Whitehot Magazine

Shifting Fields: Contemporary Chinese Painting at the Stanford Art Gallery, Palo Alto

Exhibition view.

By JOHN SEED March 8, 2024

“Shifting Fields: Contemporary Chinese Painting” is a richly layered and eclectic show that reflects the desire of its curator, Stanford Art Professor Xiaoze Xie, to examine recent developments in Chinese painting. As the works of the ten rising artists—all under 50 years old— amply demonstrate, contemporary Chinese painting has been energized by individual viewpoints that reflect diverse experiences and backgrounds. Three of the artists included are from Taiwan and five have studied art outside of China: in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, New York and London. Cultural interchange and stylistic hybridity are the order of the day. As a result, “Shifting Fields” raises challenging questions including this one asked by Xie in his introductory essay for the show’s catalog: 

“In an increasingly internationalized art world, is it still possible, or even necessary to define Chinese-ness?” 

The exhibition also argues for the continued dynamism and relevance of painting as a medium. Xie, a Chinese-born painter who has lived in the United States since 1992, is especially interested in countering the notion that the tradition of easel painting (called jià shàng huì huà in China) is somehow inherently outdated or conservative. This bias has apparently persisted in China for several decades where the field of contemporary art, influenced by the West, has leaned towards other media. “Since the 1990s,” Xie explains, “there has been some pressure for artists to take on new media such as video and installation.” Arguing that the idea of painting being conservative is simply “not true” he used the experience of curating “Shifting Fields” as a form of self-education that primarily respects individuality: “For me as an artist the most important thing is to encounter individuals and try and understand their work.’

Wu Jian’an, Scorching Sun No. 2, 2019, ink, watercolor, paper cut and collage on Xuan paper, 63 x 78 3/4 in (160 x 200 cm)

Given the dominance of stylistic and thematic idiosyncrasy, looking for overlaps is challenging but potentially rewarding. Many of the works channel currents of anxiety and uncertainty. Others are subversive, but without making overt or easily discernible political statements. Some work is sardonic. It is if  these artists are more self-conscious and rigorous in terms of airing out their individual concerns, but also quietly daring themselves to say more. Examining the works of four of the artists represented should offer some idea of the range that is present. 

Wu Jian’an, a native of Beijing, comes from a background of working in cut paper. His spectacular “Scorching Sun II,” reads as a dazzling abstract when seen at a distance. When inspected close up it reveals itself to be composed of innumerable small touches of day-glow color and cut out brushstrokes. The methodical character of this collage—which feels somewhat like a rebuke to the idea of “action painting”—tempers its initial expression of exuberance with a paradoxical rigor. There is a sense of qi (life energy), which was once so important to China’s literati painters when they depicted nature, being revived in a contemporary vernacular.  

Huang Hi-Sin, a native of Taiwan who earned her MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2009, paints stylized figure groups that fuse social observation infused with wit. Her oil on linen “Human Rainbow” presents an impossible arch that seems to reference both conformity and diversity in the same absurd formation. Although the impossible anatomy of the figures is confounding there is an humanity in the situation that invites viewers to see themselves as part of it. And to do so is is an exercise in humor that may uncover political and social insinuations embedded in the work.  

Fong Argus Tsz-Leong, Deep Rest, 2023, oil and pastel on linen, 39.4 x 63 in (100 x 160 cm)

Inspired by his walks through the streets of Hong Kong, the recent paintings of Fong Argus Tsz-Leong generate an ambiguous poetry that feels connected to Surrealism. “Deep Rest,” executed with oil and pastel on linen, is a haunting image of constraint tempered by the silhouettes of birds in flight. It is a funereal image, but also a romantic one. What it may say about the artist’s life in Hong Kong—in more specific terms—is carefully guarded. 

Several of the artists in “Shifting Fields” have training and background in traditional realism, a style that is tainted by its association with propaganda. Perhaps for that reason, when “realism” appears in the works on display it has been quoted, fragmented or re-contextualized. In the work of Yan Heng, who trained at the Lu Sun Academy of Fine Arts, photos and images of iconic modern paintings are presented in restrained colors with a certain detachment. Heng’s work runs hot and cold, as he demonstrates both his attraction to chosen images and his ability to subvert their meanings for his own purposes. It is a point of view connected to our digital age, which provides a constant flow of images as raw material.  

As Xiaoze Xie points out in the catalog, this group of artists may be relatively unknown in the United States, but their work somehow feels familiar. “Shifting Fields” offers the opportunity to discern the growing affinities and anxieties shared by contemporary painters across the globe in an increasingly interconnected world. 


鄭農軒 CHENG Nung-Hsuan 

鄭帛囪 CHENG Po-Tsung
蔡鈺娟 CHOI Bouie Yuk-kuen 

鄧大非 DENG Dafei
方梓亮 FONG Argus Tsz-leong 

郝量 HAO Liang
黃海欣 HUANG Hai-Hsin
鄔建安 WU Jian’an
閆珩 YAN Heng 

張珂 ZHANG Ke 


Shifting Fields: Contemporary Chinese Painting

Curated by Xiaoze Xie

Open January 30th through March 15th, 2024

Stanford Art Gallery, 419 Lasuen Mall

https://art.stanford.edu/exhibitions/exhibition-spaces/stanford-art-gallery WM

John Seed

John Seed is a professor emeritus of art and art history at Mt. San Jacinto College. His writings on art and artists have appeared in Arts of Asia, the HuffingtonPost and Hyperallergic. Seed is the author of Disrupted Realism: Paintings for a Distracted World and More Disruption: Representational Art in Flux.

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