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CHENGDU MOVEMENT

The artists of Chengdu are at the forefront of change in 21st-century China.

On the one hand, they live and work in one of the most ancient cities in the world. It was in Chengdu, after all, that the Southern Silk Road started and paper money was first used. For centuries the city has also been known for exquisite brocades and embroidery produced there, bright colors and delicate designs the hallmarks of its artisans' crafts.

Yet, it is also here that an unusally modern and forward-looking artists community, a unique phenomenon in China, has been exploring the next phase of Chinese painting.  

group6Nationwide, China's art centers started becoming more entwined with those of the rest of the world some 25 years ago as the country began hurtling, in some respects, toward a more open society. In the 1980s -- as Karen Smith noted during the 2003 symposium "Envisioning the Future of Contemporary Art From Different 'Glocal' Positions’’ -- Chinese artists tended to emulate Western work with the goal of the student becoming greater than the master. Then in the '90s, their work moved away from mimickry and from what Zhang Zhaohui called a tool for ideological liberation and enlightenment in his study "Imagined Reality: Contemporary Art and Post-socialist Modernity in China.'' In their place, a rich palette of subjects emerged for exploration on canvas: changing tradition, consumerism, sexuality, the youth culture, individuality, everyday life.

In Chengdu, what was at first a coincidental coming together of talented artists soon resulted in a community of men and women who spend time with one another, explore their country’s changing realities, debate and create for a new generation. HD2Many of them have honed their art together -- as students and teachers -- at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing, about a three-hour drive away. Both cities, it turns out, are physically remote from the more well-known art centers of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, which gives the Chengdu community what may be considered a fresher perspective.

The ''father figure'' of the group is internationally renowned painter He Duoling, who was born in Chengdu in 1948 and has several pieces in this exhibition. He started forming working, educational and social relationships with younger artists in the 1980s and early '90s. Later, these individual artists began to form a community through a circle that gathered at a cafe opened by artist Zhang Xiaogang. The little cafe, which is still in operation, became the center of what would emerge as a full-blown artistic movement, according to the Chengdu art critic Lu Peng, who wrote about the group for a 2000 exhibition of their work in Amsterdam.

As the group grew and the work broke new ground, the movement gained attention worldwide. Individual and group shows have been mounted from Chengdu to Beijing and from Germany to the United States. The Chengdu Biennial has been cited as part of the up-and-coming stature of the Chinese art scene in the international art world.

Group4Although there is a tendency toward elongation and other distortions in their work and although many of the artists favor monochromatic canvases, the Chengdu artists’ styles are remarkably diverse and individually distinctive. The artists’ unification as a movement appears to be more in the intense feeling of searching and digging for deeper meaning that their canvases explore and inspire. Study the Chengdu painters’ work and find artists searching for their pasts, or their futures; delving into the darkness; diving under the surface; peeling away appearances in a quest for hidden truths.

The city's art galleries are now ripe for art critics and dealers. Its art classes are at the highest of levels. And its studios hum with the creative spirit as Chengdu's artists define the cutting edge of 21st-century Chinese painting.