Reliving the Past of Others
Source:Artintern Author:Zhijian Qian Date: 2008-09-26 Size:
Works from Jing Kewen’s painting series Dream are based exclusively on old snapshot photographs taken by anonymous photographers that he bought at flea markets in Shanghai and Beijing.


Works from Jing Kewen’s painting series Dream are based exclusively on old snapshot photographs taken by anonymous photographers that he bought at flea markets in Shanghai and Beijing. Figures and scenes in every piece of the series, an ongoing project that the artist started in 2005 after he relocated to Beijing from Xi’an, are nearly facsimiles of what is presented in the photos. Technically speaking, one may think that Jing is following the steps of Pop Artists and Photorealists. However, unlike the Pop Artists who prefer rendering techniques that downplay the expressive hand of the artist, Jing Kewen has no intention of diminishing his outstanding craftsmanship that he learned and developed throughout his student and teaching life at Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts since the early 1980s. His paintings are almost always executed with rich and masterly color and brushwork. On the other hand, although he tries not to miss any detail when he transfers images from small black and white photos to large size of paintings in full color, he never uses any mechanical means for the transfer, nor does he try to make the finished work appear photographic, as is expected of a Photorealist.

The theme of the Dream series is China’s recent past of the socialist period from the 1950s to the 1970s. This period is related both directly and indirectly to the artist who was born in 1965, five years after the Great Leap Forward campaign came to an end and one year before the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was officially launched. History is fragmentary, so is reality. The history of China’s recent past that artist Jing Kewen reconstructs through his painting series Dream is as fragmentary as the reality of China’s present that he tries to capture in his paintings of a swiftly changing world. By directly adopting subjects from photos by unknown hands from the very period, Jing is basing his reconstruction of this recent past on fragmented memories recollected from a larger body of collective mass that are both witnesses and participants of this period of history. In so doing, Jing Kewen establishes a reconnection with this recent past that is presented to his viewers as true, trustworthy and legitimate.

The truthfulness that Jing Kewen intends to convey in his paintings relies on the seemingly objectiveness that Jing tries to hold on in his transfer of the original images. It is the key for viewers to re-experience and accept the world from the recent past that the artist reconstructs as the real and authentic through his pictorial discourse. Thus, the figure and the scene that Jing Kewen depicted in Dream 2008, No. 10 may be very unfamiliar and way beyond understanding and appreciation to a viewer of the younger generation Chinese who has been intoxicated with the glamour of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and who is looking forward to the 2010 Shanghai World Fair, but nevertheless, it is a faithful reproduction of the original photograph. A navy soldier in a plain uniform is joyfully posing near the center of the picture. In the background of the picture is the Garden Bridge, or better known as Waibaidu Bridge in Shanghai, which was built by the British at the turn of the twentieth century. Directly behind the soldier and across from the Suzhou Creek is the Broadway Mansions in the Art Deco style, built in 1935 by an American architect firm, while the lower building in the Flemish Revival style built in the late 19th century was the Russian Consulate in China. Such a scene is not unfamiliar to the artist and his generation. A PLA soldier merging into the environment of monumental architecture in a modern metropolis was an idealist icon that this generation dreamed of becoming in the late 1970s when the Cultural Revolution was coming to an end. The painting is but a reaffirmation of what was captured in the original photo.

However, Jing’s paintings are by no means products of simple copying from randomly picked pictures. Rather, they are the results of the artist’s selective choice of old photos that he carefully screened among thousands of photos from the same period. It explains why certain types of figures and scenes appear more often in his paintings. The Broadway Mansions, for example, is seen at least in four of his paintings in the short period of 2004 to 2008. This means that while he includes some pictures that he believes “would describe the best part of the Chinese”; he is also excluding many more that do not fit his very general and poorly defined standards of selecting. Therefore, the recent past that the artist tries to reconstruct in his paintings as true and trustworthy becomes one that is dominated by the selector’s point of view rather than by that of the original authors. Paintings in the Dream series are thus nothing but a regrouping of old images approved by the artist as the selector, who replaces the anonymous photographers as the authentic author of the now transferred and translated pictures. This recent past that the artist sees through the lenses of others is also the past that he chooses to relive. It is a past that unfolds, as we shall see, in adoration and fantasy through Jing Kewen’s artistic re-presentation.

The sense of adoration underlies many of Jing Kewen’s paintings of figures, especially those of People’s Liberation Army soldiers. The soldiers are often presented, or rather re-presented, in a solid and stabilized formal structure that gives them the visual effects of heroes. Dream 2006, No. 12, for example, is a bust portrait of a PLA soldier who is pleasantly posing in front of the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. The bridge is seen in the picture only in part, with one of its colossal towers seen rising above the bridge that runs through the picture surface in a sharply diagonal way from the lower left to the upper right. The upper part of the soldier’s body is presented in an upward perspective, as is the bridge tower, which suggests that the anonymous photographer took the picture from such a low angle so that the soldier would look as stable, monumental and even sculptural as the multi-storied bridge tower. The green color of his uniform echoes the color of the pine trees on both sides of the soldier, while his red collar badges and a Mao badge that he wears near his heart echoes the statue of The Three Red Flags on top of the tower that stands for The General Guideline, The Great Leap Forward and the People’s Commune, slogans for a better China approved by Mao Zedong and his top party leaders. The hearted smile on the soldier’s face, the light blue sky that occupies nearly half of the painting, and the bright light that shines over his face, his uniform, the trees besides him, the street lamp as well as the bridge, all creates a moment of lighted-hearted tranquility and serenity that is far distanced from a period that is known for political and social chaos, disturbance and turbulence. It was a moment of pride and happiness portrayed around the image of a PLA soldier, who was an idealized icon for teenagers like Jing Kewen in the middle and late 1970s. In Jing’s memory, this was a time of valuable quietness, when most of the political movements and campaigns were coming to an end and new political storms were still in the stage of reformation.


Jing’s selection of photos of PLA soldiers demonstrates his adoration of his heroes in their proud and happy moments. In the eyes of Jing and his generation, they are absolutely the most handsome and beautiful. However, when taken out of the political and historical context in which they were expected to follow Mao’s leadership in liberating the rest of human kind, the soldiers depicted in Jing’s paintings are more of ordinary youths who are dressed coolly in uniforms and are engaged in non-militant activities. The soldier in Dream 2006, No. 4, for instance, is therefore handsome not only because he is wearing the uniform but also he has an adorable smile while he is reading a book under the light of a ceiling lamp. In the same sense, the young woman soldier in Dream 2006, No. 8 would be very much adored by youngsters of that time for her broad smile and her youthful look. Soldiers as revolutionary heroes are thus turned into objects of private admiration and adoration.

In Jing’s painting, adoration for soldiers is often mixed with fantasy. Such a mixture is observed in portraits of female soldiers in Dream 2006, No. 8 and Dream 2007, No 4, where ordinary female soldiers from small black and white photos are re-imaged in full color in pictures of a size comparable to the poster of a movie star. The faces of pretty young girls are thus put under close examination first by the artist and then by his audience. Such an examination is conducted with both adoration of the soldiers as heroes and fantasy of them as female bodies.


Jing’s representation of female heroes as objects of fantasy is best illustrated in his Dream 2008, No. 1. What he re-presents in the picture is a group of four young army nurses who appear to be in a staged drill for propaganda purpose. The nurses, who are dressed in white scrubs and hats, are seen crawling on their arms on grass immersed in summer light against a hilly background of trees where sunlight is seen through. Each of them carries a dark green first-aid suitcase that is commonly seen in military medical teams, which indicates the purpose of such a drill. Like in all other pieces of the Dream series, the scene and figures are nearly precise copies of a small black and white photo from his selected collection. However, the original photo is less likely a snapshot taken by an amateur but more likely a photographic piece by an unknown professional photographer who could have also been responsible for the staged performance. In his early childhood, Jing became very familiar with staged scenes like this that he found in such pictorials as PLA Pictorial and People’s Pictorial brought home by his brothers and sisters during the Cultural Revolution. His fascination as an adolescent with the colorfulness of the revolutionary beauties is reviewed in his rendering in full color of the military nurses in a beautiful setting. The nurse in the foreground is now put under close and direct gaze of the artist when she is transferred from a small black and white photo onto a painting in the size larger than a movie poster.

Such fantasy with the female is represented with a more innocent sense in pictures of adolescent schoolgirls. The figures in these paintings are Young Pioneers who were at the same age of Jing Kewen in the late 1970s. In Dream 2007, No. 9, two girls who wear red scarves around their necks on their school boating tour are gently smiling as they turn toward the cameraman. Across the lake in the background are more people either boating or walking on the bank lined up with green willow trees. Scenes of activities like this was becoming possible during the late 1970s when regular schooling was resumed toward the end of the Cultural Revolution. Young, energetic and innocent girls are now put at the focus of painting. Young Pioneer girls are not only students of excellence at school, but also models for young boys and girls who would do their best in any way to learn from them. In Dream 2006, No. 11, a rope jumping young pioneer girl who wears a red scarf and a red stripe badge is presented to viewers against a nearly void background. The dazzling bright light on her black hair, white shirt and light purple striped skirt casts a small and light shadow of the rope jumping girl on the ground, which indicates a break in the summer noon on a warm school day. The girl is leaning forward while she is jumping up with both legs in the air. Her relaxing facial expression with a happy smile, her leaping body, the swinging rope and the shadow, all creates the image of a young girl in a dreamlike setting that is the fantasy of adolescent boys.

Jing Kewen is by no means a passive translator of the pictures he chose. His selective choice of photos along with his re-rendering of images in subjective coloring reveals his intention to personalize what is presented in a seemingly authentic way. Unlike his contemporary artists Wang Guangyi and Zhang Xiaogang, who adopted a critical approach toward established or canonical images in Mao’s time, Jing Kewen reviews the same period from a very different perspective. He cautiously stays away from images of the so-called Red Classics that would easily evoke the age of political, social as well as cultural turbulence and disaster, which in many cases would bring artists quick recognition both in the art world and the art market. Rather, Jing chose to look back at this special period from the perspective in which he once found peace, leisure, happiness and a different approach to value, and in which he searches for ease and inspiration for understanding ever-faster change and transformation in the current days of globalization. It is the side of the recent past that the present China tries to neglect and forget. By re-presenting images of this bright side from original photos by numerous hands, Jing is also finding himself approvers who are put in a similar position as the artist. Or in other words, he lets the anonymous authors of the authentic images speak with him and for him. Transformation from photograph to painting is thus a process in which the anonymous authors are replaced by the one identified author. In the end, images from the complete series all become Jing’s personalized visions of the collective memory. It is no longer the past of others; it has been turned into the artist’s own, with Jing as the narrator and the author of its authenticity.

[Editor] Mark Lee