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  • Provenance

    Private collection, Europe

  • Catalogue Essay

    Fang Lijun, who established himself in the annals of contemporary Chinese art history with his woodcuts and paintings of bald, angst-ridden rogues, takes the most metaphorical turn of his career in his recent paintings. The pioneer of the Cynical Realist movement started working with these trademark clean-shaven figures when he shaved his own head in the late 1980s—the universal sign of the hooligan. These men remain the ageless motif in his work, even as their surroundings and circumstances alter the exact timbre of their unspoken malaise.

    The early 1990s saw the most realist phase of Fang’s work. The rogues of these years were insouciant, casually attired youth, their expressions hovering between sheer boredom and the famous “howl or yawn” that Karen Smith describes as “his first callously cynical expression,” (K. Smith, Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China, Zurich, 2005, p. 149). Fang’s next significant phase was his “swimmer” woodcuts and acrylics of the late 1990s, in which his lone rogue appeared swimming across vast expanses of water, sometimes breaking the surface to gasp for air. These solitary figures are often interpreted as the Chinese Everyman’s introspective struggle for survival amid the merciless tide of societal change, at a time when China was undergoing rapid economic and cultural transformation.

    The artist’s third period marks the tipping point where his backgrounds grow into chimerical, even quixotic cloudscapes; his figures, by contrast, begin to lose their sense of individuality. Groupings of rogues appear in each picture, sometimes adrift in cloud-topped mountains, often anxiously parsing the sky. Their apprehensive fretfulness contrasts uneasily with their colorful clothing and the intoxicatingly bright flowers that crowd the air around them. The delectable colors that bloom across these canvases do not foreshadow genuine vibrancy or joy; rather, the artificial specters of green and purple roses speak to the populace’s unwary addiction to the manufactured panaceas of material consumption.

    The present lot belongs to the artist’s fourth and most recent phase, in which his signature rogues completely abandon their affinity to realism and transform into existential metaphors. In this series of works Fang’s utopian cloud-carpeted backdrops become more fantastic and artificial, arrayed in wide-screen cloudscapes as far as the eye can see. Fang’s bald figures have lost all individual identity, mutating into herds of doll-like creatures incongruously dressed in multi-colored children’s clothing, or trapped in bubbles floating amid the clouds. 2006.1.1 powerfully presents these half-recognizable rogues as an army of ghosts, hanging on only by the very vestiges of color that play them false. The men’s expressions are beaten, plastic visages, their mouths welded shut. They are a far cry from Fang’s excruciatingly alive howl/yawn just 15 years ago. Perhaps this serves, in a contrary fashion, as the artist’s wry comment upon the opportunities and rewards offered up in recent years of China’s economic ascendancy.

28

2006.1.1.

2006
Oil on canvas.
98 1/4 x 141 3/4 in. (249.6 x 360 cm).
Signed and titled “Fang Lijun [in Chinese] 2006.1.1.” lower right.

Estimate
$300,000 - 400,000 

Sold for $576,000

Contemporary Art Part I

17 May 2007
7pm New York