In the 20-year development of Chinese contemporary art, it has grown from the collective unconsciousness of the Cultural Revolution era when art was used solely to serve political purposes to today’s conceptual art that reflects the thoughts of individuals and the relationships among individuals, society and time. Several schools of Chinese contemporary art have appeared on the scene; Chinese Pop Art and its leading figures include Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang; Cynical Realism and its leading artists like Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun, as well as Wang Qingsong and Xu Yihui who present work which is engaged with Chinese symbolism. One can say that in delineating Chinese contemporary art’s development, it is impossible to separate itself from the reality of Chinese society. Moreover, the artistic creation of Chinese artists cannot be isolated from China’s unusual time and its environment.
Tang Jianying, who was born in 1963, grew up in the middle of dramatic social changes in China. The Cultural Revolution is a like a raging fire burned on his childhood memory, and the subsequent political and social movements cast an even darker shadow on his teenage years. During that era, the atmosphere in the Chinese society was depressing, intense, dull and chaotic. Moreover, Tang’s prison life when he was a teenager also added to his deep consideration of life and society. He has never received any formal training or education. When he was released from prison, he was already 20 years old. He was jobless and in his idle time he unexpectedly picked up painting. From then on, he has focused all his energy and passion onto the canvas.
In 2000, Tang quit his job, his hometown and his wife and child behind to come to Beijing, all for the pursuit of his artistic dreams. Before 2000, his creative regimen was somewhat arbitrary; he painted what he saw, what he felt.
From 2000, he started his Rule series which depict rows of men in grey prison clothes squatting or standing, representing a collective emptiness and bewilderment. This series reveals how humans are trained through rules and regulations to reach a collectively unconscious tameness. Beginning in 2002, Tang gradually formed his own artistic style; his milestone was the creation of the series Fence. The lifeless collectives are replaced by isolated individuals whose vague facial features are without expression or energy; these figures hide behind rough and savage fences, leaving the audience with the feeling of coldness and despair of imprisonment and depression.
In 2006, Tang started his Man and Flower series. The rough fences are still present; however, the images of fully blossomed, colorful fake-or-not flowers have been added. If, to say in the work of Rule and Fence, depression and imprisonment are directly delivered, then in the Man and Flower, the gesture of embracing the flowers sets up a seemingly warm visual language that serves as a foil to the desirable-but-unreachable coldness and hopelessness of life. Tang lives in China’s largest “painters’ village.” Some of the most famous Chinese artists are from the village: Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun and Yang Shaobin are among them. However, when the Chinese contemporary art market became hot, many artists were busy painting large faces, laughing faces, yawning faces. . . copying each other or repeating themselves. Tang has always been true to his inner self and his life experience, never an opportunist, never a follower; he insists on creating his unique style of painting. Tang utilizes his unusual visual vocabulary to create a dramatic contrast between image and the depth of the image. The surface of the image may seems thin; however, it is thick and heavy; the color may look gray and white, but it is actually extremely heated; the exposure of the emotion may seem depressing, yet reveals a yearning; the expression may appear to be frightened; however, it’s innocent.
Visually, the depth of Tang Jianying’s paintings is relatively shallow, the subjects are foregrounded, the character’s inner life and the state of his psychology are crystallized in a flash, and the character’s inner life reaches its peak at the same moment. The big eyes, which on all of Tang’s characters are lifeless, empty, full of fear, but at the same time filled with eager and enthusiasm, exaggerate the absurdity and terror. Then, the color grey and thin-built characters as well as the exceptional expression in their eyes become the carriers of their emotion and form the power that shakes the spirit. Meanwhile, Tang understands this ever-changing world through his own eyes, portraits of minor characters resemble the ones in the Franz Kafka’s novels who can not rebel under oppression, who look forward to a bright future and freedom but can not see the way out.
Tang is deeply influenced by the artistic style of Edvard Munch, as well as by Vincent Van Gogh’s passion and enthusiasm toward life. He employs an expressionist methodology and utilizes the technique of symbolism and metaphor; what he paints is not the impression of eyes, but the impression from the soul that has accumulated for years. This psychological realism depicts the “electrocardiograph” of the spiritual world in his paintings. Tang’s pondering toward history, fate, circumstances, the human condition and the relationships among people themselves and between humanity and society heightens the extremes of inner anxiety, terror, loneliness, lost, shock and desperation, all these experiences of inner self, into the shocking visual images, pushing the expressed emotions in the paintings to the extreme.