China’s New Generation of Artists: Younger group focuses less on politics, more on basics like painting technique
By: Gu Wei Source: The Wall Street Journal 12/3/2015
Young Chinese artists are the hottest commodity in the art world right now. Prices hit records for works by artistssuch as Jia Aili and Hao Liang, both of whom sold paintings for more than $1 million each last year, even though they are flat or falling for many of the country’s best known contemporary artists.
Works by both groups will be among the thousands on display in Hong Kong this week as Art Basel , Asia’s biggest contemporary art show, and several other exhibits draw collectors from around the world . On Wednesday night, an overflow crowd packed the opening of a show called “Inside China,” which aims to promote little-known Chinese artists internationally.
As prices for big-name Chinese artists have come to rival those for Western masters, collectors have begun to focus on younger artists with the hope of grabbing the next Zeng Fanzhi, whose “The Last Supper” was auctioned in 2013 for $23 million.
Jia Aili, 36 years old, is one of the young Chinese artists to watch. Mr Jia’s “Serbonian Bog,” which depicts a nude figure clutching a television wandering alone through a marshland, sold for $640,330 in Sotheby’s London evening auction in February, above the estimated range of $373,041 to $522,257. Four months earlier, his painting “Wasteland Series No.1” hit a personal record of $1.5 million, three times as much as the original estimate.
Meanwhile, prices for established Chinese artists, such as Yue Minjun and Zhou Chunya, are falling. Paintings by Mr. Yue, 53, who set a record for Chinese contemporary art in 2007, are now rarely seen in auctions after his symbolic grin became ubiquitous. At Christie’s Hong Kong auction in November, three works by Zhang Xiaogang, known for his bloodline series, sold below estimates. Similarly, bids for paintings by Mr. Zeng, known for his mask series, were at or below the low end of estimates.
“Most of the market got a little tired of the same characters from China,” said Alex Errera, founder of the New Circle, a network of young collectors. “People feel the younger Chinese artists are more global and conceptual.”
China’s young generation is less bogged down by political or historical events in China, such as Chairman Mao’s gray-suit era. Many young artists focus on social change and the things lost to urbanization, themes that resonate with people inside and outside the country.
Compared with their global peers, top new Chinese artists are more willing to use realistic portrayals of people, animals and landscapes, drawing on the strong painting techniques they have learned at China’s art academies. Increasingly, they are experimenting with a variety of multimedia forms, too.
The new artists‘ popularity has soared in tandem with the rise of Chinese collectors of the same generation . “The common problem of the older generation is there is so much pain in their works, which is out of sync with the society now,” said Zhou Chong, 26, a second-generation collector in Shanghai. “The young artists‘ works are more about individualism, and their works are back to the basics of art instead of politics.”
Young Chinese artists have never received so much attention globally. In the past, Western museums would stick to group shows of Chinese artists; now they are hosting solo shows for them. Many Chinese artists also recently have won awards internationally.
All this attention can be a double-edged sword for the artists. Xu Zhen, 38, who pioneered the contemporary art scene in Shanghai, said that when he was younger, there wasn’t much money chasing art.
“I had a lot of time during the age of 25 to 30 to think about what I wanted to do,” said Mr. Xu, at his first solo exhibition in Hong Kong this week. “Now there’s a lot of pressure and temptations for young Chinese artists, so they have to think more about how to react to them.”
The obsession with the young artists may lead to a bubble if not controlled. Gallery owner Pearl Lam said she is concerned people in China only want to talk about artists born after 1985. Still, even she couldn’t resist holding a show featuring a young artist: Her second gallery in Hong Kong this week opened a solo exhibition by Ren Ri, 31, who uses bees in the construction of encapsulated sculptures.
The artist raised thousands of Italian bees on China’s Hainan Island, and put the honeycombs into three dozen glass cubes to illustrate the relationship between humans and life, using 200,000 yuan ($31,939) that he borrowed from his father, an established artist in China.
“He’s going to lose money on this one,” said Ms. Lam. Mr. Ren’s works are going for between $5,000 and $15,000 each. He said he doesn’t know how much these works will sell for, and that his main goal is to generate interest for other bee-related works to come.
Corrections & Amplifications: Zeng Fanzhi’s “The Last Supper” was auctioned in 2013 for $23 million An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the work at “The Last Summer. (March 12, 2015)