Sun Liang. A Painter's Journey

8 October - 15 November 2008

James Hyman Gallery, in association with Contrasts Gallery (Beijing and Shanghai), is pleased to announce a major exhibition of paintings by Sun Liang opening 8 October at James Hyman Gallery in London.

Sun Liang's importance is being increasingly recognised internationally. As Philip Dodd recently wrote in The Financial Times (Philip Dodd, "Passage of Time", The Financial Times, London 27 September 2008):

"I found the art-equivalent of Aladdin's cave in the most unlikely of places - a courtyard house packed with 17 families, just off Shanghai's strutting People's Square. I'd gone there to see the artist Sun Liang, tall, ponytailed and 51. His stock is rising, fast. Not only did he represent China when it entered the Venice Biennale in 1993 but, much more recently, he was given an important retrospective at the Shanghai Fine Art Museum and was one of the stars of last year's important Generation of 85 exhibition at Beijing's Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art. His work, especially of the 1980s and 1990s, confounds all the orthodoxies about what contemporary Chinese art means and looks like.

Imagine the Chinese equivalent of George Baselitz, the German artist with a lyrical leaning yet historical imagination; someone capable of the most delicate touch and of the most deliberate bluntness. One of Sun's 1989 paintings is called Icarus and the Nine Suns - which marries the Greek myth of the man who flew too near the sun with the Chinese myth of the bird shot for trying to fly too far from the earth.

Painted in 1989, yet exhibited first only in 2004, this picture is weighted with all the feelings of that dark time. London will have the chance to see it, along with a good selection of his other work from the 1980s to the present, when his first one-man show opens in early October. It is an exhibition that might encourage an art market currently hungry for all things Chinese to go in search of the work of an older generation of artists, from the 1980s, that turning-point in Chinese history."

Sun Liang initially established his reputation as one of the Generation of 85group of young Chinese artists who with growing liberalism, for the first time engaged with international contemporary art and culture. He was included in the important exhibition China / Avant Garde at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1989 and in 1993 was one of the very first artists to represent China at the Venice Biennale. 

Although recently, the spot-light has turned on a younger generation of Chinese artists the importance of Sun Liang's pioneering generation is being increasingly recognised, as is indicated by Sun Liang's inclusion in the opening exhibition, 85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art, at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in autumn 2007.

Sun Liang is a key figure in the art scene of Shanghai. In common with many of the most interesting Chinese contemporary artists, Sun Liang not only engages with international contemporary art but also with Chinese history and experience. Paintings of the 1980s combine Western and Chinese mythology, allegorical works of the later 1980s have specific Chinese roots yet echo the anguish of Bacon, Basquiat and Baselitz and more recently lyrical works have reasserted Chinese techniques as well as imagery. This is evident in Sun Liang's continuing fascination with the art of calligraphy, scroll painting and brush and ink painting, and is found also in his paintings in which serpents slide and leopards prowl in a highly sexualised world of mutating and mutated mythological beasts.  

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, including an essay by Philip Dodd, and an interview with the artist.

A Painter's Journey: An Interview with Sun Liang by James Hyman[The full interview appears in Sun Liang. A Painter's Journey published on the occasion of this exhibition]the 1980s the youth of my generation have been influenced by the West and gradually accepted the Western style of modern painting, but it has been a complicated process. Prior to that I was influenced by traditional Chinese culture. 

Pressure from political groups in China for the literary arts to serve politics, as well as an art education based on Soviet-style painting, made me constantly change my painting styles. The imagery became extreme, then the figures gradually disappeared, and now my work has become more abstractIt's been a learning process, a breaking-free. 

My paintings were banned from being on display in exhibitions. If I asked why, they said they couldn't understand them, so they were not put on display in case there might be a problem. Once at a discussion at the museum of fine art, I said, It isn't my fault if you can't understand. It's your fault.a long time there was no audience at all - I painted for myself. Until now, only a few very close friends have seen the earlier paintings."

In the 1980s Sun Liang established himself as one of the leading artists of the Generation of '85, in 1993 he was one of the first Chinese artists to exhibit at the Venice Biennale, and more recently he was prominently featured in the opening exhibition at the Ullens new museum in Beijing in 2007. 

Sun Liang's journey is the story not just of modern China but of the Modern world. There is an immediacy to his paintings - especially those of the later 1980s - and definite national roots that have become increasingly explicit, yet Sun Liang universalises events through his recourse to myth and religion - Salome, Ophelia, the Crucifixion. In escaping literalism in this way, and in transcending specifics, Sun Liang reveals his indebtedness to what he gleaned in the mid 1980s of Western painting. For, whilst Sun Liang's paintings have little precedent in Chinese painting, they do have an international context.  

Francis Bacon, whose work Sun Liang initially saw in reproduction, and only saw first-hand at the Venice Biennale in 1993, was one such stimulus: an encouragement to personal expression. Yet compared to Sun Liang's paintings of the late 1980s, Bacon's sophisticated rawness can look almost tastefully refined. Sun Liang's painting of this period is altogether cruder, less obviously mediated. Instead one is reminded of the extremity of anguish in Antonin Artaud's self portraits and their particular resonance in French intellectual circles in mid twentieth century Paris. Similarly in the case of Sun Liang, this is painting, not as picture making, but as a way of coming to terms with one's life. 

Since the 1990s the fantastic imagery of Sun Liang's paintings has reflected the artist's growing reengagement with Chinese art that continues even as a later generation of Chinese artist's has engaged more and more with an international vocabulary. This reassertion of his cultural identity is nowhere more evident than in Sun Liang's continuing fascination with the art of calligraphy, scroll painting and brush and ink, but it is found too in his recent paintings in which serpents slide and leopards prowl in a highly sexualised world of mutating mythological beasts. 

China is both a new country and a country with an immense history. Yet it is China now, China today and in the future that has been the great story of recent years, both inside and outside the country. A celebration of the latest Chinese art has perfectly fitted this moment. Most recently, however, there is a sense that things are changing, that China is rediscovering its own recent past, that people are beginning to look backwards as well as forwards. On one level the past is being referenced by the latest work of acclaimed artists such as Zhang Huan, whose ash paintings and memory doors combine an imagery derived from Chinese history with emotive materials. But there is also a growing awareness that there is a recent history of Chinese art. As Philip Dodd writes in his introduction, we are witnessing the start of a reclaiming of this earlier moment, the reappraisal of a previous generation of artists, the appreciation that this story starts with an engagement with modernism and the West that began with the Generation of 1985 of which Sun Liang was a leading player. 

In conversations in his studios in Shanghai and on a recent visit to London, I asked Sun Liang about his personal journey through modern China: 
was born in 1957 in Hangzhou and lived in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, between 1959 and 1969. I grew up in a military family, a bit special compared to other Chinese families because my father was a high level military official. We followed the army and moved to Shanghai at the end of 1969. 

I was highly influenced by the book Lord of Flies by the British novelist William Golding. I felt the children's lives that he described were very similar to mine. During the Cultural Revolution, I saw the Little Red Guards on the road acting very violently. They used guns, robbed from the troops and hit others. I saw dead people on the street as well. It was very brutal, but I was in a utopian environment due to my family's army background. I turned out to be quite different compared to many of my contemporaries. I was relatively free, without discipline. This has accompanied my whole life! I was also expected to do military service and around 1970 some of my father's subordinates asked me to join the army. I was only thirteen years old and my mother wouldn't agree. My parents didn't trust me to grow up in the army. Perhaps I was too mischievous! Sometimes I caught and shot birds, and sometimes stole the brass from the troops to make into guns. I was like the hero in the film In the Heart of the Sun. I was even more mischievous than him!

By 1977, the Cultural Revolution was ending. The country began to re-run the university system. That was when I began to pay real attention to painting. In order to leave the factory, I began to work very hard on painting, often travelling a long way by bike to paint at the cultural center. I hoped it would help me find a better job. 

In 1979 I wanted to apply for an art college. The entry requirement for the art college was drawing and oil painting. It was not enough to simply paint traditional Chinese painting. But at that time it was a luxury to do oil painting in China. The art materials were very expensive. It was also very difficult to learn about Western culture as the Cultural Revolution had only just finished. Only at large libraries and art colleges were there books on modern Western art, imported from Japan, with, for example, an introduction to the Impressionists. During the Cultural Revolution, art works after Impressionism were considered as decadent bourgeois products. We needed a reference from school to borrow these books and at some places students even had to wash their hands before looking at the books. The college was not focused on painting but on design. The lecturers were very much opposed to us doing painting. The Head of Department often accused us. But it was precisely because of these objections that we worked so hard. We were at a rebellious age and we became even more determined to do painting. When I joined the college I was 23 years old and I had a mature way of thinking, but the school education was rather rigid. I wanted to get to know more about modern culture. I began to read a lot of Western literature. I liked the French Absurdists and American black humour. Some of my favourite writers were Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene, Sigmund Freud, Harold Pinter, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and so on. At that time only literature translations were up to date in China, introducing a lot of modern thinking. There was a famous magazine called Foreign Literature that introduced literary works, and it reproduced modern pictures on the inside front cover and back cover. Reproductions of Western art works were very small, and in black and white, so we spent a lot of time imagining what they might be like. For example, I thought Francis Bacon's work was black with indiscriminate brushstrokes. However, in his retrospective exhibition in Venice in 1993, I saw that his canvases were actually arranged very precisely, and it was very different from what I imagined. After art school I was originally meant to be a design teacher at the Shanghai Art School, but I wasn't allowed by the Head. I was sent to the First Food Factory as a designer. However, I didn't do any design work at the food factory. I worked with others together in the workshop. Then my mother used some connections and I was transferred to the Shanghai Garden School as an art teacher. I really started painting in oil at the school. As an art teacher, I had six yuan (RMB) monthly materials cost. We bought a lot of cheap packing cloth used for sacks and got some wood frames from the school and made the canvas ourselves.

I studied Western paintings very seriously. I constantly changed my style: Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Abstraction. Of particular influence to me was the realism of Courbet, the melancholy mood of MunchCézanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and later on Surrealism. 

I was never really a realist as I was never completely loyal to the subject. I always added some of my feelings at the end. So finally I moved towards the realisation of my own style. Obviously as an artist you want to be special and want to find out your own things. I have always looked for my own way and never relied on observation to be the important part of my creation. Also, the majority of my works are from imagination rather than referring to a particular myth.

By 1985, young people from different parts of China were getting together to express themselves in various ways. Chinese society was changing and when there was an opportunity, young people would think of ways to release their mind. It can be said that the mid 1980s were the era of a new Chinese enlightenment. The changes were rapid. 

However, everything stopped in June 1989. After June 1989 was a time of regression, a return to zero: no exhibitions, no publications, no presentations, and no one cared. No modern exhibitions were allowed at all. We went to look at art works at each other's home from time to time. In Shanghai, a city of tens of millions of people, there were only a few artists still sticking with modern art, probably less than 10 people.It was very quiet. Quiet enough to suffocate. All the grandeur from the 1980s was gone. It was also at that time that we started to reconsider. If in the absence of any exhibitions, publications, presentations and audiences, we were still doing our own art, then what was it for? Perhaps there was a higher purpose. Perhaps it was art for art's sake.  

Looking back on what we did in the 1980s, we spent several years learning the history of Western art of more than 100 years. Afterwards, in the 1990s, I asked myself who are we? and Why? Under the guidance of such thinking, I began to truly look for myself. 

In 1993 I participated in the Venice Biennale, and there have been changes in the Chinese art environment since then. The Western critics, galleries and exhibitions began to pay attention to modern Chinese artists. China's young artists have also appeared in public in various ways. The art environment has become lively. Artists now have all kinds of opportunities. 

I no longer use the heavy brushstrokes of expressionism. In my recent paintings the dispersed nature of the images, within a picture, are influenced by the dispersed perspective in Chinese art. I like to load the painting with the spirit of oriental art whilst retaining my previous style of adapting Western art. I also include the spirit of myth and feel free to express my innermost feelings and imagination. The more uncontrollable the emotions, the more unknown the future, the more I will paint it beautifully."