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XU ZHENBANG, IND·ANGE·R (A Fierce Tiger Sprang Down From the Top of the Mountain), 2014, mixed media on canvas, 240 × 140 cm. Courtesy Pékin Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

Look Again

Xu Zhenbang

P├ękin Fine Arts
Hong Kong China

Digital media promises seamless communication, but there is always the potential for distortion, whether that be the visual noise of a poorly loaded image or a misunderstanding with another human being in the online universe. Xu Zhenbang seems well aware of this in his solo show “Look Again,” at Pékin Fine Arts in Hong Kong, featuring a collection of paintings and mixed-media works that reflect the look of pixelated screens. Xu mostly uses analog, handmade means to create these vividly bright images, reconfiguring the relationship between technology and nature, and reminding the viewer that there will always be room for error or, indeed, humanity.

Xu was born in Shenzhen in 1990 and is still a Master’s student in oil painting at the Sichuan Fine Art Institute in Chongqing, which positions him within the latest generation of Chinese contemporary artists. In fact, “Look Again” is his first solo exhibition. His comments in the show’s introductory text, which note on the ease with which we consume images today, are pertinent if not particularly unique. What makes Xu stand out is that unlike artists such as Hangzhou-based Lin Ke, who captures digital experience through playful manipulations of standard-level software, Xu’s work relies on painterly craft. Hence, he creates paintings like IND-ANGE-R (A Fierce Tiger Sprang Down From The Top of the Mountain)(2014), a more than two-meter-tall canvas displaying a zigzagging yellow and black pattern reminiscent of police warning tape. The precise arrangement is broken up by splotches and imperfections, with the pattern repeatedly reversing direction. The apparently random irregularities form the outline of a tiger, explaining the piece’s subtitle of A Fierce Tiger Sprang Down From the Top of the Mountain, referencing the Chinese scroll-painting trope of a tiger descending a mountain. Similar tactics are at play in LO-FTIN-ESS ALL (All Birds Follow the Phoenix) (2015), which recontextualizes tradition by placing the image of a phoenix in the same deconstructed matrix. The subtitle quotes a Chinese idiom on prosperity under a wise ruler, which is hazily legible in the painting along with a digital water mark, presumably from the source image Xu worked from. Even in a context of digital precision, past culture and imperfection remain hard to escape.

In GR-EATWA-LL (Such Great Beauty Like This in All Our Landscapes) (2015), more than two meters wide and a meter tall, the background pattern features a red, white and blue plaid that references the woven plastic bags ubiquitous in China’s marketplaces and among its migrant workers. Xu’s use of such an everyday material suggests that there may be a glitch in reality itself. Despite the painting’s title referencing a poem by Mao Zedong on the beauty of the Great Wall, specific forms are harder to discern. Further evidence of Xu’s technique comes in Standard Landscape No. 2 (2014), where a sequence of colors resembling television color bars is transformed into a natural scene. Tiny etchings into the surface of the acrylic paint create the appearance of pine trees.

XU ZHENBANG, GR·EATWA·LL, 2015, mixed media on canvas, 150 × 240 cm. Courtesy Pékin Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

However, sometimes the symbols that Xu builds his abstractions around are almost generic, looking out-of-date compared to the relevancy of his concerns about digital media. PROP-IT-IOUS (2015) arranges dragons inside four circular television test patterns. Yet the test screens feel more like a retro symbol for new media than a relatable metaphor for sifting through waves of information in 2015. Deliberately evoking the banal is a legitimate strategy, but certain images in other pieces, such as the skull-and-crossbones danger sign, are ubiquitous enough to have lost the power to shock.

The series “Different Style Convergence Hallucinogens” (2015) is more successful. More than a dozen 50-by-30-centimeter puzzles are laid out on the gallery’s floor. Although each puzzle piece matches together, various images coexist in the finished product. Generic pastoral scenes jarringly clash with cartoons, medical diagrams, gods, Mao and pornographic comics. The series skillfully recognizes that old media and narratives did not vanish with the advent of computers, but are rather being re-combined in increasingly complex ways. The synthesis of a pastel-hued familiarity with a hint of something altogether more disturbing draws to mind Beijing-based artist Liu Chuang’s Love Story (2013), a collection of 1980s and ’90s second-hand pulp novels doodled upon by young workers in the factory boomtown of Dongguan, not far from Xu’s birthplace. Idealized romantic covers sit beside the daily realities noted in the margins, cataloguing the juxtapositions that have become part of everyday digital life.

As a young artist Xu stands in a unique position, exploring questions not so different from those posed by his more explicitly conceptual peers, while possessing impressive painting skills. “Look Again” displays immense promise, but it remains to be seen whether Xu can avoid overused signifiers and continue to paint the virtual with precision.

XU ZHENBANG, PROP·IT·IOUS, 2015, mixed media on canvas, 150 × 150 cm. Courtesy Pékin Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

Xu Zhenbang’s “Look Again” is on view at Pékin Fine Arts until November 17, 2015.