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December 10, 2011

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Flightless birds on surreal clouds

A tail-less bird that can barely fly is marooned on a cloud above surreal "traditional" landscapes that are beautiful but glow with a strange light and are clearly out of kilter.

This sick and directionless bird - birds cannot control their flight or go far without tail feathers - is one of the signature elements in the intriguing acrylic landscapes by Gao Huijun. He uses the traditional landscape to paint a discordant inner world and one that he says reflects contemporary Chinese society.

An exhibition of Gao's works "Inner Nature" is underway at the Longmen Art Projects through February 15. The more than 20 works were painted from 2005 through this year.

While ancient landscapes emphasized harmony and tranquillity, Gao's contain peculiar and out-of place elements. Some of his trees - favorite topics of ancient painters - cannot sink their roots into rocks and integrate tree and stone as in ancient paintings; they appear to struggle and their roots are like claws.

He also paints ancient Tian'anmen at the bottom of the sea with colorful shells and starfish in the foreground; he paints it at the bottom of a blue pond, where a single goldfish, a favorite of traditional paints, peers down.

Born in 1966, Gao majored in industrial art in college and then studied painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts where he graduated in 1992. He opened a studio in Songzhuang Village in the eastern suburbs of Beijing. His neighbors were big-name contemporary artists such as Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang.

But unlike his peers, Gao takes natural scenery like that in classical paintings and turns it into something compelling and discordant, discarding Chinese traditional aesthetics.

He uses acrylic pigment with water on canvas instead of ink and rice paper and the paintings have the external form of a masterful traditional painting. The choice of acrylics creates a greater sense of air, rain, streams, waterfalls and snow caps, showing a new face of Chinese landscape painting.

"Many Chinese intellectuals turn to ancient Chinese paintings, books or calligraphy as they get older and these things are akin to a buried treasure where one can always find something valuable," Gao says.

He adds he greatly admires Swiss German painter Paul Klee (1879-1940) who said the painter should not paint what he sees but will be seen.

In Gao's paintings, the viewers can see balls and geometric figures, such as Dali's classical melting clock and other inappropriate and unexpected images wandering in a Chinese landscape. "It's a portrayal of my inner world as well as my exploration of modern aesthetic structure," he says.

He uses the bird without tail feathers, a sickened bird, as a metaphor for China's cultural development, he says.

"Tail feathers are not only beautiful but also necessary to control the direction of flight," he says. "This bird symbolizes the current problem, the directionless state of modern Chinese society that is caught in a world that is neither east, west, north or south."

Gao uses the bird symbol in the way classical masters used the lotus to symbolize purity, bamboo to represent longevity, cherry blossom to symbolize love or feminine beauty.

Gao is not prolific and seldom paints more than 10 works a year.

"This is my habit. I prefer to paint a bit, read from an ancient book, then enjoy tea or reflect for a while. My joy comes from freedom, the best feature of this dangerous and turbulent life. Freedom is the reason that life makes sense."

Yang Shaobin, Gao's classmate and a renowned contemporary artist, says Gao is quite a cynic in daily life. "But he is different in his paintings. He lives in a world where it is autumn and dusk. We are more realistic, but he is more metaphysical and lives a secluded life in his own mysterious spiritual world."

Date: Through February 15, 10am-6pm

Address: 2/F, 23 Sinan Mansions, 515 Fuxing Rd M.

Tel: 6472-2838


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