contemporary art works

Qin Fengling: Just A Part of Life

Robert C. Morgan

Essay used with kind permission from and copyright Robert C. Morgan, 2008. From the catalogue of the exhibition "Qin Fengling: Multitude," Kasia Kay Art Projects, Chicago IL, USA - Sep. 5 - Oct. 11, 2008.

In recent years, I have become interested in art as a tactile form of experience. Tactility is a sensory mode of cognition applicable to how we touch, see, and make objects. This kind of experience provides a necessary and important psychological component to our general sense of well-being. It contributes directly to our mental processes and to the sense of emotional stability in our everyday lives. Yet, in recent years, some theorists have argued that the tactile is becoming obsolescent in our hyper-technical, virtualized environment. Rather than finding ways by which to negotiate our sensory awareness towards visual/tactile forms of expression, we have entered into an inexorable and seductive ‘brave new world.’ We are living in a virtual environment made increasingly dependent on speed, excessive information, and invisibility.

Virtual phenomena, including electronic and digital forms of mass media, have been the focus of promotion and advertising over the past three decades. While these messages presumably serve their purpose (often less expediently than intended), we are inclined to feel that something has been left off the screen or out of the picture. While the transmission and virtual flow of information functions omnisciently in relation to corporations, legal practices, medical diagnoses, and in all areas of scientific, economic, sociological, and political research, it has also become apparent that human beings cannot truly fulfill their aspirations toward happiness and inner-fulfillment solely on the basis of these technologies. The alternative, at best, suggests an instinctual drive to communicate through more refined forms of tactility. Here I would argue a quality of communication that traditionally belongs to art. But today we are expected to alter, if not relinquish, quality in favor of the latest computer software elegantly concealed within reductive instruments designed to enhance what is euphemistically called “information exchange.” But information exchange does not necessarily guarantee accurate communication or, for that matter, offer a better understanding between human beings living on diverse continents. This should logically incite the need to reconsider the future of our ever-expanding environment without arbitrary or false separations. In contrast to the well-worn cliché, we are NOT living in a smaller world, but in a vastly larger one.

In the philosophy of Lao-tzu, founded in China in the sixth century B.C.E., the concept of yin-yang represents two equivalent forces in the universe based on the equivalence of creation to destruction. Rather than existing in opposition to one another, these forces are part of the same phenomenon: the Tao, or “the way.” Therefore, in the Taoist sense, tactility is not exactly the opposite of the virtual. Rather both are inextricably bound in their ability to transmit less on the level of “information exchange” than on that of what the Chinese would consider fundamental human values. From a Taoist point of view, it would appear that the future of our species is largely contingent on an ability to rediscover balance, given that balance is intrinsic to everything found in nature.

In discussing the work of the Chinese painter Qin Fengling, I believe her work has everything to do with this. While I would admittedly find it difficult to argue her role as a painter from a conceptual or postmodernist perspective, I find little deterrence in stating that Qin Fengling’s paintings allow us to experience something that points toward the quality in life. Her vivid colors and shapes suggest a heightened form of expression. They incite a desire to see more vividly and, in doing so, to absorb individual dreams as part of the social fabric of everyday life. Qin has made it clear that her work is not trying to elucidate a theory. Rather – in her words – her paintings are “just a part of life.” They constitute “an expression of the feeling of life.”

Qin Fengling’s evolution as a painter is somewhat atypical. She never realized her work from the perspective of being an art student or even as a young emerging artist. Although her husband, Wang Luyan, is a trained artist, Qin Fengling is not. In a recent interview (2006), she described herself as a “painter out of office”– meaning that she was never trained academically to become an artist. During the eighties and nineties, Qin and her husband lived in a small rented apartment in the region of Dong-si. The apartment served not only as a home, but also as Luyan’s studio, and as a meeting place for artists. Eventually, it became Qin’s unofficial art school. As a young Chinese woman, who prepared food and tea for her husband’s friends and colleagues, she overheard conversations and tried to follow the ideas spinning back and forth between the artists.

As the years went by, Qin Fengling began entering into these late night conversations on a more active level, and gradually began to produce her own work. Luyan and his colleagues encouraged her quirky newfound style. She began painting on paper regularly each day, producing work in the same space with Luyan. Eventually they extended their studio from the interior of their apartment into the backyard, weather permitting. Soon it became clear that their rented quarters were too small to accommodate the quantity of work being produced, and decided to move to a larger space. By 2005, Qin was becoming recognized as an artist. The new Suojiacun studio began to function as a full-time workspace. According to her: “My work reflected my emotion and thinking at that moment.” This could be interpreted as an awakening -- the realization that she had entered into a new relationship with her art. The surface of her paintings had become thicker and more modulated. She was no longer concerned as to whether she was working as a Pop realist or an abstract painter. What Qin understood was that all that she had been striving to attain was now in the process of really happening.

In recent years, Qin has worked according to a ritualized schedule, assiduously painting each day. Her paintings are a continuation of her belief that art is a perpetual, intuitive awakening. Take her painting Sofa (2007) in which a miniature image of two lovers is humorously repeated against a blue fabric pattern on a cushioned living room couch. While formally her painting suggests an ordering process in relation to the grid, the message is rather subversive. Qin is hardly oblivious to the fact that any representation of Eros is still considered unacceptable by the Chinese government. As if to make light of these moral accusations, she paints her tiny lovers fully clothed except for the pink buttocks of the male figure on top. The repetition of the color pink immediately catches the viewer’s eye as if to evoke humor as the antidote for censorship.

Another painting, Dizzy (2008), carries an optical reference in which red, green, and white mutant figures are mixed with male cartoon figures wearing colorful trousers, shirts, and shoes. Whereas Sofa emphasizes order, Dizzy suggests chaos as the asexual replicants struggle together with the caricatures of human figures. While thematically these paintings play off one another, the content between order and chaos is significant as a metaphor of where China is moving today. The child-like multi-colored, highly textured paintings in the current exhibition, created over the past two years, retain an excitement that is very much of the moment. “I haven’t changed personally,” explains Qin, “what has changed is my way of expression.”

As the artist turned fifty years old, her commitment to art – to her ideas and materials -- appears indefatigable. Her production is relentless as she gathers paints, canvas, and brushes, then puts down the imagery she feels or needs to feel. City Dream #1 (2008) is a fierce, yet exhilarating example of a painting that confronts the enormous problems of congestion in a twenty-first century urban metropolis. The apocalyptic deluge of miniature cars and people caught in Tornado, painted the same year, is another. For Qin, painting is a matter of hybrid intelligence and energy, a quick wit, and an impenetrable focus that guides the direction of her commentary. Often there emerges the issue of whether or not the highly metaphorical imagery is related to recent Chinese history. Do her paintings indirectly represent the chaos and reintegration of society after Maoism? Maybe, but in a deeply reflective way. Her paintings are fundamentally a personal statement, tinged with feminist views that spell out heroism for Chinese women on the front lines of social change and post-ideological transformation.

Red Flag (2008) is ironically composed of red-breasted women with black eyes and orange-rimmed oval mouths. The assortment of these deliciously plump female figures leaves little breathing space. They are held magnetically together. Qin’s magical way of expression is as much Taoism as it is a pragmatic discourse. The intellect and the emotion reveal the momentum seething beneath the surface. The multicolored figures, clinging to or falling beside a tower, painted against a piercingly clear blue sky in Rice Bowl (2008) makes this mysterious quandary all the more apparent. Golden Leaves (2007) reveal floral linear striations cutting organically and vertically through the picture plane. I am not sure the English term ‘picture plane’ works in relation to Qin Fengling. It is a Western formal term, a graphic term. But for Qin her brand of calligraphism reveals an impulse on the verge of expression, a stealthy interval that gives her paintings an aspect of reality that moves beyond normative categories associated with either Western or Asian art. This has been the question since the popular rise of postmodern philosophy at the end of the seventies. Are we talking from a culturally specific point of view? Is the essence of the painting really about the normative structure of the picture plane or about encompassing space, the spirit within the energy, the gestural calligraphic impulse? Here Qin reveals a clue as to why her paintings have become revelatory statements on the human condition. Given that they are somewhere between the abstract – what the Chinese understand as metaphysics – and the kinds of realism acquired over the years either by way of France or the Soviet Union, there is little doubt that Qin has progressed to another level by combining and transforming the traces of these styles into a unified whole.

Qin reveals an instinctive drive within her miniature people and in their relation to machines as seen in her installation of wartime machinery – a phenomenal quality and a semiotic adherence to the code that the masses follow the masses. For individuals to stand higher than the masses as artists – who exist on another cultural level -- is an old idea in Chinese history – going back to the literati of the late Northern Sung Dynasty in the early eleventh century that is suddenly proving relevant again after a millennium of virtual disappearance. One may argue that the plump figurations and stoic flatness of color in Qin’s paintings offer the necessary tension that points in the direction of this historical tendency. But the present will never exactly reproduce the past. Her paintings will never be exactly the same as those inscribed by the ecstatic painters of the early seventeenth century Ch’ing Dynasty. The terms of history keep changing even though the structure beneath the surface may carry a certain cultural identity that some would argue today is less elastic. What signifies this subterranean aspect of Chinese culture is the touch, the calligraphic nuance that finally transmits the message: the tactile and the virtual as one.

Qin Fengling’s paintings are possessed by this kind of ethos – if, indeed, we can consider Chinese calligraphy an ethos, which, in fact, it is. The aesthetic of the hand is the carrier of the moral impulse that transmits meaning. Call it Confucian or Taoist, it represents the transformation of the old in relation to the new, and re-asserts the compassion for human beings through an objective perusal of nature. In contrast to the kind of cynicism that has emerged in mediocre, over-priced art in recent years, we find in the paintings of Qin Fengling a direction with a fresh new potential, an opening whereby we discern the best contemporary Chinese painting as a signifier of renewed energy, as a regeneration of hope and strength for the future.

Robert C. Morgan is an international critic, artist, curator, and lecturer who lives and works primarily in New York City. As a Contributing Editor to Sculpture Magazine, Professor Morgan is focused on the problems of the artist in an era of global transition. In 1999, he received the first Arcale award in Art Criticism from the Municipality in Salamanca (Spain). In 2005, he was awarded a Fulbright senior scholar award to do research on the traditional arts and their influence on the Korean avant-garde. He holds both an advanced degree in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in contemporary art history, and currently lectures at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts in New York. In addition to his many books and essays (with translations in 17 languages), Professor Morgan has curated over 60 exhibitions in various museums and cultural spaces worldwide.