Ma Ke — Many Voices Speaking in Unison

Evidence – a Solo Show by Ma Ke (organized by Platform China)

Duddell’s (4/F, The Library, Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central, Hong Kong) Sept 7–Nov 9, 2013

For his first exhibition in Hong Kong and only his second major outing in the contemporary art world (he spent longer than most studying and teaching in the institutions of officialdom) Ma Ke has hung the straightforward Platform China space with three large and two small paintings, all depicting full-body human figures on abstract fields. There is a good deal of meat here for aficionados of painting as a globalizing practice, as the artist unabashedly quotes from moments in its recent histories: Bacon’s agonized faces are a recurring trope (one of which, “Evidence,” seems capped with a Fang Lijun scream), Kiefer’s painful solitude is applied as a rule of portraiture, Rauch’s classical figurative poses make an appearance, Kippenberger’s brash punk ethos dominates several compositions, and Polke’s textural brushwork fields are reworked, most impressively in the diminutive “Heavy Curtain.” Ma Ke speaks of his work in terms of the expression of a specifically Chinese content, often apparently political and historical, that he shapes into a narrative framework that was influenced, at a distance, by figures like these. While this makes the question of voice difficult to parse, it makes these pictures an absolute joy to explore.

Ma Ke’s specific references make clear the special role that German Neo-Expressionism has played in the internalization of psychological angst in Chinese painting since the mid-1980s. With the darker turn that the Southwestern school ultimately took, including Zhang Xiaogang’s highly prized early work, this specific genealogy constitutes something of a shadow system in parallel with the history of realism since the late-1970s. As the art academies reopened, socialist realism remained the dominant educational mode but yet faculty and students could gain exposure to visual materials from abroad, During this time, the expressionist tradition came to constitute a pivotal body of technique, mastery of which indicated simultaneously both a firm foundation in realism and the knowledge which allowed artists to exceed it. This, perhaps, marks the birth of a contemporary moment, a true split from the modernist if radical experiments in painting occurring outside of the official institutions. For this reason, Ma Ke’s revival of this lineage from his particular position — alongside, of course, a younger and less institutionally affiliated generation of expressionist painters, many of them also represented by Platform China — signals a way of thinking that revels in the nuances of quotation. Unlike Zhang Daqian’s celebrated forgeries of his influences, however, no one will confuse a Ma Ke with a Baselitz or a Penck.

Among other reasons, this is because Ma Ke works in a vein that belongs especially if not exclusively to the domain of Chinese contemporary art since 1989: the repetition of one or a small group of figures and symbols in various compositions. Ma is more flexible than many, and this is ultimately his saving grace — he is, after all, interested in painting, not image production. Blustery red and yellow faces are the operative terms here, appearing in all but one of the paintings on display, and the megaphone is the only non-human object in both “Blind” and, more obviously, “Megaphone.” Rounded out by a paintbrush, a round object of unknown description, and what may be a skull, the cast of characters is notably thin, and the canvases are all the stronger for their daring simplicity. Portraiture is in vogue in the Chinese curatorial world right now (in beautiful symmetry, a prominent Beijing collection is currently hosting “Portrait of Space” while the Shanghai Power Station of Art is showing “Portrait of the Times,” though it was the Minsheng Museum that launched the trend last year), and expressionism is certainly an appropriate mode here. Ma Ke dexterously melds the expression of personality into gesture as much as into action, retaining a layer of legibility just behind the face value that dominates the work of many of his peers. Here, the subjectivity of the artist, as expressed literally through his hand, meets with the subjectivity of his object, as the facial expressions and bodily poses he paints are far from reticent; one suspects that one might function as some form of sublimation of the other.

Ma Ke’s first major exhibition with Platform China, curated by Karen Smith for their Beijing space in 2012, contained some two dozen pieces, and announced the artist’s arrival as a figure to take seriously as a player in new painting from northern China. This exhibition, unfortunately, does nothing of the kind. It is a solid suite of works, and exposes his practice — and the existence of a whole affiliated school — to Hong Kong audiences for the first time. But due to the paucity of visitor numbers in Hong Kong, both of the influential critics-and-curators variety and of the general public category, galleries still have no incentive to truly launch a new body of work in this context. Sadly, the repercussions of this exhibition, like so many others, will probably be minimal. As much as they might hope their efforts will reach a broader platform, the artists and dealers behind projects like these are essentially setting up a showroom intended to be seen by a few effective pairs of eyes and then taken down — a disappointing fate for quality work like this, but nevertheless an important frame for its analysis.

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