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Review: Why Realist Chinese Painting Matters

By Lucy Li

February 13, 2013

The New York Academy of Art’s new exhibition “From Beijing,” a show of oil paintings from the faculty of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) is open now through February 17 and we suggest you check it out.

It brings in to focus something frequently – and often intentionally – overlooked in our contemporary art dialogue: the importance of sheer technical ability in painting. These 29 painters showcase refreshing perspectives in oil painting that reconcile Chinese culture with a holistic consideration for the rich history of western painting.

Most works on view are large format representational paintings of figures, still life, and interiors. Sun Xun and Lu Liang’s chilling hospital scenes are nightmarish and pensive. Hu Jiancheng’s painting takes on the lanky proportions and subject matter of a Chinese hanging scroll, but the image is photo realistic. Even so, the intense colors and intimate textures retain the quiet spirituality of traditional ink paintings.

Yu Hong’s figures pile up against a blank background in the recognizable beige of aged silk, almost like a Ming dynasty Dai Jin battle scene. These patient paintings are not obsessed with demonstrating absolute originality, and are very comfortable with their ties to history– a café scene is conspicuously reminiscent of Renoir, and an empty, moody street recalls Maurice Utrillo’s portraits of Montmartre. They are, however, still unmistakably from Beijing.

The venue is particularly fitting – founded by a group of artists in the 1980s (Andy Warhol, Tom Wolfe, to name some), the New York Academy of Art’s mission is to “foster the resurgence of figurative and representational art.”

It’s difficult for representational painting to compete in novelty with other more dynamic, cacophonous media. Even artists such as Luc Tuymans and Michael Borremans have difficulty escaping their association with the term “traditional,” sometimes applied euphemistically. However, “representational, realist art is still considered to be mainstream in China, the reason being the influence and impact of China’s historical and cultural background in literature and art,” said Xie Dongming, dean of CAFA. “Western realism was not introduced until the contemporary era–its method and philosophy are still seen as avant-garde in China.” Chinese artists took in the entire history of oil painting at once during the 20th-century, and these skillfully executed works still carry a unique feeling of intrigue and noted sensitivity to properties of oil paint as a medium.

From Beijing


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