Back Privacy and Expression --- Read on Deng Jianjin

Truth in art is probably more important than beauty, because its significance is more important. Artists are interested in revealing meaning through the art works as samples of visual thinking. Today’s art criticism is more concerned about whether these significances have authenticity rather than the traditional concern of visual pleasure. Artists have taken the roles played by philosophers, guiding us to think what their works express. In this way, the fact of art is about these people experiencing art. It’s also about whom we are, how we live.”


---- (United States) Arthur•C • Danto (1)


Privacy and Expression

--- Read on Deng Jianjin


By Lu Hong


Given a necessary retrospection to artist Deng Jian’s works, it’s not hard to find that: the artistic style of the senior artist‘s recent works are totally different with those in a few years ago. In fact, in the previous phase (1993-1998), his works on shape are closer to the academic realist tradition, although starting from expression and experience he always used exaggerated cartoon-like language, abnormal figures and super-realistic composition. For the concrete artistic expression, Deng Jianjin mainly adopted some dry, stammering, thick and fierce colors. What related is the strokes on his screen are basically posed by brush or painting knife. But in the last phase (2001-2007)(2), his creation is undoubtedly more impressionistic, free and closer to the “intention shape concept” of traditional art. For the concrete artistic performance, it can be said that the use of color is more humid, the use of brush is more fluid, the movement process and the imprint of time are more emphasized, and the use of contingency in the painting process are paid more attention. Making an analogy which is not so appropriate, the former is closer to the effect of bas-relief and the latter is closer to the effect of ink figure. Hence, the question I mostly concern is why Deng Jianjin makes such a huge conversion on artistic style. Why didn’t he continue the previous style to paint new themes? Perhaps the easiest answer to be given is he hopes to transcend the past and remodel self. However, although the answer is right, it’s as vague as a very correct nonsense.


Then, where’s the more convictive reason? In these days, in order to better answer this question, I not only carefully read the large amount of Deng Jianjin’s works for more than a decade. I also had in-depth discussions with my friends, Yang Guoxin and Li Bangyao and others. This process is very helpful to me. Finally, I found that although narrative is a very important factor in all of Deng Jianjin’s works and he always emphasizes the expression of personal experience or “self-image”, there are obvious distinctions between the two artistic stages before and after. Specifically speaking, in the former stage, he intentionally or unintentionally pursued the socialization of personal experience to make every effort to express the “question and care to life”.(3) The cultural themes works of this phase roughly are the weakness and helplessness of the current people, the complicated personal relationships, the threat of violence, the collapse of morality, the non-protection of privacy and so on.  If according to the western art historians’ locations of these works, his creations at that time could be categorized in the catalog of “evil realism”.  I even believe that the pursue of the artist is related to the trend of the stress on conceptual expression. This makes him always try to put the personal experience into the framework of grand narrative. If we say that the pervious works of Deng Jianjin are a bit far-fetched and blunt, its reason is right here.  Of course, these factors inevitably penetrate into his artistic performance. The series work namedIdentityattended “The First Academic Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary Art Exhibition” (1996) is an example. In this series, in order to emphasize the helpless relation between identity and people, he painted a large number of number-signs implying identities in the images of female heads and bodies. Compared with the previous works, the stuffs of individual sensitivity are obviously reduced, and concepts are quite prominent, appearing relatively dry. In so far some friends thought Deng Jianjin who is straight and emotional expresses a kind of split “personality”. Undoubtedly, for Deng Jianjin, painting such kind of pictures cannot enjoy the pleasure of creation.

I guess Deng Jianjin is well aware of the above questions, or feel strongly the previous creative model is far from his nature. Thus since 1998 he has been always looking for the path to transcend the past academic model. Fortunately, through unremitting efforts and explorations, in 2001 he finally found a new creative model, which dramatically changed his artistic style. For this change, both his friends and himself think it’s more adequate to his nature, the favor is strong, never lose it appeal and the artistic quality is higher. 

First, rather than concerning the external view, he more starts from his specific experience. Now his artistic goal is not to play at the edge of art and sex. Accordingly, his art motif is turned to the expression of “body”. However, he is not like the artists of “neo-classicalism” who are expressing female body in the way of “ideal beauty” from the angels of “traditionalism” and “male chauvinism”, but he boldly concerns the “blank belt” of artistic expression—which includes the expressions of sex, homosexuality and other issues.


To be precise, he not only demonstrates a life state not familiar or concerned by people, but also reveals the life instinct, unconsciousness and abnormal state, therefore it can give people a shock addressed in deep heart and cause the relevant reflects. I greatly agree with the opinion of the critics Yang Xiaoyan that is in this kind of paintings “he takes himself as ‘the other’” as well as ‘subjectivity’”. It deeply expresses the predicament of locating in the narrow region between private space and public space. The other Deng Jianjin is the teller in the face of youth. His inner vitality pushes him to repeatedly review the various modals of adolescence, taking youth as real object rather than subject and continuously presenting on the screens.” (4) It cannot be denied that his painting of this kind is a serious provocation to these ones experiencing long-term traditional culture and orthodox cultural cultivation. As far as I know, every now and then this will bring trouble to his attendance of exhibition and publication. Fortunately, an open society pays more and more attention to all of the cultural issues related to survival, so more and more people understand his paintings of this kind. In fact, totally different from pornographic paintings and the sexual temptation using various bodies of pornographic website, because his works emphasize on the real world directly facing the human survival, he challenges the traditional taboos through fearless attitudes or outline the value position of the contemporary and individual. It cannot be easily summarized by the words of “undress” or “erotic”. It is not hard to experience it by careful comparison and study.


Furthermore, in order to well express private experience or subject to personal artistic nature, he wisely absorbs some significant artistic images into the personalized color, line, surface, brushwork and composition. This is undoubtedly not easy. The dark, ambiguous or confused tone, the relaxed, fluent or free curve strokes, the impressive figures, the fabric effect of the oil-water separation, and the virtualized arrangement of screen space, are harmony with the themes of the works, so I was deeply impressed. To the aspect of artistic ontology, I think Deng Jianjin’s works not only reach a very high level on artistic expression, but also become the good counterattack to the modern saying “finding a good image means everything”. Not long ago the critics Qi Lan curated a Chinese contemporary oil painting exhibition named “Beyond Image” inShanghai. His purported to object the poor activities that only concern images to cater to the market and foreign curators but ignore the intrinsic quality of art. I deeply understand it, but pityingly he forgot that in the creations of the art on easels, especially concerning the attention of reality and the expression of ideas, after all, images cannot be transcended. 


The great enlightenment of Deng Jianjin’s recent works lies here: Although in the current creation of paintings, the function of image is very important, it’s still of no avail without particular personal experience, conceptual text and the support of art techniques, because image cannot represent everything. However, if we blindly attack image itself just because of somebody’s abuse of image, it’s unprofessional and unwise. With regard to the latter question, I will specifically write an article on it, so there will be no more writings on it.


Jan 31, 2008

ShenzhenArt Museum