Billed by ARTINFO as one of the six best art exhibitions in Beijing this Summer, the Iberia Centre’s 'Fly Through the Troposphere – Memo of the New Generation Painting' is a calmly executed show. A solemn atmosphere pervades the room, brought about in large part by the wall text, which, in introducing these six artists of the so-called 'floating generation,' speaks of 'rapid social changes,' 'the decreasing of humane concerns’ and experiences of confusion, split and uncertainty of judgment. Exhibition texts and titles can sometimes fog or pigeonhole the content, and although here one might at first sense hackneyed terminology and an overdone title (is more scientific nomenclature on the way?), both prove instead to be lucid and useful. The artists shown here are differentiated from the previous generation on account of a more personal approach that fixes on daily life and its materials as vehicles for the expression of psychological experience and probing; these artists, we are told, are not choosing to ‘witness and criticise’ what surrounds them, but to concentrate more on their emotional reactions to it. A quick look at the root of the term troposphere tells one that ‘tropos’ in Greek means ‘mixing’ – this atmospheric layer is therefore one conditioned by the meeting of earth and sky, and by friction between the two. To imagine these paintings as sightings on a passage through this zone between real and ephemeral layers - between daily life and floating emotions - is to embrace the kind of sentiments and sensations of which they are born and try to tell visually.
Most absorbing is Jia Aili’s two-panel opening work, highly finished in the grey, aqua and deep blue hues his palette favours. An overwhelming sense of absence radiates from the solitary, silk-like figure in the left-hand panel. His is the depiction and bearing that recurs in Jia’s work: an almost translucent being with a downturned head covered by a gas mask (there’s a nice, albeit coincidental link between the mask and the troposphere from which we breathe). His body seems almost to dissolve, its un-brave edges failing to strongly speak its form; even the background shapes and contours on this side of the painting seem blurred and unclear. Dominating the panels is a jet engine or propeller cylinder on a trolley, its outer workings exposed in a tangle of wires and casing. Against the weak, colourless figure, this engine is a triumph of metallic anatomy, a shining machine-body displaying the beauty of function through form, of essential parts and scientific design. The figure stands at its head, unmoving, as if drained of will, its reticent human aura departed - or extracted - elsewhere.
Qiu Xiaofei’s painting Utopia (2010) speaks too of human dislocation but in a painterly language more robust. In this painting, seen before at Pace Beijing, the image of a headless statue rises from a cluster of dead highrises in a desolate, depopulated landscape. The dark background is rendered in impasto splintered all through with white paint, making it look like cascading rain or a distant wall of black tower blocks dotted with lights, like a futuristic city seen from afar. Where Jia Aili’s neighbouring painting points to the vulnerability of the individual, Qiu Xiaofei projects a scene of post-ideology through an imagined landscape and its relics. Elsewhere in the show, Qiu’s small-scale paintings taken from the leaves of family albums articulate the path of personal memory.
Comparatively unfamiliar is a pair of horizontal compositions. These are White Group Portrait and Black Group Portrait (both 2010) by Li Qing. On the left, Black Group Portrait shows a long line of refrigerators amid an odd, filmic twilight. Occupying the central area of the canvas, below them is a shallow-looking expanse of water, and above a bluish skyline with blurred blowing branches. The fridges, some with doors open and in various states of repair or abandonment, a couple containing lurid-coloured food, stand directly facing the viewer like rectangular metal figures. The environment in which they appear seems strange and eerie, and they are reflected clearly in the water. In White Group Portrait, one realises it’s the same line of fridges, the line-up mirrored, but this time staged in an urban setting. Behind them stands a shadowy disused or unfinished building, and the water below them has dried up; in its place lies some appliances that have fallen forward and have become swathed in old grass. This scene is rendered in a more painterly way not in lurid nocturnal blues, but in the stark white tones befitting a real home appliance dump or reclamation centre. This is truly an intriguing pair of paintings; they almost certainly draw on the language of film, and suggest different readings ranging from something postmodern to analogies of the human figure, of ruin and modernity, consumerism and desire. Li is quoted by Global Times as having said ‘…white and black, reality and an inverted reflection in water, portray a contrast [which] can still apply to human beings’ self-images.’
Of the further three artists whose work is on show here, it was Tu Hongtao’s that most appealed to me - the oily unmade bed more so than the carnivalesque grouping of figures in Araki’s Friends. These works are in engaging contrast with Wang Guangle’s placid and diligent Terrazzo. Qin Qi’s wall quotation states that what he depicts depends on his mood. His paintings vary in subject matter from a desert scene to a bicycle with doll-head handlebars, and pencils stabbed into a pot plant. Qin’s thus appears in relation to the other paintings to be the least definite a vision of the internal landscape, one that instead plucks at imagery from moment to moment, and treats it in different ways with the brush.
-- Iona Whittaker
(All images courtesy of Iberia Center for Contemporary Art and the artists.)