Chaotic Modernity: Logical Origins of Jiang Hai's Painting
Source:Artintern.net Author:Wang Xiaosong Date: 2011-04-22 Size:
When explaining about the title of his recent series Head-Brain, Jiang Hai said, “Head means the appearance, while brain refers to the internal structure. That the heads are formed as animals is because the thinking of the brains is chaotic, lacking rational thought and reason.”[1] Taking his statement into consideration while looking at his recent paintings with consistent artistic language, one could find that Jiang’s painting is neither narrative in the Classical way or in pursuit of simple sensual stimulation. His creativity lies in his painting method as well as its visibility and maximization. His visual analysis of the chaotic reality reveals his preference of textual analysis over aesthetic expression.

When explaining about the title of his recent series Head-Brain, Jiang Hai said, “Head means the appearance, while brain refers to the internal structure. That the heads are formed as animals is because the thinking of the brains is chaotic, lacking rational thought and reason.”[1] Taking his statement into consideration while looking at his recent paintings with consistent artistic language, one could find that Jiang’s painting is neither narrative in the Classical way or in pursuit of simple sensual stimulation. His creativity lies in his painting method as well as its visibility and maximization. His visual analysis of the chaotic reality reveals his preference of textual analysis over aesthetic expression. The contrast between messy surfaces and solid structures in his paintings expresses the allegorical and symbolic qualities of modernity.

As a fundamental form of modernity, disorderliness is derived from the chaotic desires that fill the tremendous gap in human spirit caused by the death of God. This condition of disorderliness is further explored by Jiang Hai in his painting, which is covered in layers of color and brushstrokes. The narrative quality is for expressing the true sense of the chaotic existence in the modern time. Such truthfulness could not be expressed in tangible realistic painting techniques as it is hidden deep in the mind of modern people in their daily lives. Jiang Hai’s work is based on his wide range of study of masterpieces in art history, especially those in European religious painting. His narrative method is much inspired by his understanding of the representation of man and nature in European painting, which he appropriated in his expression of human beings’ humble and realistic existence in a world of fast urbanization. Jiang’s art world is one composed of overlapping times. His deformation of objects is a process of reinterpretation, which is seen in his Clam, Shellfish, Banquet and Warm Spring. The artist takes an approach that is familiar in modern literature. The audience could never expect any clear answers from the author, who chooses to offer obstacles in the audience’s reading experience. This is characteristic of art in its transition from modern to contemporary when artworks are not necessarily made for visual enjoyment. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez pointed out in his One Hundred Years of Solitude, the world is too new to be given a name. Technological modernization of daily life happens too fast that it changes all experiences that we were once familiar with. The world is real, but is also strange. In Conflicts, the artist’s re-configuration of airplanes, automobiles, motorcycles and weapons reveals his uneasiness toward industrial machinery that creates the modern urban landscape. It also expresses his hope for finding a solution in between classical and modern myths.

In Jiang Hai’s painting, disorderliness and chaos, which have similar connotation, refers both to his pictorial method and the modern life. In a bone-cleansing way, he leaves behind tempting images and directly digs into the veins and inner structure of his subject in search of a relatively clear expression. Ordinary and humble objects are depicted with sense of nobility. Modernist impulses, futurist motion in particular, are visualized in a way reminiscent of Chan Buddhist way of understanding. Perhaps he means to use his painting brushes to peel off the skin of the city with all its bugs in order to see it true colors, and to find out what puts today’s world in order and restlessness. Who tends to ignore that hides the colors of their internal lives? In modern urban culture, materialistic accumulation creates a boring tourist map, which is constituted by visible and invisible lives. This is very much like the different discourses about the Shanghai style and the Beijing style. In many ways, Jiang Hai differs himself from other contemporary artists. His painting seems to be about biological beings, such as animals and insects. These biological beings are not included as enjoyable species, or as elements of a narrative structure like in Marquez’s novel. Rather, they are depicted as symbols of the primitive desires of men living in today’s urbanized environment. On a certain level, man is not much different from animal. The immoral side of man is never weakened by modernization but rather activated in certain occasions. Man and animal sometimes stand at the same point. As Jiang Hai states, “The collective consciousness and unconsciousness of today is all about materialist interests. Therefore, the primitive behaviors of man today place them in a position to that of animals.”[2] As Roger Garaudy pointed out, the objectivity of a relentlessly inhumane world can not and will not bring any solution to our problems. But it makes us raise questions.[3] Is modernity simply a technological evolution? Or is it the result of human being’s materialist demands?

In the works of Richard Hamilton, modernity is expressed as the sense of the unrealistic after the sudden coming of happiness.[4] But more artists could not find their homes, icons or even enemies, the condition of which is very much like what Jiang Hai describes in his work where there is no escape or dependence. Such confusion is not just felt by artists. While industrial and digital technology brings convenience for life in urban areas, they also worsen the living conditions and human relationships. This results in depression, which takes over everybody like a plague. People pursue to meet their demands through abnormal means, which results in worse conditions in a way reminiscent of what is described in Lu Xun’s A Mad Man’s Diary. Too much attention has been paid to the specifics of life and the relationships between man and environment. All these seemingly unrelated elements and relationships are assembled in Jiang Hai’s painting like parts of a machine that keep the machine in operation. In such works as Form of Object – Entangled and Form of Object – Binding, what is revealed by the wildly applied brushwork and color is the chain relations enabled by industrial structures. This is very different from what Frederic Jameson describes of postmodern authors, who put numerous trivia of life into their cultural experiences and make fragments of life as materials of postmodern culture and inseparable part of postmodern experience.[5] Jiang Hai displayed in his painting a sensitive observation of the fragmented order by using unique visual language and formal vocabulary to create a pictorial world of both chaos and order.

Such fragmentation and messiness is even more appealing when western modernity is confronted by eastern reality. Fascinated by the form of collage in his early career, Jiang Hai has no obvious interest in the practice of the sinicization of oil painting. He looks more into the direction of finding a path to the modern time by moving in between form and sentiment both national and western. If the pre-modern alienation dissolves any sense of conflict in China due to a loose social system in which only Marxist books were commonly read, the negative consequences caused by modern urbanization force us to face a reality that we never before experienced. The search for modernity is not just a theoretical issue, but also one that is inseparable from daily life. Just as Li Zhi said, dressing and eating is the fundamental part of ethics. As we move deeper into the illusory time of material abundance, we find it even more difficult to solve problems of the new era with old methods of revolution or enlightenment. These issues that appear to be unrelated to painting have meanings as significant as the thoughts of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Jiang Hai has a vision that goes beyond painting. He turns his observation and analysis of emotion, depression, hope and worries into his depiction and assemblage of a variety of subject matters. In his paintings completed after the year 2000, Jiang Hai tends to be simple in his selection of color and subject, which reflects his unique understanding of the consumerist reality in the post-industrial era. The theme of alienation occupies most of his paintings, which are depictions of suppressed life with frozen time. His distortion of objects, which is hard to be categorized, and his subjective and rational observation of modern urban life is vividly visualized in his creation of images of spiders, human bodies and gluttons. In Engine of Objects, Jiang Hai replaced thick colors with loosely applied brushstrokes, which gives more space to his subjects. His nonviolent attitude toward painting and society is his way to seek the judgment of social consciousness. In On the Edge of Vision, there is a stronger sense of spontaneity, in which his concern and love for life is implied in his observation of subjects.

Tianjin, the city where Jiang Hai live and works, is one of the modern cities in China that has a multi-cultural background. This enables the artist to adopt a way of observing the world that is different from any one that either west-oriented or east-oriented. It also gives him the privilege of noticing the complexity and contradictoriness of the modern life in China. Jiang belongs to the artist generation of the 1980s, who has enthusiastic love for philosophical thinking. There is an idealism in his work, which is distinctive from the works of the 1990s generation artists who displayed their love of life. But unlike his generation of artists who is nostalgic and critical of reality, Jiang Hai tends to free himself from time. He simplified his artistic forms for rendering chaotic images and emphasizes on meaningful expressions of significant subjects. “Things are always multi-faceted. The richness of things could be revealed only from changed perspectives.”[6] As far as I understand it, this is the very logical starting point of Jiang Hai’s painting.

[1] Cited from Jiang Hai’s letter to Feng Boyi, dated June 22, 2010.

[2] Cited from Jiang Hai’s letter to Feng Boyi, June 22, 2010.

[3] Rober Garaudy, D’un Realisme sans Rivages: Picasso, Saint-John Perse, Kafka, Chinese version translated by Wu Tianyue, Tianjin: Baihua Publishing House, 2008, p. 165.

[4] This is seen in Richard Hamilton’s 1956 Pop Art work Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different? So Appealing?

[5] Frederic Jameson, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Chinese translation, Beijing: Sanlian Publishing House, p. 425.

[6] Wu Xiaodong, From Kafka to Kundera, Beijing: Sanlian Publishing House, 2009, p. 339.

[Editor] Elemy Liu

    Artintern