The Founding Generation
Chinese contemporary artists have become so diverse they reflect the nation's cultural and economic change. So what of China's original contemporary art luminaries?
With his current auction prices, Chinese artist Yue Min Jun isn't wowing the world like he did in the 2000s. But that hasn't wiped the gaping smiles off his iconic faces. Even those who do not know about the art, or the name Yue Min Jun, must have seen his gleaming signature caricatures. In many ways, he is the endearing poster boy of contemporary Chinese art, who paved the way for his generation onto the world stage—a generation of artists that are yet to be given the recognition they deserve.
Back in the 1990s, Yue was a rising star of Hong Kong's pioneering Schoeni Art Gallery, but his art is now among the most popular for copycats in the back streets of Central and Tsim Sha Tsuit. These imitations often end up in local cafes and restaurants. The grins of the caricatures may be impish, but they are also family-friendly enough to be welcomed by the mainstream.
Investors still warm to the likes of Zeng Fanzhi, but ordinary people are probably more comfortable with Yue's iconic "silly men," to the point of barely noticing them. In terms of aesthetics, they inhabit the public imagination more easily than the alien family portraits of Zhang Xiaogang or Zeng Fanzhi 's masked mysteries.
In recent years, luxury shopping centres in Hong Kong such as Harbour City, have run exhibitions of Yue Min Jun's work. One exhibition titled "The Tao of laughter" showcased five new sculptures and 12 silk screen paintings based on Taoist notions of laughter as a route to inner peace. It also launched a series of limited edition crossover premiums with designs by Yue that were available for sale at the Gallery by the Harbour. The design items included necklaces, T-shirts, Mahjong sets, and postcards. This seems to be the place where the pioneering artist, who was part of a generation that lay the foundation for Chinese contemporary art, is often seen and who now seems overshadowed by the world they helped build.
There is some truth in the idea that the luminary founders of contemporary Chinese art have been overtaken by younger generations. Innovative new artists and galleries have tapped into talent made diverse by the new creative plurality of the nation, revealing the diversity of its various regions. It is also a matter of context; "the Pop cynical realists," whose work was inherently political and overtly Western, have given way to individualistic artists who have seen better days in China. Political art has been articulated by the likes of Ai Wei Wei. The whole thing is almost symbolised by the tragic death of Manfred Schoeni, the Hong Kong gallerist who pioneered contemporary Chinese art, followed by the closure of the Schoeni Gallery after it was run by his daughter Nicole. Although Yue Min Jue's presence on commercial products has a Warhol-like immortality, Yue and his generation will undoubtedly find a better way to speak above the crowd and gain the recognition they deserve.
Words Remo Notarianni