader worldviews. Each demonstrates a precise feel for a particular set of emotions, be that sober, psychological, ethereal or humorous. They also deploy a distinctive application of the material of oil paint to accurately reflect their expression.
Painters today have to try that much harder than their predecessors to arrive at a distinctive voice, but one might equally argue that this act of trying harder is responsible for so much good painting that continues to be done, as is clearly evident in the works of the six artists included in About Painting. It is not that the oft-repeated phrase that everything imaginable has been said and done in the course of applying paint to canvas is untrue, for Mankind is known to repeat itself, generation after generation, but history also demonstrates that as long as there are new circumstances and social experiences in the world, there will be subjects for painters to unravel on canvas. This is ultimately seen to best effect in what these six artists do about painting.