Chambers Fine Art is pleased to announce the opening on September 13, 2018 of Shang Yang: New Works (September 13 – November 3, 2018). The exhibition will be held in two locations, in Chelsea and at ArtFarm, Salt Point, NY.
Born in 1942 in Hubei province, China, Shang Yang was nearly forty years old when he first won wide acclaim with the painting Boatmen of the Yellow River that he submitted for his postgraduate degree at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts, Wuhan. As with so many of his countrymen, the tumultuous political history of China that coincided with the leadership of Mao Zedong, not least the chaos of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, led to a belated start for his professional career. With this painting he abandoned the Socialist Realist style that prevailed in China at the time and embarked on a career of restless experimentation that continues until the present day.
Shang Yang was less affected than artists of a younger generation by the stylistic experimentation associated with the ‘85 New Wave, the wide-spread proliferation of artist associations that occurred in China in response to the influx of information regarding contemporary art, literature and philosophy in the West during the 1980s. However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s he entered a brief period of stylistic polymorphism. The most important of these phases occurred in 1988-1989 when he executed a group of abstract paintings titled States in which the focus was on the nature of the materials.
In 1992 he painted Great Landscape, a stylistically hybrid commentary on the way in which the environment in China was being affected by rapid urbanization and the unbridled development of capitalism. During a four year stay in Guangzhou from 1993 to 1997 where this social transformation was particularly evident, he developed health problems that he felt offered parallels to the sickness increasingly affecting the both the social and natural environment. Shang Yang’s landscapes became increasingly tormented, the omnipresence of volcanoes representing the powerful forces welling up inside seemingly stable outer forms.
An important development occurred in 2002 when Shang Yang painted Dong Qichang Project - 2, a large horizontal triptych that reflects on the degradation of the environment. The name “Dong Qichang” refers to a celebrated Ming dynasty painter and theoretician who played an important role in codifying the history of Chinese painting from its beginnings. Progressing from left to right, a mountainous landscape in the style of Dong Qichang contrasts with a bleaker landscape in the central panel and an artificially generated landscape on the right. This was to be the first of a series of thirty-eight remarkably diverse large-scale paintings in which Shang continued his exploration of painterly effects and found materials. As the preface to an exhibition of smaller painting in 2012, Shang Yang wrote that “Over the years, I have recorded the weathered and collapsing scenery of our time through diaries and manuscripts.”
Another turning point that is the immediate precursor of the works in the current exhibition occurred in 2012 when Shang Yang decided that Dong Qichang Project –33 was lacking in the tension that was a crucial aspect of his sprawling compositions. Over a period of two years, he dismantled it, retaining some elements in different locations in the composition and adding others, resulting in the eight-panel work Remaining Mountain. This was the precursor to further variations on this theme and the related series Remaining Water.
Shang Yang’s deep concern with the deterioration of the physical environment – “Yes,” he has remarked, “I am absolutely pessimistic. There is a wide-spread recognition that global warming is undeniable” – is accompanied by restless innovation in his approach to the creation of works of art. Earlier in his career his major paintings were preceded by careful studies but as he gained confidence, he would allow the markings on the blank canvas to suggest which way he should go. “One has to be very self-confident to work like this. When you stand in front of a canvas without aby ideas, you must be very self-confident. For me it is not difficult because it is more about technical problems.”
Although the two parts of Shang Yang’s first exhibition in New York and Salt Point are united thematically, they differ markedly in style and visual approach. As has always been the case, landscape and everything it stands for is the essential subject although now in the second decade of the twentieth century it is a landscape that has been hollowed out, debased by human greed and pride. “Why am I so angry?” he asked rhetorically, “Because in its preference for everything that is flashy and superficial, China is the most extreme example.” While Decayed Landscape - 2 and Decayed Landscape - 3 are somber reflections on the state of the environment, virtuoso displays of painterly virtuosity which contrast with strategically placed collaged elements, Decayed Books 1-4 testify to the decline of culture and political civility in these troubled times.
At ArtFarm Shang Yang leaves behind not only the rudimentary forms of mountains and books but also easel painting and the application of pigment and other materials to a flat surface. Here the unifying concept is the cataract, the clouding of the vision that affects many people as they age. In the vertical Cataracts the film comprised of many different synthetic materials is ripped off the canvas and presented as an ineffective relic in a Plexiglas box. The cataracts have been peeled off, but this operation has not resulted in clarification of our vision. Cross-sections of cataracts as in Cataract – Large Section composed of impossible-to-identify mixtures of synthetic and organic materials, hang in front of the wall. Cataract –Unknown Object, fabricated from resin and cellphone, sits on the floor emitting a feeble light at unpredictable intervals. While the atmosphere in the New York section is agitated, in Salt Point it is calm and serene.
After 1981 Shang Yang’s career followed an unusual course as his commitment to teaching and a professional career marked by numerous awards was distinguished by the development of a highly individual artistic practice that continues to surprise. Another unusual aspect of his career is that although he has participated in numerous international group exhibitions, he has largely resisted solo exhibitions with the exception of three held since 2009 in Beijing (2009 and 2012) and Suzhou (2013). Consequently, this will be his fourth.
As a result, he is well known and highly respected in China by his peers and by a much younger generation of artists although he is not recognized to the extent that he should be in an international context. The current exhibition of Shang Yang’s most recent paintings and installations will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog with essays by John Tancock and Wang Min’an providing essential background for an understanding of these works and interviews with Shang Yang conducted by John Tancock and Christophe Mao.