Radical Uncertainty: Wild Children by Huang Rui

Huang Rui, Space Structure No. 14, 1984, oil on canvas, 65.5 x 89.5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and S|2 Gallery.
Huang Rui, Red No.1, 1991, oil and paper collage on canvas in two parts, 130.5 x 130.5 cm each. Image courtesy of the artist and S|2 Gallery.
Huang Rui, The White Haired Girl, 1981, oil and paper collage on canvas on board, 63.5 x 46.5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and S|2 Gallery.
Huang Rui, Space Structure 84-19, 1984, oil on canvas, 127 x 84 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and S|2 Gallery.
Huang Rui, Zen Space, 2017, oil on burlap, 52.7 x 65 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and S|2 Gallery.
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CoBo Social Chinese Abstraction Series

Huang Rui’s London retrospective moves beyond specific reference points of time and place to reflect the diverse and shared emotions of human life.

TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy S|2 Gallery

Huang Rui, Space Structure No. 14, 1984, oil on canvas, 65.5 x 89.5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and S|2 Gallery.

Currently on view at S|2 Gallery in London is Wild Children, a timely retrospective of seminal Chinese artist Huang Rui’s work. Wild Children marks the fortieth anniversary of Huang’s socially and artistically ground-breaking Stars exhibition of 1979, where the artist and his contemporaries (at great personal risk) staged an unauthorized plein-air display on the railings of the China Art Gallery, which ultimately led to a broadened state tolerance of what art could look like.

In 2019 in London, paintings stem from the artist’s Stars period (1979–1984), Japanese period (1984–2000) and output since his return to the Chinese capital in 2001. A monograph has been specially produced to accompany the show, which includes Huang’s conversation for Cobo Social with David Elliott (published on this platform in May this year), an article by the artist’s wife, Bérénice Angremy, another by Professor John Rajchman of Columbia University, and snippets from the artist’s own diaries at the time of the Stars exhibition.

Huang Rui, Red No.1, 1991, oil and paper collage on canvas in two parts, 130.5 x 130.5 cm each. Image courtesy of the artist and S|2 Gallery.

“Life is truly precious and the most precious thing in life is youth. In the wonderful period of youth, one must not waste time.” wrote Huang in 1979 at just 27 years old. This extract, drawn from his diary and republished in the monograph, appears to add another layer of meaning to the title of his current exhibition. Ostensibly referring to the paintings themselves, it would be fair to say that the title acknowledges the artist’s own wild youth. He described himself as a “wild child of Daoism” to S|2 Gallery Deputy Director Bianca Chu. He was unleashed into the city after years “separated from people… with the stars and the moon” in Mongolia . When we consider his role in the Stars movement, it is apparent that this was a young man not living in dreams but driven into action, with a thirst for change.

Huang Rui, The White Haired Girl, 1981, oil and paper collage on canvas on board, 63.5 x 46.5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and S|2 Gallery.

One of the show’s earliest works, The White Haired Girl (1981), is a statement of this restless energy. Referencing the 1945 Chinese ballet, later edited for propaganda effect, the painting’s background of elegant dancing in harmony is infiltrated by a pervasive red tide, sturdily holding other colours at bay. The message of the ballet was not destined to be simple, and the path of the red tide is far from a straight one. In the artist’s discussion with Chu, he acknowledges how red “is a kind of “history.” Not only is red the colour of Communism, he remarks, but it also has royal associations pertaining to the Han, Tang and Qing Dynasties. In this painting, nothing is quite as it seems, and an understanding of the visual clues serves to undermine and disconcert rather than to provide clarity. Here is a young artist of vitality, energy and ability, passionately expounding the fragility and malleability of our perceptions, which at the time, was an urgent and radical message in itself.

As with several other members of the Stars movement, Huang left China in 1984, in his case to live and work in Japan. Space Structure 84-19 (1984) elucidates the emotions of that era, and those of anybody who has left home to embark on a new chapter. A pinball from a 1980s video game seems frozen in motion. Is it rushing forward, ready to score points? Or simply being batted around by the walls on either side? Like the ball, are we barreling forwards or simply static and left behind?

Huang Rui, Space Structure 84-19, 1984, oil on canvas, 127 x 84 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and S|2 Gallery.

Japan brought Huang into contact with Japanese ways of thinking, its love of texture and material, and brought him closer to Japan’s Gutai movement. In the exhibition’s accompanying monograph, he notes, in conversation with Chu, how he chose Gutai over Mono Ha. The model of the Stars movement was one of creative independence combined with mutual friendship and encouragement—in this respect he found the Gutai movement more analogous than Mono Ha, the latter having a “cool factor, a more conceptual and individualistic approach [with less] mutual care and support in life and action.” This was also a period, in the opinion of Professor John Rajchman, which marked a break for the artist from his Chinese background. “His art moved away from a biography in a place … towards a kind of global itinerary … there being no way back.” Is this too the destiny of anyone who moves away from home, a kind of restlessness and alienation?

Nobody could accuse Huang of disengaging from his home city. On his return to Beijing he became an active defender of Beijing’s hutongs, as well as the major force in the establishment of the 798 Art District. Yet, perhaps those years away created some healthy distance and objectivity. His “Zen Space” series (2017–18) hints at the repose and calm that becoming an outsider can bring. The 2017 works on display are reminiscent of the Hojoki, the Kamakura period masterpiece of a man who views the world of transience and impermanence from his simple ten-foot mountain hut: Huang shows a serene floor under a window of light.

Huang Rui, Zen Space, 2017, oil on burlap, 52.7 x 65 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and S|2 Gallery.

Huang, writing the preface to “The First Stars Exhibition” in 1979, recognised early on how an understanding of the past can bring some enlightenment for the future. As he notes: “The shadow of the past and the glow of the future are folded together, forming the various living conditions of today. Resolving to live on and remembering each lesson learned: this is our responsibility.” A retrospective of forty years seems the right way to allow us all some of that personal insight. After all, much of Huang’s biography charts not just the progress of China, but of life stages that come to many of us as individuals. Ultimately, his success lies not in documenting China, or being a great abstract painter (a classification he rejects), but explaining something of what it means to be human. Those looking for a head start on what life’s adventures might bring, and how our attitudes change as life’s seasons turn, ought to read The Same Old Story by Ivan Goncharov. They should also plan to visit Wild Children at S|2 Gallery in London.

 

 

Huang Rui: Wild Children
26 September – 14 November, 2019
S|2 Gallery, London

 

About the artist

Huang Rui was born in 1952 in Beijing. During the Cultural Revolution, he spent several years in a rural community in Mongolia. In 1979, together with poets Bei Dao and Mang Ke, he set up the literary magazine Jintian (Today). Simultaneously, he was a prime mover of the Stars Group (1979–84) along with Ai Weiwei, Ma Desheng, Wang Keping, and others. In the mid-1980s, Huang moved to Osaka, where he stayed until 2001. On his return to Beijing, he took the lead in establishing the city’s 798 Art District. He has been a vocal proponent of conservation of Beijing’s architecture, and is considered one of the masters of Chinese abstract art. He lives and works in Beijing.

Huang’s solo exhibitions have been held at the Osaka Contemporary Art Center (1990); He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China (2007); and Museo delle Mura, Rome (2008). Group exhibitions include Stars Art Exhibition, Beijing (1979); The Stars: Ten Years, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong (1989); Create History: Commemoration Exhibition of Chinese Modern Art in the 1980s, OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, Shenzhen; Agitprop!, Brooklyn Museum, New York (2015–16); The M+ Sigg Collection: Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now, UK, then Hong Kong (2016) and Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, Guggenheim Museum (2017–18). The artist has participated in the Venice Biennale (1995) and the inaugural Guangzhou Triennial, China (2002).

 

 


 

Nicholas Stephens is from London and has lived in Hong Kong for the last nine years, where he works for a leading Hong Kong gallery, specializing in contemporary ink. His articles on diverse aspects of the Hong Kong arts scene have been published in “Art Hong Kong”. A graduate in Modern Languages (European ones unfortunately!), Nicholas has authored translations of novels and plays by writers including Stefan Zweig and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

 
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