What “Atypical” Represents

“Magnanimity — a Collection of Atypical Works by 21 Chinese Artists” (group show)

White Box Museum (798 Art District, No.2 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing).  Sep 9 – Oct 7, 2012

For the vast majority of contemporary artists, finding one’s personal style and distinct aesthetic may be the only possible path towards success — even if style and distinctiveness are not sought by the artists themselves. Yet the exhibition “Magnanimity — a Collection of Atypical Works by 21 Chinese Artists” rejects this  conception by displaying the atypical works of some 21 artists. However, the title word “atypical” has yet another level of significance (whether the curator agrees or not): that some artists have already established a “typical” style or program. It is likely that exhibiting one’s atypical or unusual works manifests self-confidence on a different level — since one’s “typical” works have already secured their place in the hearts of the masses.

Artists participating in the exhibition have included various practices in contemporary art, but all have also undertaken a change in medium, which one can imagine as some sort of “cameo appearance.” Ma Liuming and He Yunchang did not present archival videos of their performance art — not the “Fen–Ma Liuming” (1993) or the “One Rib” (2008) that we all know — but instead produced a mixed-media painting (“Untitled,” 2012) and sculpture (“Hongtashan,” 2008) respectively. Although such forms are atypical for the artists personally, this shift is quite common for Chinese performance art in general. In fact, Ma Liuming has long since stopped engaging in performance art, with his recent creative efforts devoted to painting; thus, painting has instead typified his recent work. Indeed, the transformation from the relatively avant-garde and experimental form of performance art to the more conservative art form of painting is not necessarily the result of artists’ personal ideas; this transition better reflects the tastes of collectors and the structural changes in the ecology of art (such an argument that could be explored further elsewhere).

Furthermore, atypical works are perhaps better at revealing the inner truths of artists as well as their familiar objects (like, for instance, Lu Zhengyuan’s “Magnify” [2012], where the background is in fact the residential district of Fangzhouyuan near the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing). Or they could reveal the subconscious thought processes of the artist.

But the “atypical” here is not entirely so. For instance, Li Zhanyang’s “(Large) Rocking Chair” (2007) is quite different from his other works like “Bonsai Human” in terms of the concepts and the elements of the human body used: they remind one immediately of where they will be placed after they are collected. Zhao Nengzhi’s wooden sculpture “No. 6” (2012) also appears to be cut from the same cloth as his other paintings, all using the bloated head as a theme/motif. Although the medium has switched from painting to sculpture, neither the medium nor the production appeared to have posed any serious problems within contemporary art. Similarly, viewers familiar with Miao Xiaochun’s works will easily find that “Death Victorious Once More” (2009) can hardly be called one of his “atypical” works.

The intended audience of this exhibition is likely those immersed in the art world; only with the knowledge of the typical works of these artists can one detect the discrepancies the curator attempted to present with these atypical works. Thus, “aytpical” pinpoints certain phenomena and contradictions: on the one hand, well-established artists will perhaps discover new possibilities. Such “atypical” works in recent years will be a safe journey of discovery for them, whereas it would still seem early for emerging artists to participate in such an exhibition. In the selection of exhibited works, there aren’t many thematic connections, but the exhibit is about exhibiting an unfamiliar side of those with whom we are so familiar. Hence, the exhibition should be conceived as an exhibition of the artists, and not of their works.

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