The top contemporary Chinese artists come from different backgrounds and hail from cities all over the country, but they all share a childhood spent deep in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. The effects of this tumultuous time period on contemporary Chinese art created a common national experience that binds these artists and their styles.
1) Yue Minjun
China's most famous contemporary artist, Yue Minjun's signature self-portraits are famous for laughing irony and cynicism on to the canvas. In 2007, Time added Yue to their list of "People Who Mattered", an honor reflecting the sale of Execution, which set records as the most expensive Chinese contemporary artwork when it sold for 5.9 million USD. Critics consider Yue to be at the forefront of the Chinese "cynical realism" movement, a label he rejects. The trademark sardonic grins that prevail throughout most of Yue's boldly colored work are social commentary on the emptiness in today's world, creating images that are as stunning as they are unnerving.
2) Cai Guoqiang
Cai Guoqiang's explosive art utilizes gunpowder and pyrotechnics to express his artistic capabilities. Cai studied stage design at the Shanghai Theater Academy before moving to Japan in 1986 where he began experimenting with gunpowder. Cai's works have garnered many awards and his Set of 14 Drawings for Asia-Pacific Cooperation sold for $9.5 million in 2007. His most famous "explosion event", the fireworks spectacle at the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, drew praise both at home and abroad. His artistic voice draws on a variety of historically Chinese concepts, from dragons to feng shui, and is often political in nature, a charge that has made him a contentious figure in his homeland.
3) Ai Weiwei
One of China's most controversial contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei's conceptual vision spans mediums from architecture to performance art. The son of a poet who fell from Mao Zedong's favor, Ai spent his formative years in a Xinjiang labor camp as part of his father's re-education campaign. This harrowing experience left a lasting impression on Ai which strongly influenced his outspoken style and anti-government sentiment. Many of his works of art break down ancient Chinese relics or juxtapose infamous Chinese sites with tongue-in-cheek gestures. A pivotal voice in the design of the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium, Ai withdrew his support due to the project's connection with the Chinese Communist Party.
4) Zhang Xiaogang
One of China's best-known symbolists and surrealist painters, Zhang Xiaogang creates anonymous portraits of families and individuals that draw inspiration from both Mao-era family photos and European surrealists. His Bloodline series uses familial ties to represent the collectivism that ran deep throughout China's recent history. Zhang's paintings are created to resemble old photographs, often using formal poses reminiscent of studio photos from the 1950s and 1960s and a black and white palette interspersed with splashes of color to offer insight into the turmoil behind the blank stares of the subjects.
5) Fang Lijun
A leader in the cynical realism" movement, Fang dropped out of a high school to study ceramics at a local university in Hebei before taking up printmaking at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. His graduate project featured a series of oil paintings, a move that thumbed its nose at the academy's printmaking department, and introduced the bald figure that would repeat throughout his work. The expressions on the echoed man's face vary, but the countenance emotes a feeling that is utterly relatable and simultaneously indescribable.
6) Gu Wenda
One of the leaders of the '85 Movement, Gu Wenda's artistic career began as a Red Guard where he worked with woodcarving and traditional Chinese calligraphy in an attempt to simplify the Chinese language. His first works were in the style of the "Big Character" posters, but featured fake characters. In 1987, Gu left China for the United States where he became interested in demonstrating humanity's triumph in the face of globalization through the use bodily materials, culminating in his use of human hair to create the United Nations Project.
7) Zeng Fanzhi
Unlike his artistic peers, Zeng Fanzhi's work is introspective, reflecting psychological pain instead of projecting political statements. Everyday experiences and images are the main catalyst for his art. The Mask series represent the loneliness and isolation that China's white-collar, city dwellers felt during the 1990s, an issue the artist related to after moving to Beijing from his hometown of Wuhan. A chameleon of styles, Zeng refuses to be pigeon-holed by his artistic expression and regularly reinvents himself.
8) Zhang Dali
China's foremost graffiti artist, Zhang Dali attended Beijing's illustrious Central Academy of Art and Design. His signature self-portrait is spray-painted or chiseled into thousands of old buildings as a commentary on Beijing's breakneck speed of development and destruction of old architecture. Zhang also illuminates the plight of the migrant worker with life-size resin reproductions, often hung upside down to symbolize their uncertainty in China's society. Zhang's work was internationally recognized when Time gave him the honor of being the first artist since Jackson Pollock and Keith Haring to grace the cover the of the magazine.
9) Wang Guangyi
A leader of the "political pop" movement in China, Wang Guangyi's style reinvents propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution. In his Great Criticism series, Wang integrates Western logos, from Coca-Cola to the WTO, with posters featuring Chinese soldiers and workers. This juxtaposition of iconic images symbolizes the enormous shift from Mao-era propaganda to western advertising images that has underscored China's development into a capitalist country with socialist characteristics.
10) Zhang Huan
Zhang Huan's began his career as a radical performance artist and photographer in Beijing. His early works regularly featured his naked body interacting with the environment in often masochistic circumstances. Zhang also likes to features groups of people altering their environment through their physical presence, as in his Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond photo that used 40 migrant workers to displace the water in a lake. The artist later began experimenting with drawing, painting, installation and large-scale sculptures. His interest in Buddhism has also become a recurring theme in his work.
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You're missing Shi Jinsong. He is not only a visionary, he is also a master craftsman. In an era where so much contemporary art consists of an individual "directing" others on how to *do* the work they can't actually do themselves, Shi sets himself apart by hand fashioning all of his work--by himself!
Aug 21, 2012 11:50 Report Abuse
@doc martin: I fail to see anything inherently Chinese about a top 10 list. Unless they invented it 5,000 years ago. That said, I would love to see some of the work of these Guangzhou artists as well. Do you think the Guangzhou art scene has been developing differently from the BJ and SH ones? Perhaps you could post some links?
May 24, 2010 17:54 Report Abuse
"top ten?" is this caldwell's view? based on what? money realized? or in the view of the government? or what exactly? "top tens" seem so typically chinese, inherently competative. where is caldwell based? i would love to post/suggest/show some of the truly amazing contemporary artists painting now in guangzhou . .. is there some way to share their works with echina cities' audience . . . they have little to do with the grim, shared, "in recovery" zeitgeist suggested by this article. how may i share the delightful celebratory art that is also emerging, and testament to the resilience of the human spirit?
May 22, 2010 20:07 Report Abuse
Since these guys (all guys, right?) were all shaped by the cult rev, it'll be interesting to see what effect an almost diametrically opposed upbringing will bring out in today's up and coming artists. You couldn't grow up in a more different time, will the art be that different too?
May 17, 2010 16:58 Report Abuse