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HUANG RUI.Door, Girl, Plant. 1981. Oil on canvas, 76 × 90 cm. Photo by Nick Ma. Courtesy Asia Society, Hong Kong.

Unofficial Chinese Art 1974–1985

Light before Dawn

Hong Kong China
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

There is a quiet satisfaction in viewing unfamiliar, accomplished and important work in handsome surroundings. “Light Before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1974–1985” certainly met these criteria. Housed in the cool, granite-vaulted galleries of Asia Society Hong Kong, the show traced the brief lives of three unofficial art movements in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, before the untamed arrival of “Chinese contemporary art.”

The luminaries of Beijing’s Xingxing (“Stars”) group retain the highest profile today. Inspired by the establishment of the Democracy Wall in the capital in late 1978, Huang Rui and Ma Desheng organized an exhibition of 23 highly diverse artists, many from the literary journal Today. About 150 works were hung on the fence around the China Arts Gallery (now the National Art Museum) in September 1979, coinciding with a show inside to mark the 30th anniversary of the People’s Republic. They were removed four days later, resulting in a 700-strong protest march toward Tiananmen Square led on crutches by polio sufferer Ma.

Included at Asia Society were strong examples of Huang’s colorful modernist canvases, Qu Leilei’s Cocteau-esque drawings, Ma’s geometric prints and Li Shuang’s expressionist woodblocks. However, it is the contorted wood carvings of Wang Keping that retain gut impact alongside historical import today, particularly the political protest of Silence (1979). Asia Society’s inclusion of works by Ai Weiwei from 1986—when the group was long defunct and Ai had moved to New York—to 2006 was strange. Tracking down lesser-known participants would have been a more intriguing curatorial pursuit.

The experimental ink paintings of Shanghai’s Caocaoshe (“Grass Society”) received a lower-key presentation, but the group provides a telling example of the tentative reemergence of older, politically tainted painters after Mao’s death. Many of the artists gathered by the young, idealistic Qiu Deshu for one cruelly truncated show in February 1980 had received training before the Cultural Revolution, and inclined to abstraction and self-expression. The selection on display at Asia Society again seemed a little scattergun—Chen Juyuan, for instance, was represented by two ambitious watercolors from 1975. However, it remained a fitting testament to this brief revival of Shanghai’s past engagements with European modernism.

Despite its unchallenging style, the earliest of the movements—the determinedly nonacademic Wuming (“No Name”) group, which coalesced in Beijing from 1972—was given greatest curatorial attention. Their work has received recognition in recent years, but it remains affecting to see their early paintings en masse. These small, spontaneous landscapes and still lifes seem almost to have come from a single hand, epitomizing the artists’ mutual pleasure in exploring the qualities of paint. The rejection of social realism in favor of the bourgeois sentimentality of sketching en plein air—there is barely a figure to be seen—was a deeply nonconformist act at a precarious time.

It seems invidious to name individuals among those members whose works were assembled at Asia Society, but Zhang Wei’s bold, unmodulated color, Tian Shuying’s distinctive line and Shi Zhenyu’s luminous use of oil were all beguiling. The display also benefited from restricting most works to the period before Wuming’s first official exhibition in July 1979. The increasing availability of Western art catalogs and the media savvy of the Xingxing artists—still a source of aggravation today—lured younger members toward greater experimentation in the 1980s.

Scholars might lament a lack of new perspectives in an otherwise satisfying retrospective, yet constant revisionism panders to the vanity of curators, not the needs of the viewing public. The real flaw was an intrusively loud documentary on Wuming telling of young intellectuals searching for spiritual truth, forced by an oppressive regime to work alongside peasants or factory workers, yet with “independent spirits still burning bright.” The artists, gathered in New York in 2011 for a previous iteration of the show, marvel at the abundance of painting materials in shops, before sketching the rus in urbe beauty of Central Park, all to a stirring, soft-rock soundtrack. Tipping over from outreach to proselytism, it imposes on Wuming a banal narrative framework steeped in the 1950s American Dream. A single demurral from member Zheng Ziyan, whose father spent time in labor camps, suggests the more ambiguous realities of artistic production: “It was the environment of the late stages of the Cultural Revolution that gave us the opportunity to do this.”