Tang Contemporary Art Beijing is delighted to present “The History of Eternity: Forty Years of Mao Xuhui 1980-2021” on July 10, 2021, the largest-scale solo exhibition for the artist to date, across both of its Beijing spaces. This exhibition has been several years in the making, and it is his most comprehensive solo show since “Mao Xuhui: Will” was presented at Tang Contemporary Art Hong Kong in early 2020.
This retrospective was curated by Dai Zhuoqun, who chose more than 200 works in a range of media, including oil on canvas, paper, and wood, ink on paper, drawing, and mixed media on canvas from every period in Mao’s artistic career. Based on Mao’s content or style in different eras, the show is arranged into four sections: “Life / Representation,” “Power / Parents,” “Will / Scissors,” and “Mount Gui / Sketching.” The exhibition attempts to showcase Mao Xuhui’s tireless creativity over the last forty years from as many perspectives as possible.
Mao Xuhui: Life Painting, Will, and Eternity
Mao Xuhui has left a distinct personal imprint on the art world at two key moments in early Chinese avant-garde art. The first moment was from 1985 to 1989; he founded the Southwestern Art Research Group focused on new figurative painting in Kunming. He also organized several editions of the “New Figurative Painting Exhibition,” which became an important part of the ’85 New Wave, an avant-garde contemporary art movement in China. In 1986, Mao represented the “New Figurative Painting Exhibition” at the Zhuhai Conference, and in 1988, he attended the Huangshan Conference and submitted an article entitled “Artistic Issues are Human Issues.” The artistic ambitions of this period were constantly changing, and Mao had to find something meaningful in the chaos; in his paintings, he tended to depict his personal awakening and the intense vitality of southwestern China. In 1989, Mao Xuhui participated in “China/Avant-Garde” as a representative of “life painting.” His work was subsequently shown in a series of new art exhibitions held around the world related to China’s New Wave and avant-garde movements.
“China/Avant-Garde” had a significant impact on Mao Xuhui. Confronted with a dazzling array of ideas and mediums, Mao realized, “If you want to enter the battlefield of the avant-garde with painting as your weapon, your ability will not equal your ambition. In the ’85 era, we were avant-garde, but we’re not anymore. We have only retained part of it. We’re like historical figures, and new people, the rabble-rousers, are still emerging.”
Mao Xuhui’s second important moment came in the early 1990s. With exhibitions, criticism, and the opening of a window to the outside world, the Political Pop and Cynical Realist styles named by critic Li Xianting became the trend—many southwestern artists numbered among their ranks. Even when confronted with these new influences, Mao retained a sense of self and focused on the spirit and form of his work. He cautiously rejected graphic methods, such as the incorporation of photographs, which were so popular at the time. He felt that this was a major step backward in artistic style, and he explicitly defended the value of painterliness. In his own artistic style, he continued to explore the expressive space between the representational and non-representational. Paul Cézanne’s study of painted order, and the intense, shocking figures and authenticity of German Expressionism, as well as the latter’s reflective attitude towards subject matter and history, were very different from the simplified deconstruction of Cynical Realism; Mao had much more complex and contradictory spiritual struggles. During this time, Mao started to paint The Vocabulary of Power and Daily Epic, and the parents, chairs, scissors, and other themes that would later become so familiar appeared in their full form. These symbols and images developed with him, becoming persistent motifs in his pursuit of an eternal kind of art.
When I attempted to make some clearer observations about Mao’s focused yet heterogenous career filled with interlocking subjects and styles for “The History of Eternity: Forty Years of Mao Xuhui (1980-2021),” I started to think about content and styles from his different periods. I eventually wove all of these into four independent sections: “Life | Figurative,” “Power | Parents,” “Will | Scissors,” and “Mount Gui | Sketching.” “Life | Figurative” primarily presents his early avant-garde period, centered on his practices within new figurative painting and life painting. These were Mao’s starting points, and they have permeated his entire body of work. “Power | Parents” and “Will | Scissors” appeared at the same time and developed in parallel. “Guishan | Sketching” connects the beginning and end of the artist’s forty-year creative career. With these works, he returns to nature and the land, where he is able to find the quiet strength of inner balance after experiencing profound spiritual isolation and artistic struggle.
In June 1956, Mao Xuhui was born on the banks of the Jialing River in Chongqing. In September, his parents moved him to Kunming, Yunnan. They settled and raised him there, and with the exception of spending several months in Beijing in 1994 at the encouragement of his friends Zhang Xiaogang and Li Xianting, as well as a few brief trips, he never really left Kunming again.
Mao Xuhui graduated from middle school in March 1971, just as the Cultural Revolution was beginning. He was assigned to work as a mover in the Kunming Department Store warehouse. Because he loved painting, he began to study drawing and gouache painting with several of Kunming’s older “amateur” painters; it was with these artists that he first encountered oil painting. Very quickly, with talent and hard work, his landscape oil paintings came to be known among Kunming’s plein-air amateur painters.
In 1977, Mao Xuhui enrolled in the oil painting major at Kunming Normal College (now the Yunnan Arts University), beginning his formal, specialized education in art. He first went to Mount Gui to sketch with Zhang Xiaogang and other artists in 1979. This sketching trip foreshadowed his return to Mount Gui in the 1980s and 2000s. Mao’s thinking around Mount Gui and his sketching changed markedly with the times and related artistic ideas. Mao always saw Mount Gui as fertile ground for nourishing new art, an all-new starting point for everything from the post-Cultural Revolution Native Soil movement to the avant-garde art movements of the 1980s, and for his conscious return from body to spirit and his repeated engagement with artworks and sketches of Mount Gui in the 2000s. He questioned himself in his notes: “Why can’t we go back? Is going forward really the right thing to do?” Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but time never ceases to flow.
A young Mao Xuhui was also cynical and tired; spiritual cynicism and real exhaustion coexisted in him. The beginning of the 1980s was a time of inspiration and confusion. After Mao graduated from college in 1982, he was once again assigned to the Kunming Department Store. In 1984, he was transferred to the Kunming Film Studio to work as an artist primarily tasked with painting movie posters. An important moment for Mao, who had just finished school, was a trip with friends to Beijing to see “The Armand Hammer Collection: Five Centuries of Masterpieces.” He also happened to see the German Expressionism exhibition at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities, which opened an all-new world for him. “I truly needed works in this style; I’m this kind of person!” He later recalled, “When I saw the German Expressionist works, I discovered that this was a method I could use to create. The spirit of these works reflected life experience. Their forms were like ones I had previously pursued. Here, I found a solution to a creative problem that had always troubled me.” Intense, vital energy found an outlet, which Mao used to create his Volume, Love, and Mount Gui series; he also boldly experimented with works that incorporated movie poster images and collage. In 2019, he said, “My work from the 1980s, particularly the red nudes, the red volumes, and the nudes in the concrete rooms of Private Space, were my rock n’ roll. They were testaments to my youth.”
The years from 1985 to 1989 were the most passionate of early Chinese avant-garde art, but they were also the years when the high ideals of a generation of young people vanished into thin air. During this time, Mao Xuhui painted Private Space and Parents series; from his own physical and mental struggles to macro-analyses of larger social and cultural themes, Mao has always had a pure temperament that is eternally sincere but also somewhat tragic.
In the post-1989 world, the Soviet Union no longer existed, Eastern Europe was changing, and the Cold War had ended. After avant-garde art, the ’85 New Wave, and “China/Avant-Garde,” global ideological struggles and conflicts in the 1990s caused upheaval and uncertainty. The 1980s atmosphere of intellectual debate vanished, and when this latent unease became a real predicament for artists in the early 1990s, avant-garde art hit a low point. In 1993, Mao Xuhui applied for temporary leave without pay from the Kunming Film Studio to become an independent professional painter. He started to paint The Vocabulary of Power and Daily Epic. Of that time, Mao said, “I have never exalted power.” However, through painting, he expressed anxiety, fear, anger, and despair at power. Humans are the products of power, and to a certain extent, culture is a product of power. In his paintings, the vocabulary of power is concretely realized in the forms of parents, chairs, keys, red doors, ancient bells, and scissors. He distorts Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X into a semi-abstract figure with penetrating visual effect. This universal reference developed into Parents Sitting in Chairs, a work with a symbol of power central to the composition.
In 1994, Mao Xuhui spent a brief period in Beijing, where he personally witnessed the rise of the most popular style of the day: Cynical Realism. However, he had always been wary of the approach. He realized, “The malleability of taste and the perishability of methods can cause artists to lose sight of any fixed standards; only artists with conscientiously formulated standards are the exception.” After he returned to Kunming, he started his Scissors and Chairs series, which stood in contrast to the flat paint application and invisible brushwork of the Political Pop artists. He decided to retreat to painting itself, to study the subtle differences in painted texture, thickness, and form. From there, he could make the works more graphic or symbolic. His famed images of scissors have a particularly strong painterly quality. Mao constantly corrects his images, and his development of various forms and images reflects the complex circumstances of his work.
In the late 1990s, Mao Xuhui moved toward his own everyday world. He was deeply inspired by Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture. He turned his gaze on everyday life, generating interest in ordinary objects. “Chairs, keys, scissors, medicines, cigarettes, teacups, and liquor bottles… These things were closely related to our existences, related to our lives like politics and economics.” In Daily Epic, he attempted to unearth an eternal quality and a grand artistic will from everyday objects in real life, which can be both fleeting and eternal. He gave an example: “When you see [the art of] Egypt, you understand time, manner, and eternity; you also know that their civilization rose and fell. The gods can favor a place and they can forsake a place… The gods abandoned Egypt, Greece, India, and Babylon, leaving empty, ruined temples and relics buried in the desert. Walking out of the graveyard of history, we have learned about greatness and glory, but we have also learned about illusions, pettiness, and fragility. I express similar things in my paintings.”
In Mao Xuhui’s later painted images, pure, grand, isolated figures were spiritual portraits of the artist. During the dull and melancholy late 1990s, Mao was inspired and comforted by Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian, and Giorgio Morandi. Rothko painted a religious, mystical atmosphere, Mondrian used the simplest of elements, such as straight lines and pure colors, to build painted form and spiritual dimension, and Morandi made simple, monastic, and “meaningless” paintings. All of them encouraged Mao to paint “metaphysical” scissors; by abstracting forms, colors, lines, and planes, he exhausted and immortalized pairs of scissors. Even in his most depressed and isolated moments, Mao confidently said, “There are certainly new things in me. Every life stage is different, and my feelings at every stage have been different; when I was faithful to these feelings, I found a reason to paint. Life is really the reason for our resources and creations. As long as we can still act, as long as we can still feel, creation will never stop!” Eternity is not the past or the future; eternity is the present moment pulsing with life.
Mount Gui is an ordinary mountain on the Yunnan plateau, located more than one hundred kilometers from the provincial capital of Kunming. Nuohei is a natural village comprised of stone buildings at the foot of Mount Gui. The village is home to the Sani people, a branch of the Yi ethnic minority. The Sani people of Mount Gui are poor and isolated, but they are also peaceful and self-sufficient. They plant potatoes, corn, wheat, and tobacco, and they have built a village of piled stones to house people and livestock.
In September 2006, Mao returned to Yunnan University to teach. When he brought students to the countryside, he returned to Mount Gui. Since that time, he has visited regularly. For the next decade, Mount Gui has been for Mao Xuhui what Barbizon was for Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and what Mont Sainte-Victoire was for Paul Cézanne. Sketching on Mount Gui became part of his unique approach to teaching.
Rooted in a piece of land and a mountain, Mao Xuhui wants to open the door to a new mode of painting, together with the new generation. While on Mount Gui, Mao and his students live in Sani stone houses, observing and experiencing the villagers’ lives. The villagers of Nuohei have spent their whole lives working this land; they eat the food that they have grown and sleep in the stone houses that they have built, burn firewood and cow dung, and listen to the sounds of the chickens and dogs. Here, there is no forward or back; time is frozen.
Time on Mount Gui is frozen time, repetitive time, reflective time, and as a result, it has become eternal time. Here, the painters, like the villagers, set out early and return late; they paint dawn and dusk, the cornfields at high noon, cattle and sheep returning from the pastures, and dreamscapes of the land and village houses… Mao Xuhui said, “I want an artist to be a director in the face of nature, particularly the director of the subject he expresses.” Because Mount Gui has been frozen in paintings, it has gradually come to represent a spirit, a personification of nature, a diligent approach to the language of painting. Perhaps art can only be so calm in a place where nothing changes.
Mao Xuhui was born in Chongqing in 1956. He has been living in Kunming with parents since 1956, and graduated from the Yunnan Art Academy in 1982. Mao Xuhui is an iconic artist in Chinese contemporary art history. He is one of the figures in China Art Power 100 and the leader of the avant-garde community in southwest China in the 1980s. Between 1985 and 1989, he brought together a host of young artists mostly from Yunnan and Sichuan under the banner of “New Figurative” to form the Southwest Art Research Group, whose members represented and celebrated in their paintings such intense life awareness typical of the southwestern regions of China that the group came to represent a significant part of the ’85 New Wave, a vanguard movement of contemporary Chinese art. These achievements have earned him a crucial position in Chinese contemporary art history.
Mao Xuhui has widely exhibited in Euro-pan-Asian cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, San Francisco, Barcelona, Bologne, Paris, and London. His artworks are included in many influential exhibitions, for example, the milestone exhibition in Chinese contemporary art history, Inside Out: New Chinese Art (1998) co-organized by Asia Society New York, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco and Hong Kong Museum of Art. His works have been collected by prominent domestic and international galleries and museums, publicized worldwide by news media, and published in art history books and academic journals.
Dai Zhuoqun, independent curator, art critic, lives and works in Beijing. He was the founder of Contemporary Art Magazine in 2007, served as editor and art director. In 2009, Dai launched and jointly organized the “Warm Winter Plan”–Beijing safeguard art rights, which became one of the most significant art events in recent years. He cooperates with a number of art institutions, colleges and Museums of fine arts, planning exhibitions and giving lectures. Meanwhile, he frequently writes for domestic and international professional journals and publications. The exhibitions he curated includes: “The Awakening of Things”, “Superfluous Things” series projects, “Civilization” series projects, “Brushwork and True Feeling”, ”Approach Spirits”, ”Free Prism Video Wave”,“ The Circular impact: Video Art 21”.
Tang Contemporary Art Beijing 1st & 2nd space
798 Art District, No.2 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang Dst,Beijing, China