Tang Hai Guo: Contemporary Chinese Social Commentary Art beyond Icons of the Cultural Revolution

There are plenty of contemporary Chinese artists who mock the Cultural Revolution from a safe distance of three decades and command the attention of the international art community.  The art of Tang Hai Gou addresses contemporary problems, in China.
By: Craig Mattoli
April 13, 2012 - PRLog -- Personally, I think that throwbacks to the Cultural Revolution are much overdone in contemporary Chinese art.  While that may, for some reason, get giggles from the West, it is not, in any way, daring or even interesting.  Even less interesting, is that many of those same contemporary artists, often, just reproduce the same characters, only in different settings, like cartoon series without good story lines.  Indeed, we have been deemphasizing art by the one artist that we do have whose art focuses on that period, and we have told him that his theme is getting old.  Those sorts of things are not dissidence, they are simply commercialism, and they are neither novel nor creative.  If we really wanted to study the effects of the Cultural Revolution on art, we would much rather look at meaningful art from that era, complete with actual, not feigned, dissidence.

Although China has moved forward four decades from that dark period of its past, it is not without contemporary problems and social issues.  And there is much more to it than political art.  During those ensuing decades, China has been rapidly transformed from a rural agrarian to a developing urban manufacturing society.   To be sure, many in China still live the way they did decades ago.  The isolated rural lives of the so-called Chinese minority peoples continue along ancient traditional lines, and we do appreciate contemporary art that chronicles their ways of life, too.  It presents interesting counterpoint to the modern China that China likes to show the world with its skyscrapers and sprawling urban landscapes.  

Interesting, also, are the effects that rapid modernization and mechanization are having on the lives of the minorities and the former rural society, in general.  Tang Hai Guo is a contemporary Chinese artist whose work focuses on the real ills of the modern Chinese society.  Moreover, he approaches his topics in innovative, thoughtful and amusing manners.  He employs both symbolism and figurative portraiture to convey his messages, and we appreciate the progress he has made as a young artist.

Originally from Hunan, Tang studied art at the local fine arts college and continued his education at the famed Beijing Central Academy of Art.   During those formative years, he was enamored with the work of Egon Schiele and the expressionists.  Currently, although he is capable of realistic renderings, his work is developing along three different but interrelated paths: symbolism, figurative portraiture in a style following Schiele, and figurative portraiture of his own using bright bold strokes, as in his metamorphosis series.

Figurative portraiture is a challenging field to venture into, and it takes, not only boldness, but also imagination and creativity to pursue such a course.  Tang has learned from Schiele, and some of his figurative works have a style reminiscent of Schiele’s work.  Thus, in works, like “Summer Heat” or “Comrades,” the liberty is taken in distortion of body parts, in a playful, not disturbing, manner.

However, he has also developed his own figurative style, using bold colorful strips of paint in his metamorphosis and city dweller (citizen) series.   Like the Picture of Dorian Grey became scarred with each one of his evil deeds, faces of people, in the metamorphosis series, are built up from bold, colorful, curved lines.  Tang explains that greed is rampant in today’s Chinese society, but greed changes people both inside and out.  He says it is like how a clothing hanger becomes distorted from too much weight: the weight of greed can make people ugly, not only inside, but on the outside, too.  The result an innovative style that draws you in, the more you look at it.  It is colorful and playful, and some of resulting looks remind me, on some subliminal level, of the forlorn looks on the faces of people being taken away by demons in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.

Also noteworthy, Tang has learned something that I try to teach to my staff: you can learn a lot of things about life from animals, other than humans, like dogs.  Thus, another of his series uses dogs and other animals to symbolize feelings and life circumstances.  Look at those sad eyes of the stray dog, in “Faded Beauty,” or the euphoria of the pig, in “Dreaming of Radishes.”  The paintings are allegorical.  They are about what is happening to people, who have moved to the fast-paced life of the city, and about decay of city life and the quality of life, in general.  Thus, those who are displaced as a result of marital infidelity and the tension that it brings to a family, culminating in divorce and the breakup of the family, become like stray dogs, without a home and left to forage among the trash of the city.  In these works, we can also see his ability to paint, in a more realistic style.

He also uses a realistic style in his drawings, if realism is your thing.  And he is capable of a more abstract, looser style, a few degrees away from his metamorphosis style, reminding me more of an early modernist style.  Indeed, if you still think that mocking the Cultural Revolution is the coolest thing, Tang has even done a few of those, just not a lot, thank goodness.

At Leona Craig Art, we have works of art that cover much of the history of modern Chinese art, beginning with the second generation of modern Chinese artists to the latest generation.  Being inside China, we have the chance to see the works of many local artists, and we add to our gallery offerings, as we find artists whose work we like.  Tang is a new artist, so, his prices are very reasonable.  But we see potential in his works.  He shows both a range of ability and creativity in his works.

Another observation that we can share with you is a general observation on pricing of modern Chinese art.  The works of artists, who have been working for a few decades and are known in certain circles, like in the south of China or in military circles, sell at prices about ten times those of beginning artists who are relatively unknown.  Those who make a name in Hong Kong, Beijing, or Shanghai sell at prices about fifty times those of the beginners, and the ones who become known in the West sell their works at several hundred times the prices of those just staring out in their artistic careers.

As you can see, there is a lot more potential for price appreciation for the younger artists, just as there is more potential for lesser known investment.  It never is the very visible, publicized investments that make the real money.  When investing in whole markets or individual investments, it is of paramount importance to buy in at the proper point in a cycle.  Tang Hai Guo is just starting out on his artistic career, and his work is already finding acceptance in the West.

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Leona Craig Art is a different kind of contemporary Chinese art gallery.  First of all, we cover artists from the whole contemporary period, including the second generation of modern Chinese artists, many of whom are still alive and working.  Thus, our art, also, in a sense, presents a history of most of China's modern post-imperial era, as seen from the artist's point of view.  Moreover, while the press and many galleries focus on the latest craze, the art of the first generation of modern Chinese artists has been achieving record auction results, and we are sure that it will not be too long before that of the second generation will get more attention.   Indeed, we do not just choose art from artists who are part of the latest fad in contemporary Chinese art, but we look closely and carefully at art from artists, old and new, known and unknown, to find fine art with more unusual, but meaningful, social commentary. 
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