For genuinely talented and ambitious artists in mainland China, it's been a long road from the days when 'modern' Chinese art was synonymous with images of beaming, red-cheeked peasant heroes and adoring portraits of Mao Zedong. Beginning in the 1970s, as critic Li Xianting explains in the comprehensive book,China's New Art, Post-1989, painters began using the meticulous realist technique they learned in China's art academies to portray the harsh realities of Chinese peasant life instead of the pieties of Maoism. The Stars group of 1979-80 tried to break the stylistic bonds of realism by championing Picasso and the German Expressionist printmaker Kathe Kollwitz.
By the mid-Eighties neo-Dada, performance art, and an ironic post-Pop sensibility paved the way for the epoch-making China/Avant Garde exhibition in Beijing in 1989, a showcase of anti-authoritarian art that was briefly closed down by the police when one artist shot a pistol in the gallery.
With the Tiananmen demonstrations of the same year and the massacres that followed, a chill was thrown on the anti-establishment side of Chinese art -- but painters continue to be ironic, inventive, and socially and politically astute. Some have become famous and well-off by purveying 'political pop,' Warholesque satires of the Mao images that once filled China. Yu Youhan portrays the Chairman against perky floral patterns that look like bad wallpaper; Wang Guangyi's Socialist Realist icons -- brave soldiers and burly peasants -- share bright decorative space with the logos of Japanese camera companies and other symbols of China's new prosperity and worldliness.
While political pop has found a ready market in Hong Kong and overseas, David M. Raddock notes in New Art Examiner that many contemporary artists are now striving for a 'Chinese uniqueness' that depends neither on reproducing international icons like Mao nor on seeming 'caught up' with hip Westerners. The splendid printmaker Su Xinping is creating what he calls 'socialist surrealism' -- meticulously rendered pictures of tumbling bodies against the background of obscurely menacing streets. Zhang Yajie's colorful street scenes are menacing too -- the faces of some of the passersby are scary beast-masks in primary colors. And Wang Lifeng creates moody images of China's past -- cloth and paper swaths covered with Chinese characters that seem to have undergone the ravages of time. These and other contemporary artists have in a sense retreated to an inner world, or at least a personal one. But they are also registering in their own souls the pressures and pains of living in a nation morally adrift, haunted by history, and tense with unresolved resentment.