Three landscape painters, all born in the ’70s and living in cities on the east coast of China, show their distinct concerns in a new exhibition at Shanghai’s James Cohan Gallery. Chen Yujun’s empty rooms, Huang Yuxing’s rainbow-colored waterways, and Yuan Yuan’s hyperrealistic, environmental installations are in dialogue not only with each other but also with the building itself.
The exhibition was timed to coincide with the popular ART021 art fair, but its content was motivated by the gallery it inhabits, a beautifully preserved Art Deco colonial mansion built in 1936. The main exhibition space is a sun room with decoratively painted ceilings that opens onto a grassy courtyard with Chinese scholar’s rocks. According to curator Melanie Ouyang Lum, “The space has so much history, and it’s not the typical ‘white cube,’ so we chose three artists whose works deal with interior and exterior spaces, man-made or fictional, and the life, memory, and history that live within them.”
Chen Yujun is from Putian, Fujian Province, which is seen as a diaspora village, a launchpad for previous generations of Chinese leaving for parts of Southeast Asia. His “Temporary Family” series is composed of empty interiors painted in pale colors. Their emotional timbre is ambiguous. Did their former inhabitants end up somewhere better, and will they ever come back? While the rooms appear as anonymous as waiting lounges, intimacy is implied by the few comforts that remain. “The object in the room can also be seen as a familiar or a companion,” Lum says. “It is as if that chair, sofa, or wallpaper is also waiting for that person to return to them.”
Yuan Yuan also paints interiors, but they’re as detailed as Chen’s paintings are spare. He paints opulent locations made even more ornate by their degradation—peeling paint, crumbling plaster, or cracked glass. Yuan visited Scotland as a Glenfiddich artist in residence, where he focused mainly on historic buildings. Recently, he’s painted much newer Chinese buildings designed in Western styles. Built poorly, they age quickly, as if Eastern new money’s deference to Western style even extends to its decline. “Yuan Yuan is like Chen Yujun in that he is documenting this rapid development of China’s cities,” Lum says. “It is true that most of these new buildings are designed to look European and American, but the artist is documenting the city’s transformation rather than taking a stance on the decline of the West or westernization of China.”
Huang Yuxing paints natural subjects in very unnatural colors—lurid hues you rarely see walking around his home city, the overwhelmingly gray-brown Beijing. Like the rainbow reflections of oil on water, Huang’s paintings of bubbling rivers are both a retinal pleasure and a sign of alienation from nature. “Huang Yuxing paints natural landscapes with unnatural colors as a way to make sense of his ever-changing surroundings,” Lum says. “Beijing is one of the most polluted major cities in China and he uses the bright, psychedelic colors as a metaphor for both the pollution and a utopian ideal.”
For contemporary artists steeped in the 20th century’s history of explicitly political, emotionally expressive and culturally critical work, landscape painting offers a more oblique approach. It’s a kind of cultural forensics, examining a crime scene for evidence of the events that came before. This sideways glance seems especially appealing to the “post ’70s generation” of artists, who came after cynical realists born in the ’60s and before the arrival of hyperconnected cosmopolitan artists born in the ’80s.
“The post ’70s generation, a generation that is stuck between the old China and the new, is trying to find their place within the ever-changing society and create a space where they can rest their heads in nostalgia,” Lum says. “Time changes everything and in China, time also erases. These artists are, in our opinion, three of the most articulate when trying to reveal what it is like for their generation.”