Last week, Singapore staged a world-class art show worthy of any international artist. It is aptly called Artstage. I was invited to the afternoon preview before the official opening. The show was massive, spread out, and truly colourful on every level. I got to see, close up, works by some artists I only read about.
At the show, someone introduced me to a serious art collector who came to the East for the first time. As we chatted, he asked, “Do you know this Chinese contemporary artist who paints portraits, mostly of Chinese women in bright colours, with eyes looking in opposite directions?” I told him the artist is Feng Zhengjie. I led him to a part of the show where an exquisite piece of Feng Zhengjie hung in a corner. This piece is unusual. His pieces are usually much larger. The subject is also intriguing – Da Vinci and Singapore!
I asked the collector, “Do you like the late Andy Warhol?” He said “Very much”. This may explain why he is drawn to Feng Zhengjie. I knew the works of Feng Zhengjie way before I met the artist himself. The signature paintings of Feng – huge, flat close-ups of smooth-skinned and flawlessly coiffed young women, rendered in unearthly tones of green and pink – are the guilty pleasures of Chinese Contemporary Art. Skeptics may choose to see these high fashioned images as kitsch, yet almost no one can resist looking at them. This is the silent appeal of Feng.
Like a painting by Zhang Xiaogang, wherever you see a Feng Zhengjie painting, in a New York apartment or a house in Japan, it is quintessentially Chinese. Yet it is never out-of-place. It embodies the essence of Chinese Contemporary Art. It is Chinese pop art that is both modern and bold.
Feng’s work is organically linked to the world of entertainment and fashion. Which is one reason I am attracted to his work. In fact he paints Chinese actresses. Through their faces, we see both the focus and distraction of modern China as an emerging economic power. His modern Chinese women are literally facing up to the influences of modernisation and westernisation. The contradiction and the conflict of such ‘progress’ are reflected in their eyes looking East and West at the same time.
As a board member of the National Heritage Board, I had the pleasure of interacting with Feng when he staged one of the most impressive solo exhibitions, Primary Colors, at the Singapore Art Museum in 2008. Months later, I organised a charity project to help the Sichuan earthquake victims. We needed a renowned artist to raise funds. Without hesitation, Feng dropped everything he was working on and flew to Singapore at his own expense.
Over the years, getting to know Feng the person, has been a privilege. He invited me to his studio in Beijing. In Singapore, he dined in my house and we talked late into the night. About every and anything in addition to Chinese Contemporary Art.
Although they are very different individuals, I see parallels between Feng and Andy Warhol. Both are serious artists with their own take on contemporary art. Both are controversial and use faces in the entertainment world as their subjects. They redefine the concept of pop art in their own generation and execute their work with pulp fiction sensibility. Most significantly, both of them create and own a distinct look for their art. They use primary colors with graphic design influences to create a style that is at once eye-catching and arresting.
Feng and Andy are rooted intrinsically to their respective cultures. And their approaches to art are grounded on the principles of advertising. Feng’s early works were inspired by ‘nian hua’, the traditional Chinese New Year paintings, and like others in his generation, the propaganda posters during Mao’s regime. Andy’s fascination with consumerism links him strongly to the golden age of advertising and mass marketing.
What will Feng say to being labelled as China’s Andy Warhol? He may or may not agree. I grew up watching movies. Before being a filmmaker, my other career was in the media. Which is why I am drawn to art and artists grounded on mass communications.
Traditional Chinese New Year paintings captures the hope that comes with spring. Their charm reflects a period of Chinese history. Every year when we celebrate Chinese New Year, in many ways, we celebrate being Chinese.
Feng’s early paintings are essentially Chinese New Year paintings with a twist. Each twist shows the depth of the artist, his interpretation of the ‘progress’ of the Chinese society and how traditions, customs and being Chinese are altered. I always hope to own a piece of classic Chinese New Year painting. After knowing Feng Zhengjie, I wish to own a piece of his earlier work. Especially now when Chinese New Year is almost here.