Exhibition Review: Feng Zhengjie

This was written for a school assignment.

We visited this exhibition of Feng Zhengjie’s works last year. The question was asking about the intepretation of the artist’s works.

I agree with the interpretation that the artist’s works portray the “excesses of contemporary China, treading uncomfortably between Communism and capitalism”. I feel that several of his paintings depict an uneasy juxtaposition of traditional Chinese (“Communism” in the above interpretation) and new Western ideals (“capitalism”), and place great emphasis on the commercialization and consumer culture of China.

For example, the painting Happiness No. 02, 1998, shows a newly wed couple dressed in Western-style clothes, set against a backdrop of billboards and candy-colored balls. The background of the painting is reminiscent of today’s commercial culture, with neon billboards and icons of the West (the Statue of Liberty, the Sphinx etc) in it. However, the painting is framed by a very traditional Chinese setting for a wedding, accompanied by Chinese scrolls complete with elaborate Chinese “embroidery” and carvings on either side. The painting uses almost garishly bright, bold and unnatural colors, and this coupled with the expressions on the main subjects’ faces create a sense of unease. They are plump (once again, “excesses of contemporary China”) and seem to be looking directly at the viewer, but with greatly exaggerated smiles which seem insincere. The artist may be trying to show how despite the superficial attempts to be Western, with an expensive “Western-style” wedding ceremony and a Western backdrop, the people of modern China are still very much rooted in their Chinese culture at heart.

I also agree that the series of large-scale glamour portraits create a sense of unease and raise questions about the definition of beauty and its relationship to surface and vanity. The paintings are painted with almost airbrush-like precision and no brushstrokes are visible, creating the appearance of a photograph. However, the exclusive use of shades and tints of red and green (and white for highlights) create an effect of the paintings being internally conflicting due to the highly complementary and clashing color scheme. The models in the portraits all have diverging eyes with small pupils, which lend a sense of emptiness and a disturbing feel to an otherwise typical glamour portrait, and some might say detract from the beauty of the women. The lips of the women are painted in a bright crimson and show little or no modeling of form, as contrasted with the rest of the paintings which are rendered with airbrush-like precision. This may be to show how beauty is ‘flat’ and two-dimensional, presenting only one side of a person.

This leads us to ponder, what exactly defines beauty? Do small, superficial features like diverging eyes cause a woman lose her beauty? Can one be beautiful without having runway looks?

The fact that the models all look like typical magazine models, and the common features of diverging eyes and similar color scheme that runs throughout the series makes the paintings have a sense of uniformity. Thus, I also agree that the “portraits suggest the contradictions of an emotionally complex, individual existence” as the portraits – although individually unique – look identical at the same time.

There is exaggeration present in almost every work at the exhibition – mostly in terms of color (the artist often chooses colors that are not naturalistic, for example in the “Romantic Trip” series, where the skin color of the subjects are unnatural). The artist probably intended to bring across his critique of contemporary Chinese society strongly in this way.

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