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October 12, 2011

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Young artists lack sizzle

YOUNG artists from academies around China are exhibiting their best works at the annual Shanghai Youth Art Exhibition titled "Dazzle," and art dealers, gallery owners and the public will be looking for the art stars of tomorrow.

Unfortunately, there's more fizzle than sizzle and definitely no dazzle here.

The show underway at the Shanghai Art Museum, Liu Haisu Art Museum and Mingyuan Art Center is a bit disappointing. The three venues feature a total of 202 works from among 2,570 that were submitted, most from art academies. The show features canvas, traditional painting and water color, print, sculpture, multi-media and installation art.

"Lack of vitality is the big issue for this exhibition," concludes Zhu Qi, one of the judges, who is quite brave to speak out about shortcomings.

"Only a few are able to reflect what is happening in society. What I find is academic training instead of a strong personal signature."

"The meaning of Shanghai Youth Art Exhibition today has become a general presentation of the results and standards of Chinese art education, since most works come from art academies around the country," says Wang Xin, one of the two curators. Showcasing art academy work was not the original purpose of the youth exhibition that began in 1980, but it does help these artists.

Today winning awards at national or regional domestic art exhibitions does not guarantee success, though in the past it was an important boost to careers in the art world. In the past two or three decades, such awards could be a short-cut to success because shows were organized by government departments; there were almost no private galleries or art dealers.

For example, Luo Zhongli, president of Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, rose to early fame with his canvas "Father," depicting the weather-beaten face of a Chinese peasant. It took the top prize in the Second National Youth Art Exhibition in 1980.

Since then, Luo's career path has been smooth and "Father" became a milestone in China's contemporary art history.

Luo recalls that when he won the award he was still studying at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. "Winning the National Youth Art Exhibition with 'Father' was really a turning point in my life."

In the 1980s, national and regional youth art events were virtually the only chance for young artists to shine and get public exposure. These were usually biannual events and important opportunities, for some, a "once in a lifetime" chance.

At that time, oil paintings and ink-wash were the main categories.

Over time, as private opportunities and art venues expanded, the significance of government-sponsored competitions waned.

Road to fame

Yang Fudong, a big name in contemporary art history, said that winning an award at the Shanghai Youth Art Exhibition in 1999 brought no benefits.

"I submitted an oil painting, which finally won an award, but my high hopes were soon dashed when my oil paintings still didn't sell well," he says.

Yang chose a different path. Instead of canvas, he shot video art.

Fading influence of the exhibition, stereotypical aesthetic taste and the importance of personal connections all hinder development of the youth art exhibition as a respected platform for genuine creativity and individualism.

"Just take a look at the winners," says one local artist who declines to be identified. "This artist is the daughter of a government official in charge of culture. And that one is the nephew of a famous artist. After all, China is a society of relationships. Sometimes I fully understand the dilemma of the jury members."

Judge Zhu Qi observes that the essence of the show is "elegant mediocrity."

"Here I can see that each work shows the mark of good training and good manners, which prevails in the current bourgeois atmosphere. There's a lack of profound thinking among the young generation."

Because of the importance of commercial success, the initial drive for young artists seems to be catering to the aesthetic taste of the mainstream, rather than making a strong personal statement.

"Many young artists are raised in a sheltered environment," says Zhu, adding that art education in China does not nurture creativity and actually makes the situation worse.

Today many Chinese children take drawing classes as early as kindergarten. They are taught how to draw properly but under the constant guidance of teacher, they gradually see the world in the eyes of their teachers.

"Even talented and deserving young artists may not excel in mathematics or a foreign language and thus they don't pass the entrance examination and are denied entrance to an academy," renowned painter and art critic Chen Danqing once said. But they are all treated the same when they apply. "I was so distressed to see a gifted student blocked by an art academy's entrance exam because he was unable to pass the English test. Isn't it ridiculous that an artist must also be fluent in English?"

"This situation is a tragedy, but I still hope to see exceptions in the future," judge Zhu Qi concludes.

? Winning works are display at:

Shanghai Art Museum

Date: Through October 13

Address: 325 Nanjing Rd W.

Liu Haisu Art Museum

Date: October 16-31

Address: 1660 Hongqiao Rd

? Other better entries are display at:

Mingyuan Art Center

Date: Through October 31

Address: 1199 Fuxing Rd M.


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