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Whales, Pirates and Good Intentions

Author: Lee Ambrozy 2014

On any given day in urban China, news kiosks are buried in a rainbow of headlines, dense waves of automobiles undulate to traffic signals, and to-go lunches stride by in the hands of a new white collar class, mingling with the dust of horse-led watermelon carts. In China’s new revolution social strata settle like layers of dust on their rising urban landscapes. The aspirations and fears of this new population is visibly changing the landscape just as particulate matter changes our desktops. Adjacent to this fray, in eastern Beijing’s Songzhuang artist village, Ouyang Chun conjures up his canvases within a tiny microcosm of the chaos outside. Within his studio artist catalogues lie stacked high on tables, Da Vinci, Picasso, Brancusi, numerous canvases are stacked thick against the wall. Nearly everything is covered in paint, and dust: plastic toys, a collection of discarded wrappings covered in his doodles, a stool. This space is his organic accumulation of inspiration, the detritus of his creative process. On the floor below his working canvas grows a colorful mountain of paint, that rises and swell like the city, along the wall squeezed-empty paint tubes lie stacked upon each other, their caps are aligned in neat rows like the dead.

Ouyang Chun is an exceptional if only for the fact that he does not belong to the world of the elite educated painterly types, he has thrown himself into art, never once abandoning the curious or typically “Chinese” experiences that developed his complex character. In a broader sense, he is a “crusader” for love and social teaching, and has chosen painting, and art as his tool for disseminating his dissemination. His themes are closer to folk themes, as in the good and evil trope in “Whale Hunting Diary,” yet he has chosen a medium and field that has traditionally belonged to the China’s scholar-educated class, and he’s getting away with it.

Fascinated by truth and the sometimes-cruel absurdity that accompanies it, Ouyang Chun draws his primary inspiration from the contradictions and incongruities of contemporary China. Born in Beijing in 1974, he grew up in Xi’an in a compound with Beijing-sent specialists. A brilliant father’s professional advancement was hampered by a sullied family background, a twist of fate that perhaps lent to Ouyang’s vantage point: perpetually locked just outside the inner circle. His family’s Xi’an exile further engrained his outsider psychology; still today he is the only successful Post 70s artist who has not graduate from the oil painting department of a prestigious arts academy.

Under stimulated and listless, Ouyang Chun still peers on his surroundings with youthful mischievous eyes. He abandoned middle school, ran away from home and self-educated in the ways of the world. He brushed up against seedy underworld types, who were to later be reincarnated in his paintings as “evil” characters. Exposed too young to a grisly world, he retreated into paint and canvas, and discovered that painting was his true calling; eventually he thrust himself into art school. Here, fueled by guilt, regret and the need to redress the complex world and its underbelly he began to paint over time, with an impermeable devotion. In winter, he painted until his fingers bloated like long purple aubergines, in summer he painted landscapes until he blistered in the heat. His technique could barely keep up with his motivation or his thirst for grandeur. Eyes privy in equal parts to the dreams of caring grandmothers, con artists or children, when he paints he sings to all of them, those that coexist in his subconscious. Looking back, his 80-hour weeks in the studio seem almost a repentance for time-wasted in a less-enlightened youth, he once commented, “I’ve never been in jail, can you imagine how many paintings you could paint in that time?”

The fruits of his labor are sometimes a painting produced each day. Art was his salvation and he paints legendary tales of folkloric beauty, kings and queens, sometimes he illustrating cautionary tales of violence and greed, sometimes joy and sorrow. They are thick with the mingling colors of oil paints; perhaps the longest element of their creation process is the time their thick, creamy frosting-like surface needs to dry. Aesthetically, Ouyang avoids “style,” despite his trademark chaotic canvases and what looks like a chronically naïve approach to his compositions, he has never sought a conventional aesthetic in his works.

In the past two years his cluttered canvases have given way to an accumulation of many smaller paintings, amassed in such quantity they envelop his audiences. Accumulation is central to his practice, and since the beginning, piles or networks of symbolic objects are depicted. Early on he infused “things” with semiotic significance: flowers, dice, automobiles, stars, inexplicable visages or contorted figures. His canvases slowly evolved from little mountains of things, to enormous canvases filled with hieroglyphs of a modern age.

In 2007, Luminescence shifted his painting language into a new dimension, an accrual of early studies painted on empty oil paint boxes became the inspiration for an overwhelming installation. He began painting on other objects, his tropes recurring as tiny paintings on discarded wrappings, napkins, and other containers. Once framed, these more than 1,000 tiny boxes covered five-foot high walls with his symbolic crowns, flowers, meteorites, flags and clowns; it was a grammatical breakdown of his painting language.

Leitmotifs of clutter and accumulation were invoked again in Infinity Column, here his vocabulary of semiotic objects were the objects themselves. Harvested from the public during a month-long process of donations, radios, a living bird, the rotting flesh of a pig and a fish, and luxury handbags were strung on column that pierced the roof of the exhibition space. His vocabulary of “objects” reflected an essentially Chinese lifestyle, in light of it being a broad, grab-bag amalgamation of collected influences. The absurdity of destroying these things while at the same time monumentalizing them on a spear reaching into the sky affected these everyday objects into spiritual ones, thus endowing the mundane with spiritual, a magical task Ouyang is keen to undertake. The work likewise broadened his vocabulary of sacred objects; it was his first complete departure from the canvas.

Concurrent with the Infinity Column work he created this series, the “Whaling Hunting Diary,” an allegorical theatre of life narrated through his illustrations of whales and the pirates who hunt them. Whales first appeared in 2005 in a colossal painting titled “Whaling Ship,” in whose gruesome scene is the frightening image of quartered whales strung up a ship against a torrid red sky. Ouyang Chun’s picture book story began to manifest on the canvas, the whales symbolizing intelligent creatures, free and pure-hearted, their capture and mutilation a metaphor for the evilness in life, the slaughter of the innocents. The malevolent perpetrators are the fishermen, a gangly bunch of depraved men.

Our lives are reflected in these sometimes melancholic, sweet mythologies, we look for ourselves––are we the whales? Are we their hunters? His didactic story unfolds through painting and sketches in the hope they will appeal to our fundamental ethical nature––for him, art practice is therapeutic, it exorcises the demons from a previous life.

The rise of Post 70s artists has established itself on a potential for self-expression, and has equally been the pretext for Ouyang’s success thus far, “Much of the time I’m painting to explain my self, not simply for painting.” While artists of his generation discarded political themes and began to experiment with personal psychology, he has not quite shed the ideological notion that art could be instructive and for a greater public good. The power and message of his paintings can be felt and interpreted by an average, non-specialist audiences, and in some sense this makes him a revolutionary hero in the classical sense. The sheer volume of paintings coming out of Ouyang Chun’s studio should attest to his adaptation to the pace of national growth. While their execution is quick, this is not to say they have not been premeditated for months, even years. And while China’s young artists are often criticized for adopting the trappings of international marketing in their art practice, he strives for originality in each one: “My paintings have their own life, not like those people who paint the same logo over again and again. They are alive.”

In such works as the “Whale Hunting Diary” where whales are pitted against pirates in a folkloric battle of good and evil, the psychological depth of his painting language comes to full expression. Through the accumulation of symbolic things and his allegorical narrations, he pays homage to what he finds good and counsels against the bad. His cluttered, childlike aesthetic seems by default, but he never deviates from his main intention of infecting his viewers with his heart’s good intentions.

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